Amid the frenzied race towards COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines, global politics have infiltrated research and development. The targeting of domestic COVID-19 research by foreign cyber spies and the ongoing deterioration of Canada-China relations are bringing into question the extent to which political interests are influencing science and public safety.
China has been previously identified as a threat to Canada’s national security through their cyber espionage campaigns, including a high-profile cyberattack on the National Research Council (NRC) in 2014. Moreover, China’s economic espionage in the form of Talent Programs and shadow labs, which are under crackdown in the United States, has positioned Canadian academia as a target of China’s military scientists.
A high-profile incident currently under investigation by the RCMP involves the eviction of a lead virologist from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML), following a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to China. Among the evicted virologist’s prolific work during her tenure at NML, was a collaboration on an Ebola vaccine with China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS) and the Chinese biotech company, CanSino Biologics. Though officials deny espionage, this incident underscores the need for careful oversight of collaborations with foreign institutions known to be a national security threat.
In light of this, a recent decision by the NRC and Canadian government to partner with China’s military for fast-track development of a COVID-19 vaccine is strikingly absurd, perplexing and troubling. Alarm bells are ringing over the lack of transparency surrounding the alliance, which was announced as a partnership with CanSino Biologics, with no official disclosure of China’s military involvement.
Yet, the vaccine used in the CanSino-led, Health Canada-approved clinical trial is being jointly developed by CanSino and China’s AMMS. Although the vaccine is undergoing accelerated Phase I and II clinical testing in China, results of the Phase I trial were mixed, with some experts skeptical of the vaccine’s success. Since the critical early data from the Chinese trial were not made public before Health Canada’s approval of the Canadian trial, the scientific community was unable to provide timely insight into safety and efficacy.
Given Canada’s ongoing strained relations with China and China’s recent threat of “continuous harm” in relations, fast-track testing of CanSino’s vaccine on Canadians without disclosure of China’s military involvement is gravely concerning. The decision defies all logic, particularly because development of a domestic vaccine is being generously funded by the federal government. Moreover, China’s vaccine industry is beset by scandals, including the black market and authorised sale of inferior vaccines, falsified production dates, and use of expired vaccines, which have destroyed the trust of Chinese citizens who now opt for vaccination off the mainland.
The warp speed pursuit of a COVID-19 vaccine has the public doubting the safety of emerging candidates amid concerns that corners will be cut in an effort to expedite development. Anti-vaxxers and poor quality research are planting further doubts in people’s minds at a time when public health leaders are stressing the necessity for adequate vaccine uptake to achieve herd immunity.
One wonders then, what may be the perceived advantage of Canada’s decision to partner with China’s AMMS for vaccine development? If the candidate vaccine is successful, the collaboration would secure a rapid supply for Canadians. However, if Canadians refuse inoculation because of a lack of transparency surrounding the partnership and the overall political climate, then an abundant stock is worthless. One may further argue that the partnership was intended as a means for the Canadian government to profit financially from the eventual sale of the vaccine. However, this is unlikely given that in 2014 Canada’s NRC sold non-exclusive license rights to CanSino for the cell line technology that is being used to develop the COVID-19 vaccine. CanSino previously used this technology to develop an Ebola vaccine in collaboration with China’s AMMS and Canada’s NML.
If the Canadian government’s goal is to develop a safe and effective vaccine while preserving the public’s trust, efforts should focus on domestic vaccine development, of which there are several promising candidates (including one for which the first clinical trial began this week). Moreover, Canada can pursue various other international collaborations with governments and industry leaders that are not hostile towards Canada.
Does the Canadian government’s decision to withhold information about collaboration with China’s military represent the hijacking of science and medicine by political enterprise and bureaucracy? Is the health of Canadians being used as a political pawn? In the absence of transparency, such questions will continue to weigh heavily on Canadians, eroding public trust and further undermining efforts towards vaccine adoption.