2020 will certainly go down in history as a watershed year for the global community, as a new strain of coronavirus – later named SARS-CoV-19 – originating from the city of Wuhan in China circulated around the world in just months, wreaking havoc on economies and disrupting the lives of effectively the entire global population of 7.8 billion.


Even as the pandemic has painfully exposed the inadequate levels of pandemic preparedness in many, if not most, countries, as well as underscored the profoundly deep integration of global networks and linkages across not only healthcare but virtually all other industries, over the past few months, the global healthcare industry has banded together with regulatory, academic and medical stakeholders to put up one of the most united fronts against disease – in history. Intense R&D efforts to identify, develop and deliver therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19 – as the disease caused by Sars-CoV-19 is known – are now underway.


Quite naturally, China is now one of the frontrunners in what some industry observers have exuberantly termed the ‘space race’ of the 21st century. While Ground Zero for the pandemic, within a few weeks of the virus’ public discovery, the country implemented severe measures, including a full-scale lockdown of the entire city of Wuhan with its 11 million citizens and significant travel restrictions. By April, just a few months later, China seemed to be on the path towards some semblance of normalcy, even as other regions, particularly Western Europe, Latin America and the US, started seeing cases spike dangerously into the hundreds of thousands.


According to the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), at the beginning of May, there were already over 130 COVID-19 therapeutics under investigation and around 80 vaccines in development. Notably, half of the vaccines currently in clinical trials – ten in total (as of 5 June 2020) – were discovered by Chinese companies, partly driven by heavy Chinese investment. Other Chinese biopharma companies, even those primarily focused on other therapeutic areas, are also answering the call to arms, eager to serve in any capacity they can.


Dr Joan SHEN, CEO of I-Mab Biopharma, shared the sentiment common across many Chinese biotechs, “it is a very challenging situation the whole world has to face but if we work together, I believe we can turn challenges into opportunities.”


We wanted to do something useful to contribute instead of simply waiting anxiously for the pandemic to end

Joan Shen, I-Mab Biopharma


This is why, despite the company’s portfolio focusing on oncology and autoimmune diseases, “when the pandemic unfolded, we decided to look at our assets to assess their potential relevance.” Shen emphasized, “we wanted to do something useful to contribute instead of simply waiting anxiously for the pandemic to end.”


One of the potential complications of COVID-19 is what is known as a ‘cytokine storm’, a sort of hyperactive immune response that could become deadly for the patient. I-Mab Biopharma’s TJM2 asset was discovered to potentially have an impact on this cytokine release syndrome (CRS).


As I-Mab founder Dr Jingwu ZANG explained, “TJM2 is an antibody that inhibits GM-CSF, a cytokine that is known to contribute to tissue inflammation and degeneration in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Studies of COVID-19 patients have documented high levels of … GM-CSF … in the bloodstream of those who become severely ill. There is strong scientific evidence to suggest that inhibiting GM-CSF may have a beneficial impact on patients with CRS.”


What TJM2’s main indications will remain RA and other autoimmune conditions, Shen was proud that I-Mab was able to develop a new COVID-19 program so quickly, attributing this to their “cross-functional capabilities” and “drive”. They have already received IND approval in the US and are finishing the first part of their study there.


Another immunology and immune-oncology company, Harbour BioMed, also believes they have much to contribute in this fight. The biotech announced in March 2020 a collaboration with the Mount Sinai Health System in the US to develop antibodies for SARS-CoV-19. Chairman and CEO Dr Jingsong WANG pointed out the rationale behind this: “despite having a laser-sharp focus on immunology-based therapeutic areas for our internal portfolio, our antibody-generation technology has broader applications across all therapeutic areas. With the immediate global needs in fighting COVID-19 pandemic, we will not shy away from the chance to be part of it,” stressing, “this is another way for us to deliver value to patients.”


With the immediate global needs in fighting COVID-19 pandemic, we will not shy away from the chance to be part of it

Jingsong Wang, Harbour BioMed


The agreement is a multi-year, multifaceted one to develop novel, fully human antibodies for the treatment and prevention of various diseases including oncology and immunology, as well as the utilization of Harbour BioMed’s proprietary H2L2 Harbour Mice® platform to generate monoclonal antibodies for both therapeutic and prophylactic purposes.


Dr Wang also reflected on the broader impact of the pandemic. Looking at things in a positive light, he mused, “this ordeal has emphasized the importance of delivering therapeutic solutions to patients during moments of crisis. We have seen the flexibility of regulatory systems globally to open the window for such innovations where necessary, for instance, in terms of the rapid approvals of COVID-19 diagnostic tests and clinical trials.”


For him, it goes without saying that “the value of biotech innovation is clear” but what is perhaps as important is “the ability and flexibility of healthcare systems to welcome and incorporate such innovations … as quickly as possible.”


While the race towards the COVID-19 finish line is far from over, and realistically, there will be multiple winners across different categories, it is patently clear that the pandemic has been a litmus test of sorts for the rapidly developing Chinese biopharma industry – and Chinese companies look set to pass with flying colours.