Inside China’s exhausting race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine

Zhuang Pinghui, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 05 2021 01:26 PM | Updated as of Jan 05 2021 01:27 PM

Inside China’s exhausting race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine 1
A man works in a laboratory of Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech, developing an experimental coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, during a government-organized media tour in Beijing, China, Sept. 24, 2020. Thomas Peter, Reuters/File

The race in China to develop coronavirus vaccines pushed researchers to near exhaustion and involved giving experimental shots to a state leader, according to a state agency’s account.

In the account released on Saturday, the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (Sasac) said molecular biologist Chen Zhu, a deputy chairman of China’s top legislature, was among the four scientists who took an experimental vaccine on March 23, 19 days before it was approved for human trials.

The vaccine candidate was one of two developed by China National Biotec Group (CNBG), a unit of state firm Sinopharm, which is administered by Sasac.

The other three to take the experimental shots were CNBG chairman Yang Xiaoming; Duan Kai, president of the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products; and Li Cesheng, vice-president of the Wuhan Institute of Blood Products.

Next to get the shots were 138 CNBG and Sinopharm executives, who are also having their blood drawn regularly to test for antibody levels.

“This could only happen in China. Scientists and top officials tested drugs on their own bodies, showing their confidence in the CNBG vaccines,” Sasac said.

The statement said scientists embarked on vaccine development in mid-January last year, leaving behind their families and working exhausting hours in difficult conditions.

One of the first hurdles was getting access to the required facilities.

CNBG officials thought inactivated vaccines held the best prospects because the technology was mature and quality controllable. There was just one problem – CNBG did not have a biosafety laboratory suitable for handling the coronavirus.

Such work must be carried out in a high biosafety level facility, a P3 biosafety lab or higher level.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is home to the country’s first P4 lab, and CNBG negotiated with the institute to use it. The institute also granted CNBG researchers access to its P3 lab.

The P4 lab in Wuhan was ideal for selecting a suitable strain for vaccine, culturing cells and conducting animal trials, but, again there was a problem – the vaccine developers were not certified to use the facilities while those who were qualified had never used industrial equipment before.

The teams overcame the problem in the early days by phoning instructions to certified personnel inside the lab while monitoring progress from behind glass screens.

Meanwhile in Beijing, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention made two of its biggest P3 laboratories available to another CNBG offshoot, the Beijing Institute of Biological Products, to develop another vaccine.

Scientists there wore diapers so they work longer hours and avoid wasting time in changing protection suits.

To comply with the rules of not removing equipment from the P3 labs, they stored more than 50 cylinders of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the facility, despite the risk of an explosion.

For two months, the scientists in both teams lived in the office and endured serious sleep deprivation, Sasac said.

When asked if they had any requests, the researchers in Wuhan told a visiting official from Sinopharm they would like one day off to sleep.

Wang Hui, director of the Beijing Institute of Biological Products, said that to save time various experiments and procedures were done in parallel instead of consecutively.

“We used more than 5,000 white lab rats in animal trials. The trials were done simultaneously and that saved a lot of time, even though the workload was multiplied,” Wang said.

She said the days were still difficult to recall but also fulfilling.

“I can’t bear to look back to the days when we raced to develop a vaccine. I stretched myself physically and psychologically to the extreme in those months and was on the brink of breaking down. I was too tired to walk even just 100 metres on my own,” she said.

“In hindsight I feel content that I did what I had to do and realised the goal of a lifetime.”



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