Vaccine dispute should be a lesson for Canada-China commercialization exchanges

Mark Mann
August 19, 2020

Yesterday, iPolitcs reported that the vaccine candidate that's currently being held up from entering Canada by Chinese customs was developed using technology licensed from Canada's National Research Council.

A team led by Canadian researcher Dr. Frank Graham developed a cell line in the 1970s that proved to be a strong basis for the development of vaccines. The NRC created a proprietary version of the cell line that it licensed to the Chinese pharmaceutical company CanSino Biologics in 2014, which the company used to produce an approved vaccine against the Ebola virus. On May 12, 2020, the NRC announced it would be further collaborating with CanSino to "advance bioprocessing and clinical development in Canada" of a candidate vaccine called Ad5-nCoV.

There have been reasons to doubt the merit of the exchange. Just a week before the collaboration was announced, a report from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance revealed that China had "deliberately suppressed or destroyed evidence of the coronavirus outbreak in an 'assault on international transparency' that cost tens of thousands of lives." CanSino has been closely aligned with China's government since developing its Ebola vaccine in collaboration with military researchers.

Dr. Kulvinder Gill, president of Concerned Ontario Doctors, warned that the partnership could be “counterproductive” and “dangerous” because of the speed and secrecy with which the vaccine was being developed. At the time, CanSino had not published any data from the first phase of trials, which were conducted in partnership with the People's Liberation Army. "This human clinical trial with China’s Communist Party’s vaccine is proceeding at an alarmingly dangerous rate without adherence to research ethics and transparency," Gill said.

Dr. Amir Attaran, a health policy professor at the University of Ottawa, called the Ad5-nCoV a "dead man walking" because of the inherent political risks, and pointed out that two other similarly promising candidates existed, one produced by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford in England and the other by the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston — both from stronger ally countries.

But the NRC needed only to look to the recent past to find a clear and loud warning: just a few months after licensing the cell line based on Graham's research to CanSino in 2014, sophisticated state-sponsored hackers from China broke into the NRC's computer infrastructure in an attack that would cost Ottawa hundreds of millions of dollars. Hindsight is 20/20, which is why the 2014 hack should have offered a stronger note of caution when deciding to partner with CanSino for something so important to the health of Canadians.

Clearly, Canada needs to maintain good ties with China. Indeed, some of our most important coronavirus research has depended on close partnerships with Chinese researchers. But we can't afford to be naive about the types of decisions that China's ruling party will make when it comes to honoring those ties. The delay of the Ad5-nCoV vaccine candidate isn't a complete picture, but it's an important lesson.


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