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The logo of China's vaccine specialist CanSino Biologics is pictured in Tianjin, China on Aug. 17, 2020.

THOMAS PETER/Reuters

An effort between Canada and China to jointly develop a COVID-19 vaccine began to fall apart just days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Ottawa had given the green light for clinical trials.

Mr. Trudeau told Canadians on May 16 that the federal Department of Health had approved the first such trials at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology at Dalhousie University. “Research and development take time and must be done right, but this is encouraging news,” the Prime Minister said at a morning briefing.

The plan was for a Halifax research team to work with a Chinese manufacturer, CanSino Biologics Inc., to run the first Canadian clinical trials for this possible COVID-19 vaccine. The Ad5-nCOV vaccine candidate was backed by CanSino and China’s Institute of Biotechnology of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, and a collaboration agreement with Canada’s Natural Research Council had been signed in early May.

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But as of May 19, Canada learned something had gone wrong, according to documents that were tabled in Parliament in response to a written question from Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner.

When will Canada’s general vaccination for COVID-19 begin? The federal and provincial rollout plans so far

Can COVID-19 vaccines be combined? Do they work against variants? Pressing pandemic questions answered

How many coronavirus cases are there in Canada, by province, and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

“On May 19, 2020, the government learned that a shipment of Ad5-nCoV vaccine candidate seeds destined for Canada was being held by the General Administration of Customs of China at Beijing Capital International Airport,” Global Affairs Canada said in the reply to Ms. Rempel Garner. The released documents were first reported by iPolitics.ca.

The vaccine candidate seeds, a strain of virus that is the first step to developing a viable vaccine, never made it to Canada. News that the Canada-China collaboration on the CanSino vaccine had been abandoned wasn’t made public until late August. But Canada’s National Research Council, in reply to the Conservative MP’s questions, said the federal government’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force lost enthusiasm for the CanSino research as the shipment delays continued.

“While the Vaccine Task Force had originally ranked the CanSino Biologics vaccine candidate among the most promising globally, their recommendation was subsequently revised based on their analysis of additional clinical trial data,” the NRC said.

“Due to lengthy delays in the shipment of the vaccine doses to Canada, the fact that CanSino’s candidate had already entered advanced testing in other countries, and the new clinical trial data that had emerged from other jurisdictions, it was decided in late August that the opportunity to conduct clinical trials in Canada for Ad5-nCoV had passed and the government decided to focus on more promising candidates.”

The partnership collapse occurred amid strained relations between Canada and China, though it’s unclear whether the bilateral rift played a role in blocking the shipments to Canada. Beijing imprisoned two Canadian citizens in December, 2018, which Mr. Trudeau has called a retaliation for the RCMP’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request.

Canada has fallen significantly behind some of its major allies in administering vaccines – and was hit particularly hard by the recent Pfizer manufacturing slowdown that saw Canada receive no Pfizer vaccines this week and expecting only 79,000 doses next week.

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The Conservative Party has previously accused the Trudeau government of placing too much emphasis on partnering with CanSino to produce a COVID-19 vaccine and being too slow in its efforts to negotiate vaccine deliveries from companies such as Pfizer and Moderna. Ms. Rempel Garner says she believes Canada was “late to the table [in negotiating] with Pfizer and other companies because we were banking on CanSino.”

Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand has rejected the Conservatives’ allegations, noting the CanSino project was former innovation minister Navdeep Bains’s responsibility and did not hinder her negotiations with other suppliers. According to The Canadian Press, Canada was the first country to sign with Moderna and the fourth to sign with Pfizer and BioNTech.

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a former senior Canadian government official who spent seven years on the Canada-China Joint Committee on Science and Technology, said she believes Beijing is fully to blame for why the CanSino vaccine never made it to Canada – and that it was retribution related to the continuing detention of Ms. Meng in Canada.

It was in late May, 2020, just weeks after the CanSino vaccine seeds were delayed by customs in China, that Ms. Meng lost her first major legal bid to end extradition proceedings.

“It just shows that the more points of engagement we have with China, the more places they have to turn the screws,” Ms. McCuaig-Johnston said.

John Power, a spokesman for Mr. Bains, said the federal government has invested more than $1-billion in vaccine procurement agreements, securing doses of seven promising vaccines.

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