Collapse of China deals shows we can’t rely on others for COVID-19 vaccine

The global race is on to develop a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19. Every country wants to make sure its scientists are at the cutting edge and its citizens aren’t left out once the vaccine is available.

That was the thinking in May when Canada, through the National Research Council, announced a collaboration with a Chinese company to conduct trials of a promising vaccine candidate at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

At the time, the prime minister himself hailed the deal as a path to producing a vaccine “right here at home.” The NRC said it would potentially “make Canadians among the first in the world to have access to a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19.”

Sounded great. But it’s all ashes now that the NRC has pulled the plug on the arrangement. Chinese customs authorities simply wouldn’t give permission for the company involved, CanSino Biologics Inc., to ship samples of its vaccine candidate, known as Ad5-nCoV, to Canada for testing. Research in this area is moving fast, and the delay effectively killed the project.

The Chinese government won’t explain the hang-up and Canada’s foreign minister refuses to draw the obvious conclusion: that it’s part of China’s ongoing campaign to punish Canada for detaining Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. François-Philippe Champagne just says he wouldn’t “necessarily” link the two events.

Let us link them for him, then. If Beijing truly wanted to see cooperation between China and Canada on this vital public health issue, it would have cleared the way for CanSino to send the needed samples to Halifax. Trials would have started many weeks ago, to the benefit of Canadians, Chinese and potentially all humanity.

Aside from the possible health benefits, it would have sent a valuable signal that Beijing is willing to work with Canada despite the tense relations between the two countries.

Instead, the opposite signal has been sent — that China is practising what has become known as “vaccine nationalism,” using research on a potential treatment for the scourge of COVID-19 as yet another weapon in its search for advantage around the world.

It wouldn’t be the first time. In July, for example, China announced it would give the Philippines preferential access to successful vaccines, just as that country reiterated its support for China’s position in the South China Sea. The link was clear.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise, given the increasingly aggressive nature of the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping. But it’s still shameful, not to mention scientifically indefensible. If ever there was a problem that demands a world-wide solution and genuine cooperation among governments, it’s defeating the coronavirus.

The federal government has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to the battle, through initiatives like the Global Coronavirus Response and GAVI, which distributes vaccines to less-developed countries. It’s also putting millions toward supporting Canadian research.

This is all valuable and necessary, in part because Canada let its domestic capacity for manufacturing vaccines run down over many years. We’re playing catch-up to rebuild capacity and make sure Canadians aren’t left out once an effective vaccine does become available.

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That makes the collapse of the China deal all the more regrettable. The government is trying to fill the gap in several ways. In early August it signed deals with two major companies, Pfizer and Moderna, to secure millions of doses of vaccine candidates now in Stage 3 trials. And it’s working with two other promising vaccine research groups — one based in Massachusetts, the other at the University of Saskatchewan.

It all underscores the need for Canada to be at the forefront of research and to make sure Canadians have full access to a vaccine. We were caught short on PPE when the pandemic struck; there’s no excuse to repeat that mistake when it comes to developing and distributing the eventual treatment.

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