Losing ground in COVID-19 vaccine race, CanSino turns to Russia

Politicking between China and Canada threatened to slow down development of a coronavirus vaccine from CanSino Biologics, but the company says the project is back on track following regulatory approval to start trials in Russia.

The Chinese biotech’s adenovirus-based vaccine – developed in alliance with the military – was among the first to start clinical trials as the pandemic gathered pace earlier this year, but development timelines are slipping.

It already has peer-reviewed phase 2 data showing that it can generate antibody and T cell responses against SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – and appears to be safe, although there were some concerns about variability in responses between patients.

The programme has stalled ahead of phase 3 testing however, as other candidates from AstraZeneca/Oxford University, Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech – as well as Chinese rivals Sinopharma and Sinovac Biotech – have forged ahead.

In May, CanSino formed a pact with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) to start testing the Ad5-nCoV shot this autumn.

Shipments of clinical trial supplies were held up by Chinese customs in what some claim was an act of retaliation after Canada arrested the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei last month at the request of the US government.

Wanzhou has been accused of lying to HSBC in 2013 about Huawei’s business relationship with Skycom, which the US is investigating for violating economic sanctions against Iran.

Towards the end of August the NRC confirmed the end of its partnership with CanSino on Ad5-nCoV, saying: “the process is not clear to the NRC, but CanSino does not have the authority to ship the vaccine at this time.”

Shortly before, Russia granted approval to a multinational phase 3 trial of the vaccine candidate which will be carried out in collaboration with NPO Petrovax Pharm, according to a statement from the Russian company.

“Our teams worked hard for many months to launch the phase 3 clinical trial; this is an excellent example of an international partnership that gains momentum and includes more and more countries,” commented Petrovax Pharma’s president Mikhail Tysferov.

Petrovax Pharma also gains the right to manufacture and distribute the vaccine in Russia following regulatory approval under the terms of the deal, which commentators suggest is part of China’s “COVID-19 diplomacy” – based on forging close ties to countries on good terms with the government in Beijing.

Other countries expected to be involved in the clinical testing of Ad5-nCoV include Brazil, Pakistan, Chile, and Saudi Arabia, with the phase 3 programme expected to recruit around 40,000 subjects, according to a Bloomberg report.

In the meantime, Russia’s home-grown COVID-19 candidate has also generated its first data with its Sputnik V vaccine that according to biotech investor Brad Loncar looks “pretty credible”.

Loncar also tweeted that CanSino “should be kicking themselves for only having tested a one-dose strategy up to this point”, as mid-stage data have looked weaker than other candidates so far.

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