China perseveres in COVID shot mRNA development amid Omicron and trade uncertainty

People line up to take a throat swab test at a temporary COVID-19 testing center as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Beijing, China January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Feb 28 (Reuters) – China has spent more than a year developing Pfizer-like COVID-19 vaccines that could even help it emerge from strict “zero-COVID” restrictions, but a growing market mutation and the Omicron variant have confusing prospects even before the efficacy data have been published.

Still, China is unlikely to join the majority of countries in approving foreign-made vaccines based on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology before making its own, experts said, although a slowing of the vaccination campaign at home and in some other countries and an improvement in the supply of approved vaccines the vaccines have raised questions of sustainability.

“If they (China) use mRNA vaccines, they will produce them themselves rather than take them from outside. It’s a matter of national pride and also vaccine diplomacy,” said Jaya Dantas, professor of international health at the Curtin School of Population Health. in Australia.

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About 87% of China’s 1.4 billion people are fully vaccinated and nearly 40% have received boosters – all injections without mRNA. Along with a policy of strictly containing every local outbreak, China has prevented any major outbreaks of the virus. However, the effectiveness of the vaccination regimen against Omicron is unclear.

Pre-Omicron human trials showed that mRNA injections from US-German duo Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) and BioNTech SE as well as US biotech Moderna Inc (MRNA.O) prevented symptomatic cases better than injections most used mRNA-free Chinese strains – although studies indicate that the pair need boosters to bolster Omicron’s defenses.

China has not approved the use of these or any other foreign vaccines, instead relying on local vaccines.

“For what appears to be political reasons, Chinese authorities have so far insisted on using domestically developed alternatives, and this has forced them to lean even further into this lockdown and quarantine approach towards zero-COVID,” a senior China analyst said. Michael Hirson of Eurasia Group.

“I think a more open approach to vaccines would give them more flexibility and in terms of how they do containment with a less disruptive impact on the economy.”

The National Health Commission did not respond to questions from Reuters about foreign mRNA vaccine approvals.

ROCKET SCIENCE

Experts said the success of its own mRNA technology will not just expand its national portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines, it will also open up the development of more innovative vaccines.

China approved human tests for its mRNA candidates in June 2020, and there are several in different stages of development. Read more

Only ARCoV – co-developed by the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, Suzhou Abogen Biosciences Co Ltd and Walvax Biotechnology Co Ltd (300142.SZ) – has begun phase III clinical trials, or large-scale tests in which scientists study the quality of the vaccine reduces the risk of COVID-19 disease and death.

A laboratory study found that Omicron could significantly weaken the neutralizing activity of ARCoV at two doses, although animal testing showed that a boost could induce antibody production. Read more

As Omicron threatens to complicate development, a high vaccination rate and an expanding recall campaign are driving China’s COVID-19 vaccine market to intensify. Additionally, it is unclear whether authorities will allow additional doses for people who have already received a booster shot.

“As the domestic market is shrinking, all Chinese COVID shot makers need to expand their business through export,” said Zhao Bing, an analyst at China Renaissance Securities.

Some Chinese mRNA candidates require less stringent storage temperatures than vaccines from overseas competitors, but they have yet to show significant advantages in manufacturing costs or storage conditions over rival vaccines without mRNA, Zhao said.

Still, going through the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine development process is crucial for the Chinese pharmaceutical industry whether or not a vaccine is approved, as mRNA-based technology could accelerate the development of new medical products. to prevent or treat various infectious diseases and cancers, experts said.

“The mRNA-based technology platform itself is like a rocket launch process,” said Nomura analyst Zhang Jialin.

“The COVID vaccine is actually a satellite carried by the rocket, and if the rocket engineering system is built, other types of satellites may be (carried) in the future.”

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Reporting by Roxanne Liu in Beijing and David Stanway in Shanghai; Additional reporting by Bryan Dent Wood in Hong Kong; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Christopher Cushing

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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