June 8, 2020 / 2:41 AM / a month ago

Breakingviews - Pandemic boosts Chinese biotech cred

FILE PHOTO: A scientist works in the lab of Linqi Zhang on research into novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) antibodies for possible use in a drug at Tsinghua University's Research Center for Public Health in Beijing, China, March 30, 2020. Picture taken March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

HONG KONG(Reuters Breakingviews) - China’s biotechnology sector is having a moment in the spotlight thanks to the pandemic. Little-known firms like the $5.3 billion CanSino Biologics are among front runners developing vaccines and treatments for Covid-19. They look set to go global despite rising diplomatic tensions between Beijing and the world.

There are currently 133 potential vaccines in development, according to the World Health Organization, of which 10 have been fast-tracked to the human testing phase. Global heavyweights AstraZeneca and Pfizer and rising biotech star Moderna all are in the running to deliver a vaccine by the end of the year.

More surprising are the handful of Chinese contenders, including Hong Kong-listed CanSino. The Tianjin-based company has three candidates for a vaccine. One of them, developed in partnership with the Chinese military, became the first in the world to move to phase two of clinical trials in April. Compatriots like I-Mab Biopharma, which debuted on Nasdaq earlier this year, may be starting to gain traction too in the race for a cure.

The stakes are immense. Selling Covid-19 vaccines could be a $30 billion global opportunity over the next two years, analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate. That’s less than a tenth of forecast 2022 sales of biological drugs worldwide, according to Frost and Sullivan research. But if Chinese biotech hopefuls can dominate sales, that sum is equivalent to over one-third of the nascent but fast-growing market in the People’s Republic. Excited investors have already added some $3 billion to CanSino’s market capitalisation since February.

Even as relations between Beijing and other countries sour, cross-border tie-ups in biotech are accelerating. In May, Canada’s National Research Council said it will work with CanSino to develop a coronavirus vaccine; U.S.-based Eli Lily and Shanghai Junshi Biosciences will soon start clinical trials for the latter’s Covid-19 treatment.

Reviving economic growth will hinge on governments’ ability to secure access to enough vaccines or treatments for their populations. A Chinese breakthrough would grant Beijing major diplomatic leverage and validate its top-down strategy of spurring domestic innovation. In an industry long plagued by safety and quality scandals, the country’s biotech stars may be close to marking a major milestone.

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