Pandemic Accelerates China’s Drive Into mRNA Treatments

Messenger RNA-based technology that is highly effective in preventing Covid-19 can also be used for treatment of other diseases

Key points:

  • High efficacy rates in preventing Covid-19 spark rush by Chinese companies into mRNA vaccines and treatments
  • At least one Chinese-made mRNA Covid vaccine, backed by the military, is now in late-stage development 

By Richard Barbarossa

They may be late to the party, but that hasn’t stopped China’s drug makers from rushing into messenger RNA (mRNA) drug-making technology, which has won global fame for its use in creating highly effective Covid-19 vaccines.

mRNA vaccines deliver genetic instructions that teach human cells how to make a spike protein that triggers an immune response, producing antibodies to fight the virus. That differs from traditional vaccines, which elicit the immune response by injecting a weakened or dead form of the virus into people’s bodies.

China’s rush into mRNA has gained all the more urgency as it becomes apparent that the country’s own homemade vaccines based on traditional technology aren’t highly effective. Studies vary, with some of China’s own vaccines reportedly having efficacy rates of just 50%, the minimum level for a vaccine to be considered effective.

As a result, local biotech companies have been scrambling  over the past year to raise cash and partner with more experienced foreign partners to develop their own mNRA vaccines and treatments for other illnesses such as cancer.

Prominent local movers include Suzhou Abogen Biosciences and Walvax Biotechnology Co Ltd. (300142.SZ), which are developing what could be China’s first mRNA Covid-19 vaccine working with the Academy of Military Science. Their vaccine, called ARCoV, was expected to enter final Phase 3 trials in Mexico at the end of last month, according to the Mexican government.

Confident of its eventual success, Walvax broke ground on a manufacturing facility in December, with an initial target to produce 120 million doses a year, according to an April report on news site Ecns.cn. The company’s stock surged last year as vaccines gained global attention, and are currently more than double their levels from when the pandemic began.

The Chinese companies and their international peers are chasing a global market for mRNA vaccines and therapeutics projected to growth 10.5% annually between 2021 and 2026 to reach US$ 15.5 billion – accounting for more than a quarter of the global vaccine market, according to market research company IMARC.

German biotech company BioNTech SE and U.S. partner Pfizer Inc. produce one of just two mNRA Covid-19 vaccines currently approved for emergency use in the U.S. and EU. Moderna produces the other. Hopes of a possible third mNRA vaccine from Germany’s CureVac NV appeared dashed this week after it announced its candidate was only 47% effective in a late-stage trial – underscoring the difficulties the technology faces.

Early Days 

Despite China’s strong desire to enter the game, a February report by S&P Global Markets said locally-developed technology is still in the “infant stage,” most likely with less than 10 companies in the space.

China is currently using five vaccines in its mass immunization program, including three based on inactivated variants made by Sinovac and Sinopharm, each requiring two shots. CanSino Biologics Inc. (6185.HK) has created a single-shot vaccine, and a protein subunit from Anhui Zhifei Longcom has created another vaccine.

But those vary in effectiveness from 79% to as low as 50%, according to company statements.

Besides the military-supported mRNA vaccine being developed by Suzhou Abogen and Walvax, other Chinese companies developing mRNA Covid-19 vaccinations include Shanghai-based Stemirna Therapeutics, which commenced Phase 1 trials of its mNRA vaccine in March and may soon move onto Phase 2, according to the site Gene Online.

Founded in 2016, Stemirna made industry headlines earlier this month when it secured $200 million in new funding led by big-name investors including China Merchants Group, Sequoia Capital China, and Greenwoods Investment.

The same CanSino that already has a traditional Covid-19 vaccine on the market announced plans last May to jointly develop an mRNA treatment for the virus with Precision NanoSystems, while Wuxi Biologics (2269.HK) is also reportedly exploring the technology.

While neither the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna treatments are available in China yet, Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co. (600196.SH) has announced a partnership to produce the BioNTech vaccine locally. Last week it said production is set to begin in August at a $200 million joint venture facility in Shanghai, with capacity to make up to 1 billion doses a year.

BioNTech will provide the licensing and technical know-how, while the unit will manufacture the vaccine and its parent Shanghai Fosun will handle commercialization in China. Fosun Pharma’s role in bringing the BioNTech vaccine to China, combined with its potential as a future mRNA vaccine maker, have helped to spark a rally for its Hong Kong-listed shares, which are up more than 70% since late March.

The high efficacy rate of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is likely to be a big factor in its accelerated  approval by Chinese regulators due to doubts on the locally-developed vaccines.

However, it’s not just mRNA’s efficacy at preventing Covid-19 that has piqued local interest in the technology. Even before the pandemic, the technology was being explored for decades to create potential treatments for illnesses such as cancer, flu, Zika and rabies.

“Interest has grown in these vaccines because they can be developed in a laboratory using readily available materials,” according to a March statement from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “This means the process can be standardized and scaled up, making vaccine development faster than traditional methods of making vaccines.”

“Future mRNA vaccine technology may allow for one vaccine to provide protection for multiple diseases,” it added.

Ugur Sahin, the co-founder and chief executive of BioNTech, was quoted by foreign media in March saying his next goal was to utilize the technology to treat cancer.

Such widespread applications, together with the success of mRNA-based vaccines in preventing Covid-19, have caught Chinese companies’ attention, leading many newcomers to enter the fray.

Chongqing Zhifei Biological Products Co. Ltd. announced in December it would acquire a 10.2% stake in Shenzhen Shenxin Biotechnology Co. Ltd., a startup developing mRNA vaccines for rare diseases, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. Meanwhile, BeiGene Ltd. in January announced a licensing deal to commercialize Strand Therapeutics Inc.’s mRNA treatments for solid tumors in Asia, excluding Japan, as well as Australia and New Zealand, according to a company statement.

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