Profile: Vaccine trailblazer
07 February 2008
Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China
When Yin Weidong, general manager of the vaccine developer Sinovac Biotech, established his company to develop a hepatitis A vaccine in 1992, he hadn't even heard the term 'biotech'.
Yin Weidong, general manager of Sinovac Biotech
© Sinovac Biotech
But it has not been an easy road for Yin. It all began in 1990, shortly after he finished studying at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention's Beijing-based Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention. At the time, Yin was undertaking research while working as a doctor in Tangshan, a city in the east of China.
Visiting primary schools to administer Hepatitis A shots to children, Yin brought with him two versions of the vaccine - a cheap live attenuated vaccine made in China, and an inactivated vaccine made by pharmaceutical giant Glaxo. At over 300 yuan per dose, Glaxo's vaccine was the equivalent of a month's salary for the average Chinese worker and 10 times more expensive than the Chinese vaccine. But unexpectedly, Yin found that most parents still chose to pay for the imported vaccine.
'While feeling how big the gap was between China and the West, I also sensed the strong market potential of good vaccines, even if they are not covered by public vaccination programmes,' recalls Yin.
In early 1992, he decided to give up practising medicine and started a small company in Tangshan, in partnership with the local disease control centre.
'Although we were eager to develop China's own high-quality vaccine, we had to build ourselves up first,' Yin told Chemistry World.
The Tangshan company, now a subsidiary of Sinovac, produced a hepatitis diagnosis reagent as well as selling drugs and medical equipment. But any profits were used to fund vaccine research. 'Those years were difficult and our wallets were often empty,' says Yin.
In late 1999, the inactivated hepatitis A vaccine was finally approved by China's State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA). The license helped Yin attract the investment he needed to launch Sinovac.
But there was still trouble ahead. Plans for a vaccine production plant were drawn up in line with Chinese standards.
But when Yin showed it to the Italian firm charged with designing the plant, they rejected it outright. Instead, they put forward a design that would cost five times more to build than the original. It was a huge blow. Building the plant to the higher specifications would mean using up all the money the company had raised so far - an enormous financial risk.
- Yin Weidong
'We had many sleepless nights,' Yin recalls. 'But eventually we decided to give up on the original and accept the new design.'
The company survived. Sales of Sinovac's hepatitis vaccine soared and the company had other vaccines in its pipeline.
And going with the Italian design turned out to be far-sighted decision.
Before 2003, no Chinese pharmaceutical company had floated on the US stock exchange. But in the middle of 2004, Sinovac was formally listed - winning the backing of investors thanks in part to the high production standards of its plant.
Fighting SARS and H5N1
As Sinovac got its overseas listing, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) was sweeping rapidly across China. Despite the risk and expense, the firm decided to concentrate on developing a SARS vaccine.
In November 2003, four months after the outbreak was contained, Sinovac won SFDA approval for phase I clinical trial of the world's first SARS vaccine. Just two years later, it became the first company in China to develop a vaccine against the deadly H5N1 virus.
Although much of the R&D costs of the two vaccines were borne by the Chinese government, Sinovac has had to face up to the possibility that it may not recoup its own investment in either project unless there are further outbreaks of the two diseases.
- Yin Weidong
With no sign of another epidemic, the company has recently decided to suspend its SARS vaccine programme despite successful results from its phase I trial. The phase III trial of its H5N1 vaccine is also on hold.
But nonetheless, Yin believes ploughing their money into the vaccines has been worthwhile. 'While devoting ourselves to fighting public health risks, Sinovac has developed an R&D capacity that allows us to quickly grasp business opportunities as they emerge,' said Yin. 'This is much more important than any short-term profitability.'
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