The call came early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Drew Weissman, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in messenger RNA (mRNA), received a query from a Chinese company interested in using the new technology to make a vaccine against the coronavirus.
Since then, mRNA, which effectively turns the body’s cells into tiny vaccine-making factories, has become the breakout star of the COVID-19 era, underpinning jabs made by Moderna Inc and the Pfizer Inc/BioNTech SE partnership, which have been among the most effective in fighting the disease.
However, before COVID-19 hit, the experimental science had yet to receive regulatory approval for use against any illness — let alone against the mysterious respiratory infection.
Illustration: Constance Chou
“They wanted to develop my technology in their company in China,” said Weissman, a leader in the field because of his work with research partner Katalin Kariko, an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, on discovering mRNA’s disease-fighting potential.
“I told them I was interested,” he said.
Then, nothing happened.
“I never heard from them again,” Weissman said.
It was one of the missed opportunities that have disadvantaged China’s COVID-19 vaccine push and left local companies playing catch-up on a technology set to revolutionize everything from flu shots to oncology drugs.
As COVID-19 spread globally last year, New York-based Pfizer raced to partner with Germany’s BioNTech, an mRNA frontrunner that had hired Kariko as a senior vice president.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts-based Moderna had US$2.5 billion in funding from the US government.
By contrast, several Chinese companies focused on older technologies that have proved far less potent.
Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director George Fu Gao (高福) told a conference on Saturday last week that Chinese vaccines “do not have very high protection rates,” local media reported.
As the comments caused a stir on social media, Gao backtracked, telling the Chinese Communist Party-backed Global Times that he was just referring to ways to improve vaccine efficiency.
However, no amount of damage control can obscure that no Made-in-China mRNA vaccines have been approved yet.
That is a setback for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) ambition to make the country a healthcare innovation powerhouse.
Surbhi Gupta, a healthcare and life sciences analyst with consultancy Frost & Sullivan, said that mRNA’s effectiveness with COVID-19 vaccines is opening up a new frontier for the technology, with researchers looking at ways to use it to fight cancer, tuberculosis and many other diseases.
She said: “mRNA technology has the potential to be a game changer.”
For decades, vaccines have been made using inactive versions of viruses, but mRNA shots use genetic material to instruct the body to create the spike protein COVID-19 uses to enter cells. That trains the body to fight potential infection.
Old-school Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines now in use from Sinovac Biotech Ltd and China National Biotec Group Co rely on particles from inactivated viruses and have protection rates much lower than the mRNA vaccines’ more than 90 percent effectiveness in preventing infections.
Sinovac’s vaccine has an efficacy rate of a little more than 50 percent in protecting against symptomatic COVID-19, studies conducted in Brazil found, just meeting the minimum threshold required by global drug regulators.
State-owned China National Biotec, a unit of Sinopharm Group Co, has said its two inactivated vaccines are 73 percent and 79 percent effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19, but has not published data to support that assertion.
Sinopharm’s Hong Kong-listed shares jumped on Thursday, a day after the company said that there had been no severe side effects related to its inactivated-virus vaccines.
Meanwhile, China’s CanSino Biologics Inc has produced a viral-vector vaccine which, like those made by AstraZeneca PLC and Johnson & Johnson, uses a genetically modified virus to fight off infection.
The Tianjin-based company has reported 66 percent efficacy in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in its final stage trial.
China’s government has pushed aggressively to close the gap with the West and become an alternative pharmaceutical and biotech power. It allowed controversial treatments with stem cells and gene therapy, despite concerns elsewhere about safety and efficacy. Yet China did not make mRNA vaccines a priority.
“Before COVID, a lot of people still had reservations” about the technology, said Lusong Luo (羅侶松), senior vice president at BeiGene Ltd, a Beijing-based biotech pioneer and leading producer of oncology drugs. “It’s new, it’s at the cutting edge.”
When Sinovac began working on a vaccine, it focused on a familiar method to develop a jab quickly, after efforts at exploring other alternatives did not yield promising results.
“For us the strategy is really to use the more mature platform and technology to solve the problem,” Sinovac chief executive officer Yin Weidong (尹衛東) told Bloomberg News in an interview in May last year.
Now, with the success seen by Pfizer and Moderna, Chinese companies are jumping into the fray — but their efforts will take time to pay off.
China Association of Vaccines president Feng Duojia (馮多佳) said that China might not have mRNA vaccines until the end of this year, China Global Television Network reported on Sunday last week.
BeiGene in January announced an agreement to cooperate with Strand Therapeutics Inc of Cambridge, Massachusetts, on an mRNA treatment for tumors.
“Now people realize that mRNA vaccines really work, it will be a lot easier,” Luo said.
China’s Walvax Biotechnology Co began construction in December on a facility to make mRNA vaccines, while CanSino struck a deal in May with Vancouver-based Precision NanoSystems Inc to develop an mRNA vaccine.
Contract manufacturer WuXi Biologics Cayman Inc has said it is devoting more than US$100 million to mRNA-related vaccines, biologics discovery, development and manufacturing.
While China has largely contained the spread of COVID-19 within its borders, more effective vaccinations and a wider take-up among its population would enable the country to reopen sooner, reducing the need for quarantines and lockdowns.
China risks losing the edge gained by stamping out the virus if its inoculation drive is less effective than places where mRNA shots are the backbone of rollouts. In Israel, where nearly 60 percent of the population has received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are plunging.
As more adults get their shots in the US, which also relies largely on mRNA vaccines, US President Joe Biden has predicted that Americans will be celebrating Independence Day on July 4 with backyard barbecues once again.
China is not the only country that missed the boat with mRNA. While companies in Japan, India and Australia are significant players in fighting diseases such as flu and polio, no company in the Asia-Pacific region makes mRNA shots.
“Basically, mRNA was put in the ‘too-hard’ basket for many years,” said Nigel McMillan, program director of Infectious Diseases & Immunology at Griffith University in Southport, Australia.
Last month, Takeda Pharmaceutical Co, Moderna’s local partner for Japanese trials of its COVID-19 vaccine, signed a deal with New Jersey-based Anima Biotech on mRNA treatments for Huntington’s and other neurological diseases.
Another big Japanese drugmaker, Daiichi Sankyo Co, announced on March 22 the start of an early-stage trial of its own mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
In Thailand, Bangkok-based Chulalongkorn University has enlisted Weissman to help it develop mRNA capability.
As they try to catch up, Chinese developers and others in Asia can take advantage of the lower barriers to entry for mRNA vaccine and drug development. In addition to the market leaders Moderna and BioNTech, there are other Western start-ups that invested in mRNA and are ready to license their technology.
Making mRNA vaccines and drugs also does not require large capital expenditures on expensive bioreactors and other equipment, said Archa Fox, an associate professor at the University of Western Australia’s School of Human Sciences and School of Molecular Sciences.
That bodes well for China’s ability to recover from not focusing on mRNA sooner, Weissman said.
“They are going to hire the best scientists they can find,” he said. “Anybody can get in the game if they’ve got good people and money.”
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