Canadians to help develop, test potential COVID-19 vaccine from Chinese company

The National Research Council of Canada said Tuesday it will work with a Chinese company to try to develop its potential vaccine for COVID-19 more quickly.

Canada's public sector scientists and labs to play key roles

Chinese vaccine maker CanSino Biologics' sign is pictured on its building in Tianjin, China in 2018. The company is already conducting human clinical trials for its vaccine. (Reuters)

The National Research Council of Canada said Tuesday it will work with a Chinese company to try to develop its potential vaccine for COVID-19 more quickly.

The Chinese company, CanSino Biologics, is already conducting human clinical trials for its vaccine.

Federal governments the world over have said vaccines are urgently needed to allow mass gatherings to resume. But that's only if clinical trials in thousands of human volunteers show safety and efficacy before shots go into the arms of vast swaths of the general public.

As of April, five vaccine candidates have moved into clinical development in early stage human trials, including CanSino's, called Ad5-nCoV.

The collaboration announced on Tuesday will allow Canada's publicly funded research council to try to scale up the technology needed to produce enough of the candidate vaccine to protect Canadians.

Matthew Herder, director of the Health Law Institute at Dalhousie University's law school in Halifax, evaluated contracts for the Canadian Ebola vaccine. That vaccine followed a similar path from the lab bench to mass production. Herder welcomed the NRC announcement and awaits the details.

"I think it showcases the power of the public sector … to play a key role in the development of vaccines," he said.

There could also be strings attached on pricing, how much manufacturing can be done in Canada to meet both domestic and international needs, and equity of access, he said.

The NRC plans to use a cell line its scientists developed during Ebola vaccine research.

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Lakshmi Krishnan, director general of the NRC's Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre, said the trials in Canada will complement and expand on what's been done in China.

Halifax trial

"We're bringing back home a Canadian technology, and we're able to have the most advanced vaccine candidate in the world potentially available for Canadians in short order," Krishnan said. 

A Phase 1 trial for the Ebola vaccine took place at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology in Halifax. The coronavirus vaccine will initially also be tested on healthy human volunteers there, subject to Health Canada's approval.

If successful, then Phase 2 trials could start in the fall at hospitals in other provinces with a vaccine available for non-commercial use produced on Canadian soil for front line workers and those at risk in late 2020 or early 2021, she said.

Dr. Ross Upshur of the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health studies global health ethics. He isn't involved in the vaccine trials.

"You can't really tell how effective something is until you've got a large number of people and it's out in the field," Upshur said. 

The federal government's previously announced $44 million for upgrades to the NRC's facility in Montreal also aims to allow for domestic production if the vaccine candidate pans out.

Separately on Tuesday, the federal government pledged $600 million over five years to support Gavi, a partnership between governments and the private sector. The group aims to vaccinate children around the world with routine immunizations and supports efforts to stamp out the pandemic globally.

Successful vaccines normally take five to 15 years to develop and mass produce.

With files from CBC's Christine Birak

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