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Scientists around the world are racing to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. Photo: Xinhua

Chinese military scientists ordered to win global race to develop coronavirus vaccine

  • Top leadership ramps up efforts as researchers around the world scramble to develop a treatment first
  • Scientists from the Academy of Military Medical Scientists have been authorised to start clinical trials on a possible vaccine

The Chinese military has been ordered to join the race to develop the world’s first vaccine for Covid-19, according to military and scientific sources.

The state broadcaster CCTV reported on Tuesday that a research team led by Major General Chen Wei, a top epidemiologist and virologist with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS), had been authorised to start a clinical trial.

CCTV described the vaccine being developed by Chen’s team alongside Tianjin-based CanSino Biologics as the front-runner among nine possible treatments being worked on by Chinese scientists.

Researchers around the world are scrambling to develop a vaccine for the disease, and one expert said the Chinese leadership would feel they had “lost face” if the Americans beat them to it.

The start of the Chinese trial follows the news that the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna have recruited 45 “healthy adult volunteers”, ages 18 to 55, to test a vaccine that copies the genetic code of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

“China’s announcement of a clinical trial came a little bit earlier than I had expected, even though I believe the first dose of the recombinant vaccine has already been injected into Chen’s body and some of her teammates,” Tao Lina, a Shanghai-based vaccine expert, said.

Tao was referring to photos that have been circulating on the social media platform WeChat that showed Chen being injected with a possible vaccine.

China developing 9 potential vaccines in global race for coronavirus cure

Chen, 54 specialises in the development of recombinant vaccines – which use a harmless virus or bacterium to introduce the pathogen’s genetic material into the body to build up immunity – and has been credited with helping develop treatments during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak.

She also developed a nasal spray to protect medical workers during the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).

The Chinese military has also been helping to tackle the medical emergency in Hubei, the province at the centre of the outbreak, with more than 10,000 personnel being deployed.

The People’s Liberation Army has also been given more power than local governments to control medical supplies, a sign of the central government’s determination to contain the spread of the virus.

But two military sources said the Central Military Commission had also been pressuring military medical scientists to develop a vaccine.

“The CMC has kept calling the AMMS every day to push the vaccine development over the past few weeks,” one source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said.

Chen Wei, a major general and top virologist of the PLA's Academy of Military Medical Sciences. Photo: Handout

On Tuesday, vaccine producer CanSino Biologic said it had started looking for volunteers to take part in a six-month clinical trial of the treatment it was developing with the academy.

Tao, who previously worked for the Shanghai Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for 14 years, said the military labs had advantages in recruiting volunteers for trials.

“A clinical trial may need to take several months or even a year, which needs close cooperation between labs and volunteers. Military officers are easier to manage because of their dedication,” Tao said.

A Beijing-based retired military historian said the CMC was pushing the academy hard to develop the vaccine as quickly as possible.

“They need to run human tests earlier, because it is the only short-cut,” the historian, who requested anonymity, said.

“All the AMMS lab staff used to joke that they are ‘lab rats’. They are the first human beings to test those expensive imported vaccines for senior officials.”

Coronavirus: China must keep out imported cases so it can focus on seriously ill patients, expert says

Tao said the top Chinese leadership expected PLA virologists to develop the world’s first coronavirus vaccine and would feel they had “lost face” if other countries beat them to it.

No vaccine was ever developed for Sars, which was caused by a similar coronavirus to the one that leads to Covid-19.

“Chinese virologists once had an opportunity during the Sars outbreak, but they missed out that time. Now Chen and her team feel they have a mission to complete the vaccine research.”

The US military is also working with civilian labs to develop a treatment.

At the start of the month, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said the biological defence lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland was involved in the project to develop a vaccine.

Another US military lab, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, is also joining the vaccine research, according to the defence news website

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: PLA under pressure to develop first vaccine for coronavirus ahead of US