Little-known Chinese firm builds $79M COVID-19 vaccine plant, eyes production next year

China flag against blue sky
Without any published animal data, China's AIM Vaccine Group has broken ground on a $79 million facility for a nowhere-to-be-seen inactivated COVID-19 vaccine. (SW1994/Pixabay)

No animal data, no word on the timeline for a clinical trial, yet one little-known Chinese company is already building a multimillion-dollar facility for a COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

On Saturday, China’s AIM Vaccine Group broke ground on a manufacturing and R&D base for its coronavirus vaccine in the city of Ningbo. The company is investing CNY 550 million ($79 million) on the project, aiming to activate the site next March and start production in the first half of 2021, according to (Chinese) the local government.

The new facility will be used to produce inactivated COVID-19 shots by AIM’s subsidiary Rongan Biological. But it’s not clear exactly which stage of R&D the vaccine is in; it hasn’t started human trials.

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China already has several inactivated vaccine candidates in clinical development. Nasdaq-listed Sinovac Biotech, in collaboration with Brazil’s Instituto Butantan, just pushed its inactivated shot, CoronaVac, into phase 3 trial in the South American country.

State-owned Sinopharm’s CNBG unit, which owns two inactivated programs developed by its biological research institutions in Beijing and Wuhan, started a phase 3 study in the United Arab Emirates in late June.

RELATED: China's Sinopharm touts 100% antibody response for COVID-19 vaccine it's already giving to workers

The inactivated version isn’t AIM’s only COVID-19 project. In April, the company said it had picked a nanoparticle COVID-19 vaccine candidate for further development, and that an animal study was expected soon.

Compared with conventional vaccine technologies, nanoparticle vaccines do not contain viruses. AIM said its candidate could express the novel coronavirus’ spike surface protein as its antigen, which highly resembles the natural version.

Maryland biotech Novavax, with a $1.6 billion commitment from the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, is also working on an adjuvanted recombinant nanoparticle COVID-19 shot, dubbed NVX-CoV2373. The vaccine is undergoing phase 1/2 tests, with a phase 3 efficacy study planned for fall.

In addition, CanSino Biologics has won Chinese military clearance for a recombinant adenovirus-based COVID-19 vaccine it co-developed with Chinese military scientists on the strength of early safety and immunogenicity results. The company is in talks with Russia, Brazil, Chile and Saudi Arabia for the phase 3 trial, Qiu Dongxu, executive director and co-founder of CanSino, said last week, Reuters reported

Fosun Pharma said a clinical trial application for its mRNA shot in-licensed from BioNTech was just accepted by Chinese regulators. Pfizer is BioNTech’s ex-China collaborator.

AIM, operating through six subsidiaries, has vaccine products against hepatitis B, hepatitis A, rabies, menigoccoccal meningitis and others. Besides the coronavirus vaccine plant, the company is simultaneously investing CNY750 million in a facility focused on rabies vaccine manufacturing and research.

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