World awaits vaccine progress

By GT staff reporters Source:Global Times Published: 2020/3/4 23:58:41

Global race for therapy is on, PLA scientist makes advances

A researcher of Stermirna Therapeutics Co., Ltd. shows the experiment to develop an mRNA vaccine targeting the novel coronavirus in east China's Shanghai, January 29. Photo: Xinhua

As the deadly virus has been continuing spreading worldwide and causing more than 12,000 infections outside China, scientists from different countries are racing against time to develop vaccines and effective therapies to control the virus spread and prevent it from becoming a pandemic. At this critical time, cooperation rather than competition between countries that are hit hard by the virus is ever more important for finding a way out, analysts said. 

A Chinese military research team has reportedly achieved a major breakthrough in developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), leading it to be viewed by the Chinese media as the hopeful player in the global "COVID-19 vaccine race" that involves dozens of scientific research institutes, governments of different countries and private companies. 

A Chinese military medical expert team led by Chen Wei, a PLA major general and an academician at the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Medical Sciences, has achieved "a key progress in developing a vaccine for COVID-19," China Central Television (CCTV) reported on Tuesday. 

"We are doing all we can to put the recombinant vaccine that we are developing into clinical application," she told CCTV.

The CCTV report also outlined a series of research achievements made by the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, including virus testing kits, medicines and vaccine.

The Global Times noticed that the information of such major breakthrough was only briefly mentioned in CCTV program and many social media platforms have later deleted the related information, suggesting the Chinese government's prudent attitude on vaccine development as well as the unpredictable development process itself.

A multi-center clinical trial for China's self-developed AIDS vaccine started this year and is currently in progress. Photo: VCG

Race against time 

Global infection of COVID-19 has reached around 100,000 cases as of Wednesday, with more than 3,000 deaths, and the disease has a much higher mortality rate than the seasonable flu, according to the World Health Organization. Given the seriousness of the disease, healthcare workers and scientists have been striving to find effective therapies to combat it, within which possible vaccines have become promising. 

Chen told CCTV they have been encouraged by the Chinese top leader's remarks on accelerating scientific research and development (R&D) in combating the deadly virus by coming up with more self-developed core technology products to safeguard public health and safety, especially by making major breakthroughs in vaccine development.

The Chinese military has done a lot of research as it has gained valuable experience with viruses like SARS and Ebola, said Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator. 

Military research institutes have a streamlined system with fewer executive restrictions, analysts noted.

Over 20 kinds of vaccines against COVID-19 are in development globally and several therapeutics are undergoing clinical trials, according to the WHO. In China, 18 member institutes of the China Association for Vaccines have jointly started vaccine development. 

Vaccine competition?

American DNA vaccine and immuno therapy company Inovio Pharmaceuticals also announced Tuesday that they could start a clinical trial of its COVID-19 vaccine next month in 30 healthy volunteers in the US, and to be tested on people in China and South Korea shortly thereafter. 

The US is comparatively more capable in vaccine development than China due to its scientific prowess and innovative financing modes - private and public funding, said Chen Xi, assistant professor at the Department of Health Policy and Management of the Yale School of Public Health. "Every year, about 60 percent of new medicines and therapies in the world come from the American pharmaceutical industry." 

The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology said at a previous press conference that Chinese researchers are working simultaneous with foreign counterparts in vaccine development and a vaccine will undergo clinical trials in April at the earliest while a top US medical expert reportedly said the coronavirus vaccine is still 12 to 18 months away. 

The US has the world's best biotechnology research capability and holds a relative advantage over China, as it has focused on this field since the end of World War II. If the US can cooperate with China in vaccine development, it will be of great help to humankind and biotechnology, Song said.

The US should stop seeing China as a competitor, not to mention an enemy, but rather see China as a partner when it comes to vaccine development, the expert said, noting that the US obstructed the signing of a verification regime in the Biological Weapons Convention in late 2019 because it was not willing to share its biotechnology with other countries, concerned this could risk its own business interests and national security.

"This mind-set will only make things difficult in cooperation on vaccine development," Song said.

Many governments, including those of China, the US and India, and organizations around the world have joined the vaccine race, experts noted, calling for cooperation rather than competition as the world is facing the war against the virus together.  

A mother and son with face masks enjoy flowers in a park in Kunming, Southwest China's Yunnan Province on Wednesday. The park has reopened with tulips in full bloom attracting some tourists. 119 new coronavirus infections and 38 new deaths were reported on Tuesday in the Chinese mainland. Photo:

Diverse players

Chinese and foreign companies are investing in COVID-19 vaccine development. Foreign pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline in the UK and Gilead in the US have invested in COVID-19 vaccine development. 

China's high-tech giant Alibaba is also cooperating with a research team led by top epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan on drugs and vaccines on COVID-19, providing the latter with AI and Cloud technologies. Cooperation is on the way on the civilian level between Chinese and foreign research teams. For instance, the Jack Ma Foundation, which was set up by Alibaba's founder Jack Ma, announced in late January it would donate 100 million yuan ($14.4 million) to support the research and development of a novel coronavirus vaccine. The foundation has reportedly donated 15 million yuan to Columbia University and 3.2 million Australian dollars to the Doherty research institute in Australia on vaccine development.  

Despite the urgency, experts called for patience as the development of vaccines requires strict trials on animals and humans, which in some cases could take decades from research to the time it reaches the market, while the COVID-19 probably would become a periodic epidemic in the future like the flu rather than SARS.

Even under special conditions like the COVID-19 emergency, experts reached by the Global Times estimated that at least six months is needed before a proven safe and effective vaccine can be approved through a "green channel" provided by related authorities. 

Chen Wei, academician at the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Medical Sciences File Photo: Xinhua App

 "Vaccine development has an inherent period and regulation, not to mention that we still understand little about the novel coronavirus, including its features, pathogenesis, spreading mechanism and susceptible population," Chen, China's top PLA epidemiologist, was quoted as saying in earlier media reports. 

Faced with growing infection numbers, some politicians like US President Donald Trump have become impatient, who urged US scientists and biotechnology companies to find vaccine solutions before the general election, which contradicts professional judgment. 

If everything goes smoothly, a vaccine can be put into small-scale production and prepared for mass production 18 months from now, Chen Xi noted. 

"At this pace, safety tests could be carried out in April and effectiveness tests in July," he said. 

Vaccine development is lucrative, but is also a high-risk investment as some viruses and diseases disappear after one outbreak such as SARS, so continuous investment into a vaccine is based on the reappearance of the disease, analysts said. 

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