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When vaccines collide with geopolitics

Back in May, CanSino Biologics looked like China’s best bet in the great, global race for a coronavirus vaccine—a race that the country where the pathogen first emerged is intent on winning. Boasting tie-ups with Canada’s biggest research organization on one side and one of China’s most prominent military scientists on the other, the Tianjin-based startup seemed to benefit from its unique melding of West and East, becoming the first globally to trial a vaccine candidate on humans.

Now, the company, founded by a group of Chinese scientists who returned home after years working for big pharmaceutical firms in Canada, appears to have become a symbol of how politicized the vaccine race has become. The first to publish its results in a peer-reviewed medical journal, CanSino has now fallen behind rivals like the U.S.’s Moderna and China’s Sinovac Biotech that are plowing into the last phase of vaccine testing.

CanSino planned to conduct the crucial final-stage trials in Canada, but vials that were supposed to be shipped there remain stranded at Chinese customs three months after approval to conduct the tests was granted. With tensions between Beijing and Ottawa running high, having a foot in both camps seems to have become a liability. Already fraught amid the fight to extradite Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese mobile giant Huawei, from Vancouver to the U.S., relations soured further after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out against Hong Kong’s contentious, Beijing-backed national security law.

Commentators have been quick to link the delay, which Trudeau has called “unfortunate,” to geopolitics. But China isn’t the only country accused of playing politics with vaccines. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control told states to be ready for a Covid-19 inoculation by Nov. 1, according to a letter seen by Bloomberg News, a hugely optimistic goal that would deliver a vaccine just days before President Donald Trump stands for re-election. The experience of CanSino shows the uncertain world scientists and pharmaceutical companies are operating in as they race to nail what many leaders see as the magic bullet to normalizing the world economy—and their political fortunes. – Bloomberg