‘Ill-considered’ vaccine deal quashed by China cost Canadian taxpayers $250,000 for aborted study

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China’s decision to effectively quash a deal for Canada to test and produce a Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine cost the government more than a quarter-million dollars, newly released figures indicates.

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The National Research Council (NRC) paid Dalhousie University $253,997 to conduct a clinical trial of the CanSino Biologics vaccine last year — though the trial had to be called off before any patients were actually treated, a disclosure document posted online says.

CanSino — which has long-standing ties to Canada — was the first company to publish clinical-trial data on a COVID vaccine.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a much-heralded announcement in May 2020 that Canada had arranged to conduct trials of the shot in this country and then, if approved, manufacture it at an NRC facility in Montreal.

But the deal was terminated by that August after Chinese Customs officials refused to allow any of the vaccine to be shipped to Canada.

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That Ottawa spent $250,000 on the project underscores that it was a bad idea all along, argues Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa law professor and health-policy expert. Not only were there historic geopolitical tensions but CanSino was a largely untested company with a so-so vaccine, he said.

“From day one this was an extremely ill-considered plan,” said Attaran, who has a doctorate in immunology. “This was simply foolish from the get-go. Now we’re paying for it.”

According to the NRC disclosure document , the original contract for Dalhousie’s Canadian Centre for Vaccinology to conduct a phase 1 and possibly other trials of the CanSino vaccine was for $910,000, meaning that just over a quarter of the total was paid to the university.

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Dalhousie had, in fact, completed all the advance work for the study and was just waiting to receive the actual vaccine, says Dr. Scott Halperin, who led the project.

The “months” of planning included writing the protocol, getting ethics board approval, meeting with Health Canada on several occasions, preparing documents to get Health Canada approval, training research staff, recruiting participants and then eventually shutting down the whole thing, he said.

“All of these activities are part of the clinical-trial activities,” said Halperin. “Actually injecting and following the participants begins well into the timeline of doing the study.”

But Attaran is not convinced the expenditures were necessary, even putting aside the wisdom of entering the deal at all. Dalhousie took a risk in pushing ahead with the study when the Chinese government had yet to sign off on the agreement and give export approval, he said.

“Dalhousie jumped the gun, period,” charged Attaran. “It’s like clearing a patch of land, flattening the ground for a foundation, buying your building materials — all before you have a building permit. And when the permit doesn’t come, you expect others to pay for your prematurity.”

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