Chinese drugmakers are making up for lost time by quickly ramping up mRNA vaccine efforts, as the pandemic puts this technology under the spotlight.
Unlike more conventional approaches such as inactivated vaccines, which use dead pathogen to stimulate immunity, mRNA vaccines trigger an immune response by using messenger RNA to teach the body to produce certain proteins to fight against diseases. While many companies have made attempts to use mRNA to develop vaccines for cancer and genetic disorders, the technology has achieved its first regulatory authorizations in the fight against COVID-19.
Among the coronavirus vaccines available, mRNA vaccines have reported some of the highest efficacy rates, making the U.S.' Moderna Inc. and Germany's BioNTech SE household names almost overnight.
Hui Aimin, president of global R&D center and chief medical officer of Fosun Pharmaceutical
"mRNA technologies have made a successful debut during the pandemic. If there is another pandemic like this, mRNA vaccines will be the most highly expected immunizer," said Hui Aimin, global research and development center president and chief medical officer of China's Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical (Group) Co. Ltd., which is responsible for developing and commercializing BioNTech's vaccine in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
The successful debut has also encouraged more Chinese companies to look into mRNA technologies and accelerate their development, according to experts. Chinese contract pharmaceutical research and manufacturing company WuXi Biologics (Cayman) Inc., for example, said it will invest 10% of the $1.68 billion net proceeds raised from recently issued new stocks into mRNA technologies.
Wang Jing, CFO of Tianjin, China-based vaccine developer CanSino Biologics Inc., told S&P Global Market Intelligence that its mRNA platform is maturing through in-house development as well as partnerships with companies like Precision Nanosystems Inc., with whom it will work on an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19.
"We are also actively seeking suitable targets for acquisitions and partnerships globally," Wang said.
Meanwhile, Chongqing Zhifei Biological Products Co. Ltd. entered the mRNA space in December when it announced it would acquire about a 10.2% stake in Shenzhen Shenxin Biotechnology Co. Ltd., a startup developing mRNA vaccines for rare diseases, while BeiGene Ltd. entered into a license agreement with Strand Therapeutics Inc. in January to develop mRNA treatments for solid tumors.
However, two months after BioNTech's vaccine received approval in the U.S. — where it is being co-developed with Pfizer Inc. — Fosun remains one of the few Chinese companies that has hopped on the debut of mRNA vaccines. Similar vaccines by Yunnan, China-based Walvax Biotechnology Co. Ltd. and Shanghai-based Stemirna Therapeutics Co. ltd. are still in early-stage development, while leading Chinese COVID-19 vaccines by CanSino, Sinovac Biotech Ltd., and China National Biotec Group Co. Ltd., a sister company of Hong Kong-listed Sinopharm Group Co. Ltd., are all based on inactivated vaccine platforms or other technologies.
"mRNA technology is still at the infant stage in China. Per our observation, only less than 10 companies entered the space. If we compare the young [Chinese companies] with that of U.S. or EU firms, we found overseas companies are 10 to 20 years older," said Zhang Jialin, Hong Kong-based healthcare analyst at investment bank ICBC.
Compared to overseas companies, Chinese mRNA vaccine developers are about 10 to 20 years younger.
The world's first mRNA vaccine developer, CureVac NV, for example, was founded in 2000 and already has a pipeline of potential products targeting cancer, rabies and rare diseases. In contrast, the first developer in China, Stemirna Therapeutics, was only established in 2016 by returnee scientists, according to a Dec. 18 report by Central China Securities.
The gap with leading global companies also made some investors hesitant to invest in these younger Chinese contenders.
"I am a big fan of mRNA technologies. In the greater China region, I have looked at a couple of companies, but unfortunately, I still think they are pretty far behind the U.S. and European companies. That's why I have not pulled the trigger over the years in any of these companies," said James Huang, Shanghai-based managing partner of Panacea Venture.
In order to catch up, Chinese companies need to gain the know-how of key technologies, according to the Central China Securities report. For example, only ABON Biopharm (Hangzhou) Co. Ltd. and a few others have the capacity to develop the lipids needed to transport and protect the mRNA vaccine component.
But there are obvious reasons to make the effort — the global market size for mRNA vaccine is estimated to reach $5.98 billion in 2025 from $1.97 billion in 2019, according to the Central China Securities report.
"It is a blue sea in China. If some companies can make breakthroughs in the key technologies, they will hopefully see substantial growth in the future," the report said.
Pandemic stirs interest
Prior to the pandemic, cancer was viewed as a potential target for mRNA technologies, but progress has been hindered by difficulties including which antigens to target among the hundreds and thousands of antigens identified on the tumor tissues. The novel coronavirus, however, only has one main antigen and that makes mRNA vaccines a good candidate, Huang said.
Hui said Fosun picked mRNA because once the gene sequence of the virus is unveiled, it only takes a matter of days to design a vaccine and four to six weeks to produce it for animal trials.
"It is also easier to ramp up the production capacity as mRNA vaccines do not involve the actual virals, which will otherwise need to be done in strictly controlled labs," Hui said.
Fosun aims to deliver the BioNTech vaccine to Hong Kong — where it was approved Jan. 25 — by the end of February. The company is also looking into further applications of the technology in the future, blazing a trail that other Chinese companies might follow.
"mRNA vaccines' success in contagious diseases definitely set the way for its application in other areas. We have been in talks with BioNTech to expand our partnerships to oncology and other areas. We are also considering developing mRNA technologies in-house," Hui said.
"It is highly possible that in three to five years, China will launch its homegrown mRNA product," Hui added.