Dubai: Could China rule the roost in the world of immunology, the study of the immune system, which also happens to be a very important branch of the medical and biological sciences?
That may be the case, if it’s only for this one fact: China has more vaccines for coronavirus under advanced phases of development than any other country in the world, including mighty America.
What if the Chinese won the vaccine race?
That may be a simplistic question. The answer is a bit more complicated.
Logically, countries with their own COVID-19 vaccine programme would use the antidote their own scientists developed and mass produced by their own drug companies, granted that they work the same way as others.
So even if non-Chinese antivirals may come late, and there's no clamour for a Made-in-China vaccine (granted that it works better) among the local population in other countries, as long as people who need it would have access, then that would presumably make COVID-19 history.
But the virus remains virulent, and there's still no vaccine for it, though many of us wish for this pandemic to simply vanish into thin air. For now, here's the updated WHO list of the 10 vaccine frontrunners (updated May 27, 2020), with at least five from China, out of the leading 10.
It’s not hard to imagine the tremendous pressure Chinese scientists are under, in order to come up with an efficient or workable shot for the current pandemic.
If a Made-in-China vaccine does win the race, there’s no doubt that the propaganda value of that feat would be enormous.
Beijing assails Western response to pandemic
Beijing officials have assailed Western responses to the pandemic. They imply, in effect, that in the face of a crisis like this one, China's authoritarian system is far superior to any free-wheeling electoral democracy.
In this race, and with its much-expected COVID-19 vaccine, Beijing is said to be targeting developing countries and territories linked to the Belt and Road Initiative, the mainland's global infrastructure initiative.
The race started long ago. The Chinese had been pumping money into R&D. Reports show that the government spending in science and technology in 2019 jumped to more than $300 billion, about 24x what it was two decades ago.
In 2008, China launched its "Thousand Talents Programme" to recognise and recruit leading international experts in scientific research, innovation, entrepreneurship.
Leading vaccine investigations in China use at least two platforms — the "inactivated" type, as well as the Adenovirus Type 5 non-repplicating vector method.
Two US companies, Massachusetts-based Moderna (with NAIAID) and New York-based Pfizer (with BioNTech/Fosun Pharma) use a more advanced technology. It's the more promising, though yet unproven, mRNA platform which is hoped to speed up vaccine development.
Take note that Pfizer's partner for the COVID-19 vaccine development, Fosun Pharma, is based in Shanghai. Fosun co-owns Sinopharm Industrial Investment, the parent company of fellow listed firm Sinopharm Group. So through its Pfizer partnership, the Chinese have access to mRNA technology, too.
On their own, Chinese biotech firms, many of them backed by massive state resources, including the People Liberation Army, appear to have tested the candidate vaccines more widely.
Among Western drugmakers, Moderna and UK’s Oxford University are furthest in human trials for COVID-19 candidate vaccines.
If numbers alone would be the sole criterion, China would win it: The Middle Kingdom has a total of five possible vaccines for COVID-19 already in human trials.
More will be approved next month (June). It shows the Asian giant’s rapid progress in immunology, and rapid advances in science.
The five vaccines in China have been tested on more than 2,000 people in Phase-2 trials. Together, these five advanced trials are expected to be completed in July, said Zeng Yixin, vice minister of the National Health Commission, according to a Bloomberg report from Beijing on May 15, 2020.
Phase-2 (trial among hundred of human volunteers) is the second of three phases of human trials (Phase-3 is trial among thousands) that medications must go through before being approved for general use.
Vaccine trials: 'No serious side effects'
The Chinese official said that in those trials, no serious side effects have been reported yet among Phase-2 volunteers. More vaccine candidates will be approved for human trials from June.
Numerous teams of researchers in China are in the frontline of efforts to arrest the COVID-19 pandemic that’s infected over 5.7 million people globally and killed over 356,000, as of Thursday, according to WHO data.
Randomisation will also enable direct comparison of each vaccine’s results directly to results from an equal number of controls who received placebo at the same time and place.
There are at least 115 vaccines in development globally. Only around 10 have so far reached the crucial final stage of human testing.
A vaccine that is both safe and effective is the best hope for the world’s healthy population to get immunity from COVID-19, and the key to full re-opening of economies sent into a tailspin by the virus.
It is also hoped to propel the resumption of normality of economic life across the world while arresting new cases.
However, vaccines are notoriously tough to develop, taking an average of 16 years. There’s still no HIV vaccine. The disease which was first diagnosed in 1981.
The five vaccines in China have been tested on more than 2,000 people in Phase-2 trials.
Just as US President Donald Trump has launched the “Project Warp Speed” to accelerate vaccine development in the US, the Chinese government has fast-tracked promising projects.
Following are the top 5 Chinese biotech firms or projects with the leading vaccine candidates undergoing human trials:
- If a Made-in-China vaccine wins the race, or gets past Phase-3 trial ahead of the rest, there’s no doubt the propaganda value would be huge.
- And if one of the five Chinese biotech front-runners does come up with a workable vaccine ahead of the rest, it will help to defuse the kind of blaming or call for even reparation heaped upon the Chinese, where the coronavirus reportedly first jumped from animals to humans.
- If that winning vaccine helps the world get back on its feet, so be it.
- Scientific advances gave us the lightbulb, aircraft, automobiles, smartphones and driverless trains.
- Biotech is the new "space race", helped in part by genetic sequencing — with AI, cryptos, 3D printing, EVs and other "disruptive innovations" now being driven by China.
- In the end, it doesn't matter where an invention or innovation comes from as long as it serves the common good.