The call came early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Drew Weissman, an infectious diseases professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in messenger RNA, received a query from a Chinese company interested in using the new technology to make a vaccine against the coronavirus.

The technology, which effectively turns the body’s cells into tiny vaccine-making factories, has since become the breakout star of the COVID-19 era, underpinning shots made by Moderna Inc. and the Pfizer Inc./BioNTech SE partnership which have been among the most effective in fighting the disease. Before the coronavirus hit, though, the experimental science had yet to receive regulatory approval for use against any illness — let alone against the mysterious infection.

"They wanted to develop my technology in their company in China,” said Weissman, a leader in the field because of his work with research partner Katalin Kariko on discovering mRNA’s disease-fighting potential. "I told them I was interested.”

Then, nothing happened.

"I never heard from them again,” Weissman said.

It was a missed opportunity that’s disadvantaged the country’s vaccine push and left Chinese companies playing catch-up on a technology set to revolutionize everything from flu shots to oncology drugs.

As the coronavirus spread globally last year, New York-based Pfizer raced to partner with Germany’s BioNTech, an mRNA frontrunner that had hired Kariko as a senior vice president. Massachusetts-based Moderna, meanwhile, had $2.5 billion in funding from the U.S. government.

China setback

By contrast, several Chinese companies focused on older technologies that have proved far less potent. At a conference on April 10, the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, George Fu Gao, said Chinese vaccines "don’t have very high protection rates,” local media reported.

As the comments caused a stir on social media, Gao backtracked, telling Communist Party-backed newspaper Global Times that he was just referring to ways to improve vaccine efficiency. But no amount of damage control can obscure the fact that no Made-in-China mRNA vaccines have been approved yet.

That’s a setback for President Xi Jinping’s ambition to make the country a health care innovation powerhouse. The technology's effectiveness with COVID-19 vaccines is opening up a new frontier for mRNA, with researchers looking at ways to use it to fight cancer, tuberculosis and many other diseases, according to Surbhi Gupta, a health care and life sciences analyst with consultancy Frost & Sullivan.

"MRNA technology has the potential to be a game changer,” she said.

For decades, vaccines have been made using inactive versions of viruses, but mRNA shots use genetic material to instruct the body to create the spike protein the coronavirus uses to enter cells. That in turn trains the body to fight potential infection.

Old-school Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines now in use from Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and China National Biotec Group Co. rely on particles from inactivated viruses and have protection rates much lower than the mRNA vaccines’ more than 90% effectiveness in preventing infections.

Sinovac’s vaccine has an efficacy rate of a little over 50% in protecting against symptomatic COVID-19, according to studies conducted in Brazil, just meeting the minimum threshold required by global drug regulators. State-owned China National Biotec, a unit of Sinopharm Group Co., has said its two inactivated vaccines are 73% and 79% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 but has not published data to support that assertion.

Residents receive COVID-19 vaccinations in Wuhan, China, on April 8. | GETTY IMAGES / VIA BLOOMBERG
Residents receive COVID-19 vaccinations in Wuhan, China, on April 8. | GETTY IMAGES / VIA BLOOMBERG

Meanwhile, China’s CanSino Biologics Inc. has produced a viral-vector vaccine which, like those made by AstraZeneca PLC’s and Johnson & Johnson, uses a genetically modified virus to fight off infection. The Tianjin-based company has reported 66% efficacy in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in its final stage trial.

China’s government has pushed aggressively to close the gap with the West and become an alternative pharmaceutical and biotech power. It allowed controversial treatments with stem cells and gene therapy, despite concerns elsewhere about safety and efficacy. Yet China didn’t make mRNA vaccines a priority.

"Before COVID, a lot of people still had reservations” about the technology, said Lusong Luo, senior vice president at BeiGene Ltd., a Beijing-based biotech pioneer and leading producer of oncology drugs. "It’s new, it’s at the cutting edge.”

Now, with the success seen by Pfizer and Moderna, Chinese companies are jumping into the fray — but their efforts will take time to pay off. China may not have mRNA vaccines until the end of 2021, according to Feng Duojia, president of the China Association of Vaccines, China Global Television Network reported on April 11.

BeiGene in January announced an agreement to cooperate with Strand Therapeutics Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, on an mRNA treatment for tumors. "Now people realize that mRNA vaccines really work, it will be a lot easier,” Luo said.

China’s Walvax Biotechnology Co. began construction in December on a facility to make mRNA vaccines, while CanSino struck a deal in May last year with Vancouver-based Precision NanoSystems Inc. to develop an mRNA vaccine. Contract manufacturer WuXi Biologics Cayman Inc. has said it is devoting over $100 million to mRNA-related vaccines, biologics discovery, development and manufacturing.

While China has largely contained the spread of the coronavirus within its borders, more effective vaccinations and a wider take-up among its population would enable the country to reopen sooner, reducing the need for quarantines and lockdowns. China risks losing the edge gained by stamping out the virus if its inoculation drive is less effective than places where mRNA shots are the backbone of rollouts. In Israel, where nearly 60% of the population has received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are plunging. As more adults get their shots in the U.S., which also relies largely on mRNA vaccines, President Joe Biden has predicted Americans will be celebrating Independence Day on July 4 with backyard barbecues once again.

A nurse administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, in January. | BLOOMBERG
A nurse administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, in January. | BLOOMBERG

China isn’t the only country that missed the boat with mRNA. While companies in Japan, India and Australia are significant players in fighting diseases like flu and polio, no company in the Asia-Pacific region now makes mRNA shots. "Basically, mRNA was put in the ‘too-hard’ basket for many years,” said Nigel McMillan, Program Director for Infectious Diseases & Immunology at Griffith University in Southport, Australia.

In March this year, Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., Moderna’s local partner for Japanese trials of its COVID-19 vaccine, signed a deal with New Jersey-based Anima Biotech on mRNA treatments for Huntington’s and other neurological diseases. Another big Japanese drugmaker, Daiichi Sankyo Co., announced on March 22 the start of an early-stage trial of its own mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

In Thailand, Bangkok-based Chulalongkorn University has enlisted Penn’s mRNA pioneer Weissman to help it develop mRNA capability.

As they try to catch up, Chinese developers and others in Asia can take advantage of the lower barriers to entry for mRNA vaccine and drug development. In addition to the market leaders Moderna and BioNTech, there are other Western startups that invested in mRNA and are ready to license their technology.

Making mRNA vaccines and drugs also doesn’t require large capital expenditures on expensive bioreactors and other equipment, said Archa Fox, an associate Professor at the University of Western Australia’s School of Human Sciences and School of Molecular Sciences.

That bodes well for China’s ability to recover from not focusing on mRNA sooner, according to Weissman.

"They are going to hire the best scientists they can find,” he said. "Anybody can get in the game if they’ve got good people and money.”

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