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The world’s most sought after vaccine is still blocked in China

December 14, 2021, 10:15 AM UTC

Grady McGregor here, filling in for Clay Chandler.

One year ago last Wednesday, Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old British grandmother received the first vaccine dose for COVID-19 outside of clinical trials. The jab, from German biotech firm BioNTech and U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, would become one of the world’s most effective and sought after COVID-19 vaccines and, last December, it seemed only a matter of time before the BioNTech vaccine entered the Chinese market.

Although most people associate the BioNTech vaccine with Pfizer, which is the German company’s primary distributer, BioNTech’s first partner in its push to develop a COVID-19 vaccine was actually Fosun Pharma, a Chinese pharmaceutical firm that agreed to invest $135 million in BioNTech days before Pfizer struck its own deal with the group.

Fosun and Pfizer both claim to have aided BioNTech in developing the drug, but own different distribution rights for the product. Fosun controls distribution rights in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau while Pfizer controls it in much of the rest of the world. Yet, as more and more markets began to approve BioNTech’s jab in late 2020 and early 2021, it became clear that China’s government was dragging its feet on approval, spelling trouble for Fosun’s return on investment.

At first, Fosun said it needed time to complete Phase II safety trials of the vaccine in its domestic market to submit to Chinese health regulators. Those trials, which should have taken weeks to complete, began in November 2020. As of August 2021, Fosun says the trials are not yet complete but still in “good progress.”

Chinese regulators have, meanwhile, provided little indication of why they have not approved the vaccine, even after Fosun rolled out the jab to markets like Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Beijing may have been waiting for Fosun to complete a manufacturing facility in China, so that Beijing would not have to be seen importing doses from Germany to supply its domestic market.

But that facility should have been up and running by August, Fosun Chairman Wu Yifang said in July. In September Fosun said it was working out final details of a joint venture agreement with BioNTech to produce vaccines in the factory but, it is unclear whether the facility is ready to produce doses now.

Most recently, local media reported Beijing would finally approve the BioNTech vaccine, for use as a booster shot in China. But China has already fully vaccinated over 80% of its population and its booster campaign is well under way, without the mRNA jab. This week, Chinese officials said over 120 million people have received booster shots already.

Now, “it’s certainly not looking optimistic” that China will approve the vaccine at all, Zhao Bing, a senior analyst at China Rennaisance Securities, tells Bloomberg. But the reasons behind Beijing’s reluctance remain a mystery.

Beijing is not entirely resistant to mRNA technology. China’s top COVID experts continue to promote the benefits of mRNA vaccines and multiple firms including the state-owned Sinopharm are working on their own mRNA-based COVID-19 jabs. Instead, Fosun’s reliance on foreign technology, devised by BioNTech, could be the main roadblock preventing its access to the Chinese market.

“If you switch to a foreign-made vaccine, it’s tantamount to admitting that you’re not as good as other countries in terms of technological capabilities,” Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells CNN.

The delayed approval is likely a factor in why Fosun Pharma’s stock price has dropped 40% in Hong Kong since August, dragging Fosun International chairman Guo Guangchang’s net worth down by $1.1 billion. Fosun’s suffering at the hands of Beijing unpredictable bureaucracy reflects a wider fallout dragging Chinese industry. Chinese tech stocks have tanked this year, as government regulators rein in hulking tech and property giants and force their business goals to align more closely with the government’s own.

Although, this isn’t the first time Fosun has been brought to heel. Fosun Pharma is a subsidiary of China’s Fosun International, a sprawling conglomerate with holdings that include European football clubs, the Club Med hotel chain, and skyscrapers in New York. But, as Bloomberg notes this week, Fosun International began to stem its rapid international expansion after Guo went missing for a few days in 2015. Fosun said Guo was “assisting [Chinese] authorities with an investigation.”

Fosun Pharma’s troubles this year might have taught Guo a valuable lesson, again. With the release of its BioNTech vaccine plagued by regulatory delays, Fosun Pharma has this year ramped up investments into Chinese biotech firms, including Kintor Pharmaceutical, a Chinese firm developing a COVID-19 treatment drug, and Chengdu Antegin Biotech, which is developing a pneumococcal vaccine that could compete with Pfizer’s Prevnar 13.

Fosun may be learning that looking inward is the only path forward as Beijing increasingly insulates China’s market from the West.

More Eastworld news below.

Grady McGregor
grady.mcgregor@fortune.com

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Eamon Barrett. Reach him at eamon.barrett@fortune.com.

EASTWORLD NEWS

Blinken tours SEA

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Southeast Asia this week, on his first official visit to the region since taking office. The regional tour seeks to reaffirm U.S. ties with SEA and counter China’s growing influence in the region. On Tuesday, Blinken delivered a speech in Jakarta where he blasted China’s “aggressive action” in Asia, but added that U.S. counterstrategy would avoid “catastrophic” conflict. After wrapping up his trip in Indonesia, Blinken will stop in Malaysia and Thailand. Bloomberg

Toyota scales back production

Toyota said it will extend production halts at some of its factories across Southeast Asia as the company runs short of vital components. Pandemic lockdowns and a global chip shortage roiled the global auto industry this year, causing billions in missed revenues for car makers. Toyota weathered the crisis better than most of its rivals, but the squeeze on supplies caught up to the Japanese carmaker in the summer. Toyota predicts its vehicle production will fall short by 14,000 units in December. Reuters

No digital baht

Thailand will propose legislation to regulate cryptocurrencies and digital assets like NFTs in January, as the Thai central bank draws up a series of “red lines” for investors in the industry. According to the Bank of Thailand Governor Sethaput Suthiwartnarueput, one red line will be that “cryptocurrencies cannot become a means of payment.” Cryptocurrency had been gaining a foothold in the Southeast Asian country, with one of its largest banks recently taking a majority stake in the country's largest crypto exchange. Bloomberg

Binance quits Singapore

The world’s largest crypto exchange, Binance, has withdrawn its application to launch an exchange in Singapore, ending a year-long effort to win approval from the city state’s monetary authority and gutting speculation that Singapore would become the group’s global headquarters. Binance was among 170 companies that applied for a license to operate a crypto exchange. The Monetary Authority of Singapore granted its first license in August, to Australia’s Independent Reserve. Fortune

Myanmar uses Tether

Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG)—which was ousted by a military coup in February but continues to operate as a shadow government, in defiance of the ruling junta—is accepting cryptocurrency Tether as a currency, according to a Facebook post shared by the group's Finance Minister. Tether is tied to the U.S. dollar and so is less volatile than other cryptos like Bitcoin. The Central Bank of Myanmar, closely tied to the military, declared all digital currencies illegal in May last year. It's unclear exactly how the NUG, which has no control over formal institutions, will utilize Tether but the announcement could help it circumvent the junta's control over the traditional banking system and raise funds from overseas.  Bloomberg

MARKETS AND MOVERS

Shimao — Shares and bonds in Chinese property group Shimao Group Holdings plunged on Monday, with one of the company’s yuan-denominated bonds dropping 50%. According to Bloomberg, the developer has crossed all three “red lines” Beijing established to curb borrowing at indebted developers and investors are anxious over the group’s ability to service its $15 billion of onshore debt.

FWD — Insurance group FWD raised $1.4 billion in private placements as the fund weighs an IPO in Hong Kong, switching from the U.S., where the group had already received approval to begin promoting share sales. Deteriorating relations between China and the U.S, as well as a new law that gives the SEC power to delist certain Chinese firms, have pushed a number of Chinese companies to seek listings in Hong Kong, rather than New York.

China Mobile — Regulators in Shanghai have approved China Mobile’s application to list on the Shanghai STAR market, after the Trump administration forced the telecom operator to delist from the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year. China Mobile, the state’s largest telecom, still has a listing in Hong Kong but could raise an additional $5 billion through its Shanghai placement.

Intel — Chip maker Intel will invest $7 billion in expanding its semiconductor packaging site in Malaysia. Packaging is the final stage of semiconductor assembly. Intel broke ground on two new semiconductor fabs in Arizona in September, investing roughly $20 billion.

SenseTime — Chinese computer vision start-up postponed its $768 million Hong Kong IPO on Monday, days after the Biden administration added the group to a blacklist for U.S. investment, citing "human rights abuses" in Xinjiang that the U.S. says are "enabled" by SenseTime's tech. 

FINAL FIGURE

20%

Hong Kong IPOs are on track to become the worst performing debuts in all of Asia, according to Bloomberg, dropping an average 20% from their opening prices. Listings in India, South Korea and mainland China fared far better, clocking average gains of 32.3%, 39.6%, and 86.3% respectively, in the year to date. Mainland Chinese firms tend to surge on debut due to the country's strict approval regimes, which puts strict limits on how much a company can raise when they launch. Meanwhile, a number of Hong Kong-listed firms have suffered from Beijing's general crackdown on tech, which has spooked investors and cooled sentiment. About 75% of the 59 companies that raised over $100 million through listing in Hong Kong since January are poised to finish the year lower than their IPO price collapse in share price, Bloomberg says.

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