Pfizer and BioNTech’s overlooked third partner will distribute the vaccine in China – and there is some resistance

On November 30, the Hong Kong government announced rare news that was welcome in all areas of a politically divided city in the fight against the fourth wave of COVID-19 infections: the vaccines are on their way.

Hong Kong had bought 7.5 million doses of a vaccine co-developed by the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German vaccine maker BioNTech, Hong Kong executive Carrie Lam, and other government ministers said at a press conference.

At the event, government ministers repeatedly referred to the first vaccine as Pfizer or BioNTech.

“We have a fundamental agreement with Pfizer,” said Lam said on December 11th while explaining the logistics of distributing the vaccine.

But later that night the language of the government changed. There was a Clarifying explanation that it had ordered the cans through the Chinese pharmaceutical giant Fosun Pharma, BioNTech’s COVID-19 partner in China. The statement said that Fosun Pharma would control the “sales and marketing” of the vaccine in Hong Kong, which means the cans will bear the name of Fosun. The statement also stated that the cans would be made in Europe, not China.

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The backlash was quick when critics called on the government to gloss over the stake of Fosun, a mainland-based company. Mary Ma, a local Hong Kong newspaper columnist, argued that The government’s efforts to brand the vaccine as Pfizer at the press conference without mentioning that it would be sold by a Chinese company was a public relations mistake that “backfires” by undermining public trust in the vaccine could.

Of course, the vials of the BioNTech vaccine heading for Hong Kong contain the same immunization cocktail that hospitals in the US, Canada and the UK have received. However, Fosun can only market and distribute the cans in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Their role could make it difficult to distribute the vaccine as some people in the area are skeptical of companies associated with mainland China.

Development of the vaccine

In late 2020, the BioNTech vaccine became the gold standard for COVID-19 vaccines. An efficacy rate of 95% was recorded in Phase III clinical trials, and regulatory agencies in the US, Canada and the UK issued emergency approvals.

BioNTech and Pfizer are the company names associated with the rapid development of the vaccine. Your CEOs will become the public faces of the exceptional scientific achievement. But Fosun Pharma was kind of a silent third party in the company all along.

Fosun Pharma is a subsidiary of the Fosun Group, the private Chinese conglomerate with large international holdings, which includes the Club Med hotel chain, an English Premier League football team and the Cirque du Soleil circus group. Fosun Pharma is one of the largest Chinese healthcare companies that manufactures and sells medicines and provides healthcare services to hospitals.

Fosun Pharma jointly founded the Sinopharm Group with the Chinese government in 2003. For its part, Sinopharm is China’s leading supplier of pharmaceuticals and controlled 15% of the total drug distribution in China As of 2018. Sinopharm says Fosun has a 49% stake in the company, the other shares are controlled by the Chinese government.

A man walks past the Fosun International Center in Beijing, the local headquarters of the Shanghai-based Fosun Group, on September 23, 2019.
Wang Zhao – AFP / Getty Images

At the start of the pandemic, on March 15th, Fosun Pharma agreed to invest BioNTech valued at $ 135 million conduct clinical trials and acquire exclusive licensing rights for COVID-19 vaccine candidates from BioNTech in Greater China, an area the companies define as mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Fosun said it would help develop the vaccine, though BioNTech mRNA technology is at the heart of the effort.

Two days after Fosun and BioNTech signed the contract, the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced its own investment in BioNTech.valued at up to $ 748 million– for the right to license and distribute BioNTech’s vaccine in the rest of the world.

As partners of BioNTech, Fosun and Pfizer helped conduct early testing of the vaccine. Pfizer Start of phase I and II studies in the USA and Germany in May, and Fosun launched one in mainland China end of July.

Pfizer and Fosun critically tested different versions of the BioNTech vaccine. As it turned out, Fosun had a lost candidate. The other BioNTech candidate that Pfizer tested did better.

The outcome of the studies is one reason Pfizer overshadowed Fosun as a partner of BioNTech.

Another reason is China’s relative containment of COVID-19. Compared to places like the US and Europe where Pfizer was conducting trials during the virus trial, China was unsuitable for Fosun and BioNTech to run large-scale Phase III trials because volunteers need to be exposed to the virus to see if the vaccine is available is effective. In the US, Pfizer’s Phase III clinical trials came to one quick conclusion due to widespread COVID-19 outbreaks.

Dr. Aimin Hui, Fosun Pharma’s chief medical officer, said his company was “deeply involved in BioNTech’s research and development process for vaccines.” While one of Fosun’s human trials ultimately failed, Hui discovers that Fosun conducted an earlier animal experiment with the successful vaccine candidate.

BioNTech is quick to point out that the collaboration with Fosun was based on BioNTech’s own technology and that Fosun is playing a role as a sales partner in China.

“Fosun has a lot of experience with the Chinese regulatory system and new product launches,” said a BioNTech spokesman capital. “If we can get approval for our vaccine in China, Fosun Pharma will be responsible for sales.”

Nevertheless, Fosun is a partner in BioNTech’s ongoing studies in mainland China. The two companies were founded together a new phase I / II study in November on the mainland, this time with BioNTech’s leading candidate.

Beijing has announced that it will not approve the BioNTech candidate until the studies have been completed, but on December 16 Fosun bought 100 million cans The vaccine for the Chinese market shows that Fosun is optimistic to launch the vaccine in China in 2021. Hong Kong-based newspaper the South china morning post recently reported that Fosun is preparing to hand out vaccine doses in China earlier this month.

BioNTech is currently responsible for the production of cans for the Chinese market. However, this could change.

BioNTech said in October that its vaccines would be for the Chinese market completely made in Germany, but BioNTech said capital This is only the case for BioNTech’s first vaccine shipment to China. Starting with the second shipment, BioNTech sends vaccines to Fosun to fill and finish. This means that Fosun fills the vials and packages the vaccines for distribution. Both companies said capital that Fosun may manufacture the vaccine in China.

On December 30th, Chinese news agency Caixin reported that the two companies are in talks to build a manufacturing facility in China that could produce 200 million doses of the vaccine annually.

Fosun’s connections with Sinopharm will also prove crucial in distributing the vaccine, which must be kept at extremely low temperatures, Fosun said capital.

In September Fosun said in a press release that It would work with Sinopharm to build its cold chain distribution network in China.

For use in Hong Kong said Hui capital The vaccine will be shipped to Hong Kong in a dry ice container – it did not say whether it came directly from Europe or mainland China – and stored in a cold store in Hong Kong at -70 degrees Celsius. The cans are then taken to vaccination centers in refrigerated trucks for distribution around the city, he said.

Sinopharm’s experience of distributing medicines in China may prove to be a boon to Fosun’s efforts to roll out the vaccine on a large scale. However, the partnership also means that Fosun is relying on a state-owned company to face transparency issues regarding its own COVID-19 vaccine. Chinese authorities have agreed a COVID-19 vaccination developed by a unit of Sinopharm that the company says 79% effective. Authorities in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have also cleared the vaccine for use, but the company has data not provided to back up his claims about how well the thrusts work.

Branding problem

Although Fosun currently only sells BioNTech’s vaccine, Fosun is facing some setback in the region as it is a mainland-based company.

In Hong Kong have activists urged the government not to buy vaccines made in mainland China. Activists have long condemned mainland China’s influence on the city’s affairs, believing Hong Kong’s potential reliance on Chinese vaccines is the latest example of how Beijing city is succumbing. The Hong Kong government has said Those who criticize the government for partnering with Chinese companies in introducing vaccines are “rumormongers” who act with “bad intentions”.

Fosun faces some opposition in Hong Kong, but its problems in Taiwan could be even greater.

The Taiwanese government says it has one long-term ban against the import of vaccines and other biological products from mainland China. Officials quoted China recent history of vaccine scandals as the reason why the ban continues to be enforced. The BioNTech cans can bypass the ban as they are initially from Europe, but the vaccine could still meet opposition from the Taiwanese public if it gets through Fosun’s hands.

“The vast majority of Taiwanese people [citizens] don’t trust China anymore, ”said Chunheui Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University. The skepticism is ingrained – the two sides are entangled in a Decades of struggle for Taiwan’s sovereignty– and has recently flared up because Beijing banned Taiwan from participating in the World Health Organization and failed to disclose the risk of contagion from COVID-19 in the early stages of the pandemic.

Press conference of the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen
Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s President, looks on during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Taipei, Taiwan on Saturday, January 5, 2019. Tsai’s government has claimed Taiwan will not import a Chinese-made vaccine, and it has routinely done so, criticizing Beijing for blocking Taiwan’s access to the World Health Organization.
Ashley Pon – Bloomberg / Getty Images

This mistrust could be the reason Taiwan has not yet signed an official contract for the vaccine.

In November, Chen Shih-chung, head of the Central Epidemic Command Center in Taiwan, was asked at a press conference whether Taiwan would import BioNTech’s vaccine if it were sold by China’s Fosun Pharma.

“There was no way Taiwan would import Chinese-made vaccines,” he said. Said Chen. However, Chen appeared to leave open the possibility that Taiwan could import the “Fosun” vaccine if it were manufactured outside of mainland China. “The place of manufacture is important,” he said.

Fosun didn’t answer capital Questions about how to deal with potential setbacks in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The BioNTech vaccine is already difficult to distribute – it must be stored at subarctic temperatures and given in two doses every two weeks. In countries like Hong Kong and Taiwan, the backlash against the vaccine dealer can be an additional challenge.

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