China Refuses to Send COVID Vaccine Samples to Canada During Diplomatic Row

Canada's attempts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 may have been delayed due to a diplomatic dispute with the Chinese government.

Efforts had been boosted by a partnership formed in May between Chinese firm CanSino Biologics and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). The company was expected to ship samples of a candidate vaccine to Canada for clinical trials. However, the shipments never arrived after the Chinese government refused to approve their export, possibly over increasing political tension between the countries.

"Due to the delay in the shipment of the vaccine doses to Canada it is evident this specific opportunity is over and the NRC is focusing its team and facilities on other partners and COVID-19 priorities," the NRC said in a Thursday statement announced the partnership had ended.

The abandoned trials had been due to take place at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The program's director, Dr. Scott Halperin, told The Toronto Star that the end of the partnership had likely set back Canadian development of a vaccine by several months.

"That's frustrating, obviously, because we were doing the study for a purpose, which was to accelerate the availability of a vaccine in Canada," Halperin told the paper on Thursday. "[The] CanSino vaccine is one of the ones that's further along in terms of its readiness, so it would have been one of the first vaccines that could have been available for use in Canada."

Canadian Flag Face Mask
A man wears a face mask decorated with the Canadian flag at a Canada Day drive-by parade in Newcastle, Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic on July 1, 2020. Cole Burston/Getty

Halperin added that because NRC had "moved on," the trial would no longer take place. Even if the shipments did move ahead, the trial would be outdated and provide little useful data, since the shipment delays went on for several months. Development of the CanSino vaccine has continued in other countries.

Relations between China and Canada have been particularly tense in recent months. Chinese officials arrested two Canadian citizens in June, detaining them on charges of spying. Many have speculated that the arrests were retaliation for Canadian authorities arresting Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Chinese tech giant Huawei, on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne downplayed any suggestions that China blocking shipments of the vaccine was related to diplomatic tensions while speaking to reporters on Thursday.

"I don't necessarily think so," Champagne said. "I can only speak for the Canadian side. I would not necessarily link whether that particular opportunity is linked to anything else."

Newsweek reached out to CanSino Biologics for comment.

Canada's southern neighbors the United States have had an even more strained relationship with China, with disputes over trade and President Donald Trump's recent restrictions on Chinese tech firms being among the points of contention. The Chinese government has also allegedly been involved in attempts to steal research data from American companies working on potential COVID-19 vaccines.

In addition, military tensions between the countries have recently flared, with China launching ballistic missiles into disputed territory in the South China Sea this week after it said the U.S. had sent a spy plane into a no-fly zone.

Relations soured more than a month after Trump lauded a trade deal between the countries in January. The president began to refer the virus that causes COVID-19 as the "China virus" when the pandemic escalated, and it became clear that the U.S. was leading the world in both cases and deaths. He had earlier offered repeated praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping on issues including his handling of the initial COVID-19 outbreak.