The Canadian government got out of paying a Chinese vaccine producer for their research partnership that China blocked because the company’s COVID vaccines never reached Canada, according to the contract for the deal that was recently released through an access-to-information request.
In spring of 2020, the federal government, through the National Research Council (NRC), struck an agreement with CanSino, a Chinese vaccine developer. The deal paved the way for CanSino and the NRC to run trials of CanSino’s COVID vaccine in Canada. At the time, CanSino’s vaccine was considered one of the most promising candidates out of the more than 200 COVID vaccines in development in the world. If CanSino’s vaccine was proven safe and effective, the agreement would have allowed the NRC to manufacture doses for use in Canada. Just before the CanSino deal was announced, the government steered $44 million to the NRC to upgrade its Montreal site to ensure it was up to the task of manufacturing vaccine doses made by companies like CanSino.
The agreement would have represented the first through which Canada secured a supply of COVID vaccines, coming months before Ottawa landed supply deals with other companies like Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca.
But it never came to fruition. Days after the federal government announced the CanSino agreement, the company was supposed to ship materials needed to start the trials from Beijing to Toronto. China’s customs agency blocked the shipment because China’s cabinet refused to issue a final approval letter.
The government has been criticized for the CanSino deal for much of the last year, with opposition MPs blasting the government for being naive and trusting China wouldn’t interfere — even though Canada has been locked in an intense diplomatic dispute with China with since December 2018, when Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was detained in Canada and Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were arrested in China. Along with needing Chinese authorities’ approval for CanSino’s vaccine to be shipped to Canada, China’s military also helped the company develop the vaccine.
Despite the failed deal, a silver lining for the government has been that it hasn’t had to pay CanSino anything.
“The company and government in question (China’s) did not receive any funding from the Government of Canada,” former Innovation, Science and Indusry minister Navdeep Bains said in the House of Commons last October.
“Neither CanSino nor the Chinese government received any funding from the Government of Canada (including the NRC) for this collaboration,” said documents tabled in the House of Commons by the NRC in January.
However, the contract between the NRC and CanSino, which iPolitics recently obtained through an access to information request, shows the government did in fact originally agree to pay CanSino. Their contract stipulated that the NRC would pay CanSino a “non-refundable, non-creditable material transferring nominal fee” after the NRC received the company’s vaccine materials, and that the NRC would cover a portion of the clinical trial costs.
It’s unknown what the NRC was supposed to pay CanSino, since the exact dollar figures were redacted from the disclosed contract in accordance with part of Canada’s access-to-information laws that allow departments to black out information that could damage the country’s economic interests.
A spokesperson for current Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne maintained this week that “CanSino did not receive any funding from the Government of Canada for this collaboration,” which an NRC spokesperson seconded.
Because the deal fell apart so quickly, and CanSino’s product was never successfully shipped to the NRC, the deal was voided before any actions were completed that required the NRC to pay the company.
CanSino’s COVID vaccine has been approved and put to use in fending off the pandemic in other countries including China, Mexico and Pakistan. Its absence in Canada hasn’t impacted the country’s ability to vaccinate its citizens at one of the fastest rates in the world.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole on Tuesday pitched his party’s emergency preparedness plan, which he promised would better prepare Canada for future pandemics. He also criticized the Trudeau government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and said “the decision to partner with China for a domestic-made vaccine source” is among the choices that a future government should “never” make again.
The government also announced last week that construction of the NRC’s new Biologics Manufacturing Centre in Montreal — next to the site where CanSino doses had a chance of being manufactured — has been completed. The government built the vaccine-manufacturing facility in just 10 months thanks to $126 million in funding that was announced after the CanSino deal last summer. The NRC has agreed with Novavax to produce its COVID vaccine there eventually. According to the government, the new facility could be up and running before the end of this year, and will eventually be able to produce two million vaccine doses per month.
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