A collaboration between a Chinese company and a Halifax research team aiming to carry out Canada's first clinical trials of a potential COVID-19 vaccine has been abandoned amid rising tensions between the two countries.
The partnership between the National Research Council of Canada and CanSino Biologics was announced by the federal government in May.
A team at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology at Dalhousie University was supposed to work with CanSino to run the first Canadian clinical trials for a possible COVID-19 vaccine. CanSino's vaccine, called Ad5-nCoV, was already being run through human trials in China and has shown promising results.
In May, Health Canada gave the go-ahead for the Canadian trials to begin, and the hope was that clinical trials in Halifax could begin within weeks.
But in late July, The Canadian Press reported that the Canadian-Chinese partnership was on the rocks, saying China had held up shipments the company was supposed to send to the Halifax researchers by the end of May.
In an emailed statement, the National Research Council (NRC) said the vaccine candidate had not been approved by Chinese customs to ship to Canada.
The statement said CanSino's collaborators in the Chinese government — the Beijing Institute of Technology and the Ministry of Science and Technology, which had provided funding to CanSino — reviewed the agreement between the NRC and CanSino before it was signed.
"Subsequent to signing, the government of China introduced process changes regarding shipping vaccines to other countries," the NRC said in its statement.
"The process is not clear to the NRC, but CanSino does not have the authority to ship the vaccine at this time."
The NRC did not say what, if any, role the ongoing tensions between Canada and China played in this development.
CBC News has reached out to CanSino, but did not get a response by the time of publication. However, company chairman and CEO Dr. Xuefeng Yu told The Globe and Mail, which first reported this story on Tuesday, that bureaucratic indecision was the reason behind the shipping delays, and now the time to do the trials had "already passed."
Yu told the newspaper that some divisions of the Chinese government were not clear on whether the vaccine should "go to global trials or how to handle it."
Study 'past its best-before date'
Scott Halperin, the director of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology, said it was disappointing to not be able to work with CanSino.
"We were ready to start the study, had all the approvals back in June, but the company had been trying to ship us the vaccine but had not been permitted to do so," he said.
"No matter what they tried, they were not able to get approvals to ship the vaccine."
Based on the amount of time that's gone by, Halperin said the study has become less relevant.
"At this point, CanSino's already ready to go into Phase 3 studies," he said. "So this study, which was going to provide some more information, I think it's past its best-before date."
He said CanSino's vaccine is one of the vaccines that's furthest along worldwide in terms of its approval process, so it could have potentially been one of the first vaccines available to Canadians if all the studies continued to look good.
Halperin said there are always risks in collaborating with other countries, which is why Canada has been pushing to make sure there will be Canadian-manufactured vaccines available.
"There are other vaccines in the pipeline, and there will be plenty of other studies that are [being] done with other vaccines that will hopefully also look good."
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