n a sterile corridor lined with laboratories, scientists in hazmat suits drop liquid into small vials with pipettes. Then trays of test-tubes are sealed and packaged into boxes – ready for distribution.
This sprawling new facility in south Beijing is already producing thousands of doses per day of a coronavirus vaccine developed by SinoVac, which the Chinese pharmaceutical firm says will be rolled-out across the world early next year.
Sinovac is one of four Chinese vaccines in last-stage human trials, a higher number than any other nation in the world. Also in the leading pack are a handful of final stage vaccines being developed in countries including the UK and US.
“Our goal is to provide the vaccine to the world, including the US, EU and others,” CEO Yin Weidong said this week, though it remains to be seen if the company can win approval in Western countries with tough regulatory processes.
Beijing appears to be on the cusp of declaring success in the global vaccine race after having already claimed victory in the “people’s war” against the coronavirus. It would be a bold move for China, underscoring its advancing scientific prowess, and one that could help the government deflect global anger against its pandemic cover-up.
But it also means securing public confidence in a newly-formulated vaccine fast-tracked through studies, developed in the country where authorities suppressed news of the pandemic when the deadly virus first emerged. China’s long history of food and safety scandals from expired meat to tainted baby formula has not helped, either.
To that end, key figures including Mr Yin and Gao Fu, head of China’s centre for disease control and prevention, have been injected with experimental vaccines in a bid to show that they are safe.
Ninety percent of SinoVac employees, nearly 3,000 people, have also been jabbed. Dubbed CoronaVac, the series of two shots to be administered two to four weeks apart injects a deactivated virus to prompt an immune response from the body. Seasonal flu vaccines employ the same method, injecting a virus already killed chemically so that patients do not become ill.
Even Beijing is getting involved in SinoVac’s efforts to build global trust in its vaccine, with the government organising a press tour this week to view the firm’s quality control labs and newly-built production facility.
Construction finished so recently for the plant – expected to manufacture as many as 300 million doses a year – that a pile of excess bricks still remains at the entrance. Nearby, more facilities are being built as SinoVac races to match the high demand Mr Yin anticipates.
An emergency programme in China has been rolled out by the government to inoculate groups of people considered to be at high-risk, including border officials and medical personnel.
SinoVac has supplied tens of thousands of vaccines for the emergency inoculations, though the Chinese government has not not revealed the full extent of the programme.
Experts have warned of the risks of administering vaccines before phase three studies conclude – a global standard for clinical trials. But Mr Yin said he stood behind what his company was developing, pointing to early study results published in May in the journal, Science, that found its vaccine had induced effective antibodies in mice, rats and monkeys.
The following month, the company said that tests with hundreds of volunteers had found no severe side effects, and that the vaccine shots produced an antibody response in more than 90 per cent of patients.
SinoVac expects to begin analysing data this year from final stage tests, with phase three trials under way in Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia, given severe outbreaks and limited vaccine research and development capacity. One is planned for Bangladesh, and Chile is a possibility, said Mr Yin.
So far, around 30,000 people have been inoculated through these trials, though he declined to comment on the efficacy rate before further data comes in. More trials are planned to study its effect in children and the elderly.
It remains to be seen if China will follow through on its pledge to ensure coronavirus vaccines are a global public good and not allow geopolitical dynamics to get in the way. China, for instance, has not joined the World Health Organization’s initiative to ensure equitable access to immunisations.
From existing results, “we can actually see the antibody level and the immunisation effect is actually very good, so that’s why I’m confident that CoronaVac will be successful,” said Mr Yin.
“But on the medical side, we still have to complete clinical trials. We have not succeeded yet, but we’re one step closer.”