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Xi seeks victory over Trump in race for a Covid-19 vaccine
[BEIJING] President Xi Jinping's government is throwing the might of the Chinese state behind the country's vaccine developers as the world races to make a shot against the coronavirus.
The sheer scale and speed of China's effort ratchets up pressure on the US, where President Donald Trump's administration has launched a programme called Operation Warp Speed to accelerate vaccine research and development. Mr Xi has promised to share any successful vaccine globally, and the Chinese president would wield immense geopolitical clout if his country produces one of the world's first working shots.
In total, five vaccines developed by Chinese companies are being tested on humans, the most in any country. Beijing has mobilised its health authorities, drug regulators and research institutes to work around the clock with local companies. Communist Party leaders are overseeing some vaccine trials. Government and private equity money has gone into companies like Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech, which in May began the second stage of testing for its vaccine.
The Chinese efforts were on show late Friday, when an early-stage study published in the medical journal, The Lancet, showed that an experimental vaccine from China's CanSino Biologics was safe and generated an immune response. It's too early to predict the product's eventual success and investors beat down CanSino's stock amid concerns it could have shortcomings.
But the speedy publication in an international journal showed the seriousness of the Chinese efforts. China is also pursuing vaccine candidates using more traditional technologies that are more amenable to mass production.
The Asian country faces stiff competition in the UK and US, and it remains difficult to assess which experimental products will work and cross the line first. But the nations with the earliest successful vaccines would gain an important weapon at a time when governments are attempting to emerge out of lockdowns that have fueled severe economic contractions. The virus that caused Covid-19 has already killed about 350,000 worldwide.
China would use any vaccine to show it is a responsible stakeholder in global health, said Nicholas Thomas, associate professor specializing in public health at the City University of Hong Kong. "The question that will then arise is to what extent their holding of the vaccine is used for geopolitical purposes, specifically with the United States."
Mr Xi is attempting to burnish his nation's image after global criticism about its early handling of the virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. He has vowed that the country's vaccines, once approved for use, will become a global public good and accessible to other developing countries.
In doing so, he's presented a contrast with Mr Trump, who has threatened to cut off funding to the World Health Organization in a move that could disrupt vaccination and other public health initiatives in poor countries.
While China has boosted its scientific prowess in recent years, it has yet to produce a novel blockbuster drug or vaccine.
Its vaccine industry has in past years also been tarnished by a series of scandals involving sub-par production and safety incidents.
In April, Gao Fu, director of China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in an interview with state-run CCTV that the country could have a vaccine ready for emergency use by September and more broadly available for healthy people as soon as early next year.