When a group of Chinese scientists gathered over barbecue and beer in a Toronto backyard a decade ago, talk drifted to their homeland’s vaccines, which had long lagged the developed world on quality and safety. Four of them decided to act.They left top positions at global pharmaceutical companies in Canada to set up a biotechnology firm half a world away in Tianjin, China, hoping to produce vaccines on par with Western countries.

Now, that company, CanSino Biologics Inc., is vaulting into the global spotlight as connections on both sides of the Pacific make it one of the front-runners in the race for a coronavirus vaccine.

CanSino’s Chinese-born chief executive officer, Yu Xuefeng, formerly a senior executive at drugmaker Sanofi’s Canadian vaccine operations, has maintained relationships in Canada and China even as geopolitical disagreements polarize both countries. Yu has boosted his firm’s scientific prowess by tying up with the Canadian government’s largest research organization. At home, he’s worked with a prominent Chinese military scientist, first on an Ebola vaccine and now on CanSino’s experimental coronavirus shot.