The Chinese drama of a vaccine journey

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Dahlan Iskan

IO – The winner of the first round of the vaccine race is clear: CanSino Biologics. Yes, the company from Tianjin. The one led by lady general Chen Wei. 

In the second round, the pharmaceutical companies were running pretty much neck-to-neck, with each other and it was a double finish. However, the situation reversed in the third round: Sinovac of Beijing. At least, it was Sinovac who reached the finish line in Bandung first. Sinovac’s vaccine will be tested on 1,600 volunteers who registered freely in that capital city of West Java. In other words, Indonesia has chosen to partner up with Sinovac. If the Stage 3 clinical testing succeeds, we can produce the vaccine through our pharmaceutical SOE Biofarma. 

America looks set on selecting CanSino Biologics of Tianjin. Alternatively, they might go for the vaccine produced by Sweden-America’s Moderna Inc. Other than having selected Sinovac, Brazil has also approved the vaccine discovered by Britain’s Oxford University for testing. 

Sinovac, CanSino, Moderna, Oxford. These four are racing to have their vaccine come first. Behind them, many more are jostling for a place in the arena. Which of these four COVID-19 vaccines is the best? So far, in view of their progress, they seem to be pretty much on an equal footing. But it’s not my place to comment here – I am a layman who knows nothing about microbiology. America probably selected Moderna Inc. because of nationalism – that’s the only company related to this country anyway. Even if America should choose CanSino Biologics later, maybe it’s not simply due to the desire to be different from Indonesia or because of hatred towards anything Chinese. Maybe it’s because CanSino is not purely Chinese – after all, its name is an abbreviation of “Canada-China”.

What does Canada have to do with all this? 

CanSino was founded by Chinese medical experts who graduated from Canada. CanSino’s primary founder, Yu Xuefeng (57 y.o.), earned his doctorate in microbiology in McGill University, Montreal, Canada. He had three best friends there: Zhu Tao, Qiu Dongxu, and Helen Mao Huihua. After graduating from McGill, they did not go home to China. They decided to work together in world famous pharmaceutical in Canada, Sanofi Pasteur. It’s such a productive and diverse company, that you probably have used one of its drugs some time in your life. The four worked hard and did well there. Their career rose quickly. 

One night, the quartet had a barbecue dinner at Yu Xuefeng’s backyard. Their idle chat turned serious: “Why are China’s pharmaceuticals left so far behind from those of the West, whether in terms of quality or safety?” And that night’s party ended with a huge decision: “We’re going home!” 

The four decided to quit from Sanofi and realize their idealism of improving the pharmaceutical business in China, for the sake of their fellow citizens. They ended up establishing their new company in Tianjin, a town at the East of Beijing. Not forgetting their other root, the four put “Canada” in the name of their company: CanSino. They are so respected that even the Canadian Government supports them, by allowing them to cooperate with Canadian government research agencies. 

During the Ebola outbreak, CanSino actively labored to develop its vaccine. That’s when they met General Chen Wei, the microbiologist who heads China’s military pharmaceutical research center, and cooperated with her for the first time. They have heard of Chen Wei before: she is a dedicated, heroic researcher rightly respected in their homeland. Her reputation soared during the SARS outbreak in China. She worked very hard on creating the vaccine for this fatal respiratory disease. The drama came when Chen Wei tested the vaccine on her 4-year-old only son. She had such faith in her work, in the precautions that she took to ensure his safety, that she just went and did it. 

Chen Wei desperately wanted to discover an anti-SARS vaccine. Her hard work and faith paid off. In fact, the box office movie Wolf Warrior II released in China last year told her heroic and dramatic story. 

This time, Chen Wei cooperates with CanSino to develop an anti-COVID-19 vaccine. It’s a pity that CanSino did not finish in Bandung.