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China races to find coronavirus vaccine, put scandals in the past

BEIJING: Paramilitary police officers wear face masks as they prepare food supplies at the entrance to the closed Xinfadi market in Beijing yesterday. —AFP

BEIJING: China has mobilized its army and fast-tracked tests in the global race to find a coronavirus vaccine, but its labs also have an image tarnished by past health scandals to overcome. Six months after the first cases emerged in the city of Wuhan, China has moved quickly to develop a vaccine and is involved in several of the dozen or so international clinical trials currently under way. Researchers have reported promising early results from tests on humans and monkeys, and authorities hope to have the first shots ready for the public this year. The Military Academy of Medical Sciences is among those working on a vaccine, in partnership with a pharmaceutical firm.

China has authorized fast-track procedures, allowing preclinical phases – such as animal tests and other studies—to be conducted at the same time instead of one after the other. But Ding Sheng, dean of the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, sounded a note of caution around using “non-conventional methods”. “I understand that people are eagerly waiting for a vaccine,” Ding said in the People’s Daily, a Communist Party organ. “But on a scientific point of view, we can’t lower our criteria, even in an emergency,” he said.

Ding also questioned the decision to authorize phase one and two clinical trials at the same time, allowing labs to avoid having to seek authorization before proceeding from one to the other. Nick Jackson, of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), however, pointed out that China was not the only country to do this. “Many organizations globally are conducting adaptive trials that allow for rapid transition from phase one to two studies,” said Jackson, whose organization funds research into vaccines. “This approach is necessary given the urgent need for vaccines.”

Tainted vaccines

One pharmaceutical company, Sinopharm, said its vaccine could be ready for the public at the end of the year or early 2021. The head of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention hopes a vaccine could be ready as early as September for priority cases, such as health workers. But China will also have to convince the public that any vaccine it produces are safe as the country’s pharmaceutical industry has been hit by scandals involving tainted medicine and corruption in recent years. Parents have held protests and some are scared enough to seek foreign-made vaccines for their children over those made in China. One of the biggest scandals involved Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology, which was fined a record $1.3 billion in 2018 after it fabricated records for a rabies vaccine for humans.

The same company had also produced a vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough (DPT) that was administered to more than 200,000 children and caused paralysis in a few cases. One of the companies involved in the search for a vaccine against the novel coronavirus was implicated in the scandal. The Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, from the city where the virus first emerged late last year, produced 400,000 doses of DPT that “did not meet the norms”, according to drug regulators. The government responded by enacting legislation to tighten oversight and prevent defective shots from entering the market.

“The government is very careful in reviewing the vaccine applications,” said Lung-Ji Chang, the American president of the Geno-Immune Medical Institute in Shenzhen, southern China, which is also working on a coronavirus vaccine. But several other cases have been reported by Chinese media in the past year, including fake vaccines in a southern hospital and children getting shots for the wrong illness in northern Hebei province. “This does not mean (China) does not have the capability to produce a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in the United States.

Fresh virus cluster

Parts of Beijing were placed under lockdown yesterday as six new domestic coronavirus cases were reported, fuelling fears of a resurgence in local transmission. People were prevented from leaving their homes at 11 residential estates in south Beijing’s Fengtai district after most of the cases were linked to a nearby meat market, city officials said in a press briefing. Beijing’s first COVID-19 case in two months, announced on Thursday, had visited Xinfadi meat market last week and had no recent travel history outside the city.

China’s domestic outbreak had been brought largely under control through vast, strict lockdowns that were imposed after the disease was first detected in the central city of Wuhan last year. These measures had largely been lifted as the infection rate dropped, and the majority of cases reported in recent months were citizens living abroad who were tested as they returned home during the pandemic. Among the six new domestic cases announced yesterday were three Xinfadi market workers, one market visitor and two employees at the China Meat Research Centre, seven kilometers away. One of the employees had visited the market last week.

Authorities closed the market, along with another seafood market visited by one of the patients, for disinfection and sample collection on Friday. AFP reporters saw hundreds of police officers and dozens of paramilitary police deployed at the two markets. Workers were seen hauling several crates of seafood out of Jingshen seafood market, also in Fengtai district. Fengtai district officials announced yesterday that the district has established a “wartime mechanism” and “field command center” to deal with the fresh wave. Nine nearby schools and kindergartens have been closed. On Friday, Beijing officials delayed the return of students to primary schools across the city, and suspended all sporting events and group dining. Cross-provincial tour groups were suspended yesterday. —Agencies

Mass testing

The chairman of the Xinfadi meat wholesale market told state-run Beijing News that the virus was detected on chopping boards used to handle imported salmon, stoking fears over the hygiene of Beijing’s food supply. Beijing’s market supervision authorities ordered a city-wide food safety inspection focusing on fresh and frozen meat, poultry and fish in supermarkets, warehouses and catering services. Major supermarket chains including Wumart and Carrefour removed all stocks of salmon overnight in the capital, but said supplies of other products would not be affected, Beijing Daily reported yesterday. Some Beijing restaurants were not serving any salmon yesterday, according to AFP reporters. Beijing authorities also announced a mass COVID-19 testing campaign of anyone who has had “close contact” with the Xinfadi market since May 30, after they tested over 5,000 environmental samples from farmers’ markets and large supermarkets across the city on Friday. – Agencies

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