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CanSino, Canada abandon plans for a coronavirus vaccine trial

CanSino Biologics, one of the leaders in the global push for a coronavirus vaccine, has canceled plans for a clinical trial in Canada after Chinese officials wouldn’t let the biotech ship its product there, according to multiple news reports.The shipping decision became “caught in the bureaucracy,” CanSino Biologics Chairman and CEO Xuefeng Yu told the Globe and Mail. Canada’s National Research Council, meanwhile, said it would have been ready to start clinical trials in June, but has “since moved on” to other priorities in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Yu told the news outlet he couldn’t comment on politics, but relations between China and Canada have soured in recent years, and that may have contributed to the breakdown of the agreement. The move leaves CanSino, which has slipped behind other China-based vaccine developers, looking elsewhere to run additional tests.

The planned clinical trial would have been the first for a coronavirus vaccine in Canada. Unlike its neighbor to the south, Canada has relatively few cases of COVID-19, recording 128,380 infections and 9,141 deaths. That makes the country less appealing as a testing ground for a vaccine.

CanSino’s vaccine, Ad5-nCoV, is built on technology originally developed by Canada’s NRC. The company and the research council have been working together since 2013, a relationship that enabled CanSino to license NRC’s cell lines. That collaboration broadened in May, when the NRC announced it was preparing to test CanSino’s vaccine in Canadian citizens and scaling up the production process.

Since that time, CanSino’s vaccine — one of the first in the world to be tested in humans — has shown promise in early studies, spurring what look to be meaningful immune responses in trial volunteers. And the Chinese military already has clearance from regulators to start using it. Optimism about the prospects for the vaccine helped fuel a successful first day on the Shanghai stock exchange this month. The company raised about $750 million and its shares jumped almost 90%.

But CanSino’s product also has limitations. It uses a type of cold virus to deliver a gene-based vaccine into cells, prompting the body to begin fighting off infection from SARS-CoV-2. In a mid-stage study published in July, more than half of participants were already immune to that cold virus, causing the vaccine’s effects to weaken considerably.

Vaccine developers are racing to run massive studies to prove whether their shots can prevent disease. In the U.S., for instance, multiple companies are running trials of roughly 30,000 participants apiece. With the Canada trial first delayed and now canceled, CanSino is looking for alternative spots to recruit volunteers.

CanSino is now preparing for a 5,000-patient Phase 3 study in Saudi Arabia, smaller than trials underway by companies including Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca. It also has a partnership with Russia and is reportedly considering South America and East Africa for possible clinical research.

Rival China-based firms Sinopharm and Sinovac, meanwhile, are also racing to develop a vaccine. Sinovac is recruiting 9,000 people in a Phase 3 trial in Brazil, while Sinopharm has already begun phase 3 testing in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates and is planning additional late-stage studies in Peru and Morocco, according to Reuters.