Failed deal with China delayed made-in-Canada COVID-19 vaccine plans

The federal government’s failed collaboration with a vaccine manufacturing firm in China early within the pandemic has led to a delay of almost two years in efforts to create a made-in-Canada COVID-19 vaccine.

Government paperwork obtained by The Fifth Estate present that Canadian officers wasted months ready for a proposed vaccine to reach from China for additional testing and spent hundreds of thousands upgrading a manufacturing facility that by no means made a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine. 

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) signed an settlement with Tianjin-based CanSino Biologics in early May 2020 to “fast-track the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine in Canada for emergency pandemic use.”

The CanSino vaccine, which had been created by the scientific analysis arm of China’s navy, was to be shipped to Canada for human trials that May. If profitable, the vaccine was to be manufactured at a brief facility in Montreal that the NRC had dedicated $44 million to improve.

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The paperwork reveal that the NRC, the scientific analysis arm of the Canadian government, was gearing up for manufacturing of the vaccine — even earlier than the contract was signed and human trials had began — estimating it might be manufacturing doses by summer time 2020.

At first, the NRC can be producing doses for human trials in Canada, then later, in response to the contract, “for front-line responders and Canadians as soon as they are available.”

The CanSino-Canada deal was initially hoped to rapidly present vaccines for emergency use by front-line responders. (Leah Hennel/AHS)

“Once fully operational, in the event that CanSino proceeds, NRC will be able to produce 70,000 to 100,000 doses per month,” the NRC briefs mentioned.

The NRC requested Dr. Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Center of Vaccinology in Halifax, to design the scientific trials for CanSino in Canada.

“The NRC and CanSino had previous collaborations well before the pandemic,” Halperin mentioned in an interview with The Fifth Estate. “That was leveraged into a working relationship to say: ‘Can that be expanded for the current crisis?’ “

Vaccine caught in China

As the months progressed, the paperwork additionally present that the NRC was working to extend the variety of doses the ability may produce for the general public.

But in the end, the CanSino vaccine would by no means get to Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced the deal to Canadians on May 16, 2020. But a federal government memo later that identical month reveals the Canadian Embassy in Beijing was nonetheless working to get the vaccine cleared by China’s customs.

“CanSino vaccines are still with customs in China,” the memo mentioned. “Embassy has a [meeting] tomorrow. Assuming they get through customs [tomorrow], they can be put on a flight on the 27th.”

But the vaccine candidate was not placed on a airplane on May 27.

That identical day, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou — a high-profile tech government in China — misplaced an attraction to the B.C. Supreme Court arguing towards her arrest in Canada. Meng had been detained in Vancouver in 2018 on U.S. financial institution fraud fees.

(Meng was returned to China final month after signing a deferred prosecution settlement with the U.S. Attorney General’s Office. Shortly after, two Canadians held in prisons in China had been allowed to return to Canada.)

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou waves as she steps out of an airplane after arriving at Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport in Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong province on Sept. 25, 2021. Meng signed a deferred prosecution settlement with U.S. prosecutors that allowed her to go away Canada for the primary time in almost three years. (Jin Liwang/Xinhua by way of The Associated Press)

“I was incredulous that the government had chosen to partner with not only CanSino, but with China, after all the things that had happened,” Conservative MP Michael Chong mentioned.

Chong has served because the get together’s overseas affairs critic and on the parliamentary committee on Canada-China relations. 

“It was clear by May of 2020 that China was not a reliable partner,” he mentioned.

Michael Chong, a former Conservative overseas affairs critic, has been outspoken relating to nationwide safety points and China’s human rights file. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

On June 19, 2020, solely weeks after Meng misplaced her court docket attraction, China accused Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor of espionage. They had already been held in Chinese prisons with out fees for greater than 500 days.

A disagreement ensued between the governments in China and Canada, with officers from every nation criticizing the other.

WATCH | McGill professor says connection to China’s military dangerous:

Security professor doubts customs stopped the vaccine

Ben Fung, a security researcher with McGill University, tells The Fifth Estate’s Bob McKeown that a partnership with a company closely tied to the Chinese military would be risky. 0:58

By June 26, NRC bureaucrats acknowledged in briefs that the “shipment of vaccine material has stalled.” 

By early July, the CanSino candidate was still the only vaccine Health Canada had approved for human trials in Canada. NRC officials continued to hope it would arrive later that month.

“CanSino remains very committed to the Canadian clinical trials,” the brief said.

Into August, NRC documents reveal, officials continued working on manufacturing plans, despite the fact that the vaccine candidate had “not yet been approved by Chinese customs for shipment to Canada.”

Customs not the problem

Ben Fung, a security researcher at McGill University in Montreal and an outspoken China critic, said he doubts that customs was the issue, and argued that Canada should have known partnering with CanSino was risky because of the company’s connection to both China’s military and government. 

“So when they say customs is stopping the vaccines, of course this is not the case,” Fung said. “The [Chinese Communist Party] is upper management.”

WATCH | The original plans for the CanSino-Canada vaccine:

The CanSino-Canada vaccine plan

The Fifth Estate’s Bob McKeown seems on the plans for a CanSino-Canada vaccine partnership by listening to from CanSino’s Canadian scientific adviser, Dr. Luis Barreto, who’s a longtime vaccine specialist, and Dr. Scott Halperin, who was employed to run scientific trials for the corporate. 2:07

At the Center for Vaccinology, Halperin suspected that the undertaking had change into wrapped up within the diplomatic tensions between Canada and China. When he noticed the vaccine had been shipped to Pakistan and Russia with out difficulty, he knew the vaccine was not coming to Canada.

“Then we knew it wasn’t just the right paperwork and bureaucracy,” Halperin mentioned. “It became clear that that wasn’t the case, but that took another month to two months to finally decide that no, it must be politics. It can’t be anything else.”

The Globe and Mail first reported on Aug. 25, 2020, that the NRC had deserted its collaboration with CanSino as a result of China would not let the vaccine doses come to Canada.

WATCH | CanSino’s CEO on why the vaccine did not come to Canada:

CanSino CEO on why the vaccine did not come to Canada

Dr. Xuefeng Yu, co-founder of CanSino, says he had hoped to get the vaccine into Canada, the nation where his household lives. He tells The Fifth Estate’s Bob McKeown how that unfolded. 1:19

In an interview with The Fifth Estate, CanSino CEO Dr. Xuefeng Yu mentioned he didn’t know why the vaccine wasn’t allowed to be despatched to Canada.

“I don’t work for the government, either side. I really have no clue what’s going on behind the doors of the department of … each country.”

Yu mentioned that by the point the cargo was delayed into August, there was no level continuing with trials in Canada. By then, CanSino was already in Phase 3 international trials elsewhere.

Millions of doses promised

Trudeau and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains held a media convention on the NRC on Aug. 31, 2020, touting the Montreal lab that had been upgraded to supply the CanSino vaccine.

Even although the federal government not had a vaccine companion, the Prime Minister’s Office introduced that the ability would “enable the preliminary production of 250,000 doses of vaccine per month starting in November 2020.”

However, that facility didn’t produce 250,000 doses of vaccine in November 2020, or any month since. 

“One would hope that when the prime minister speaks, he knows what he’s talking about and it’s accurate,” NDP MP and health critic Don Davies mentioned in an interview with The Fifth Estate.

“So he either was mistaken or he was misleading, and I think it’s incumbent on him to explain which of those it is. What we do know is that we didn’t produce 250,000 doses in Canada in November in Montreal.”

Don Davies was the NDP health critic when the CanSino vaccine deal was mentioned at a parliamentary committee. (Ian Christie/CBC)

To today, no vaccines have been produced at that NRC facility.

In August 2020, Trudeau additionally introduced that a new NRC lab in Montreal can be producing two million doses a month by mid-2021.

That has additionally not occurred. According to the NRC, vaccines will not be produced there till 2022, on the earliest.

Trudeau, proper, alongside Minister for Economic Development Melanie Joly, left, and Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains arrive for a information convention and go to to the National Research Council of Canada Royalmount Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre on Aug. 31, 2020. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The Prime Minister’s Office didn’t reply when requested to elucidate the discrepancy between the promised manufacturing numbers and what occurred. The prime minister and his ministers additionally declined interview requests about Canada’s early vaccine manufacturing plans, together with with the NRC and CanSino.

The NRC has mentioned the U.S.-based vaccine developer Novavax will be its new companion for this facility, however Health Canada has not authorised its vaccine but.

The National Research Council of Canada is including two manufacturing amenities for vaccines at its campus in Montreal. One will make vaccines to be used in scientific trials and the other will produce vaccines for public use. (Vianney Leudiere/Radio-Canada)

The NRC declined interview requests with its officers however offered written responses to questions.

“It was deemed prudent to seize the opportunity to obtain access to CanSino’s vaccine candidate — one of the most advanced at the time,” the NRC mentioned.

The NRC additionally acknowledged that the failure of the CanSino deal pressured it to scrap its unique scientific trial manufacturing plans. 

“I think there’s no doubt it has set us back years,” Davies mentioned. “When you’re in a global pandemic, that is deadly, that costs lives.”

CanSino seizes Fifth Estate interview

Yu is happy with CanSino’s COVID-19 vaccine that’s going into hundreds of thousands of arms all over the world.

The firm CEO sat down with The Fifth Estate for a wide-ranging interview, discussing his roots in Canada’s pharmaceutical trade, his household who nonetheless lives in Toronto and his analysis work with China’s navy.

“I see them as collaborators, it’s just a research institute, right?” Yu mentioned.

CanSino Biologics Inc. is headquartered in Tianjin, China, an industrial metropolis southeast of Beijing. The firm has a big manufacturing facility and places of work on the web site. (Tribal Productions Asia)

But when the cameras turned off, he was clearly not glad with how the interview unfolded.

As the CBC freelance digicam crew packed up their gear within the CanSino Biologics places of work in Tianjin, China, firm officers seized the interview recording.

CanSino deleted half of the recording earlier than giving it again 10 days later. Luckily, The Fifth Estate recorded your entire interview from Toronto.

China officers could have denied the CanSino vaccine candidate to Canada, however Canadian scientists and labs are nonetheless supporting CanSino’s COVID-19 vaccine, which is being utilized in no less than 9 nations.

A health-care employee injects a instructor with a dose of the CanSino COVID-19 vaccine in Mexico City. CanSino’s vaccine has been authorised for emergency pandemic use in a handful of nations worldwide. Phase 3 trials are ongoing. (Marco Ugarte/AP)

The Center for Vaccinology in Halifax continues to work for CanSino, with Halperin working the corporate’s Phase 3 international trials on a $3.5-million contract.

“That vaccine will likely never come to Canada at this stage. It’s going to be used around the world in other places, but not in Canada,” Halperin mentioned. “I look at this as a part of Canada’s contribution to the global battle against COVID-19.”

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