In a small conference room on the third floor of the Innovation Building on Catholic University’s San Joaquin campus, Meng Weining, Sinovac’s vice president of international operations, explained the Chinese pharmaceutical company’s decision to suspend plans to build a vaccine filling plant in San Joaquin. Development centers in Quilicula and Antofagasta. Furthermore, he said the investment in Colombia was not a substitute for eventually building a factory in Chile.
In an interview with a Chinese interpreter, Meng Weining said that his investment in Chile so far has just exceeded US$10 million and that Sinovac’s plans in the country are long-term. Likewise, the scientist, who has worked for the company for 16 years, questioned the slow registration process for the vaccine conducted by the Institute of Public Health (ISP).
Despite this, his positive view of our country has not changed. “I always thought Chile was one of the most economically developed countries in Latin America. Also, the streets are very clean,” he said.
This morning, Economy Minister Nicolás Grau said that Sinovac will set up a joint venture in Colombia, in which the local government will hold 51% of the shares and Sinovac will hold 49%. Can’t Chile do the same?
I’m not the best person to answer this question. Obviously, for Sinovac, these types of collaborations are positive. We haven’t been in Chile for a long time and don’t have that much experience. If you are interested, we would love to collaborate and discuss this topic. Additionally, the vaccine industry is very different from other industries. In the case of vaccines, it’s about public safety. Especially during a pandemic, the supply of vaccines is a very important aspect for the safety of the population.
Why can’t Chile do this?
We do not deny that this is not possible in Chile. This can be done there because both the Colombian government and Sinovac realize the importance of vaccines for the safety of the population. Regarding Chile, we cannot answer this question. We are willing to communicate with people from all walks of life because we are new here. You can be sure it can be done, but we can’t (say) yes or no because we are new in Chile.
Did Sinovac really require the Chilean government to buy some vaccines in order to build a factory in Quilicula?
We have never asked for anything and we have a long-term development plan in Chile. Before the epidemic, Sinovac realized that Chile had very strong research capabilities. For the same reason, we have established so many clinical trials compared to universities like the Catholic University and the University of Antofagasta.
We are very happy because through this type of collaboration we have achieved very good results and published almost 100 papers in scientific journals. We have seen a very positive acceptance of the vaccine by both the population and the authorities, and the country’s immunization program is very well established. It’s one of the best in the area. Furthermore, the situation in Chile is more stable compared to other Latin American countries. Human resources are also very stable. This is why Sinovac wants to invest in Chile. But in any of these investments, we always respect business and scientific trends. For us, if we’re going to build an R&D plant, we have to understand what we need the plant for. Whether it is short-term or long-term, we must know what research topic we want to conduct in the factory. We conduct research and development so that we can create vaccines that can benefit humanity. Therefore, research and production are closely integrated. If we want to produce, we have to see there is demand in the market.
What conditions are needed for Sinovac to set up a vaccine filling plant in Chile?
I’ve already answered this question in my previous question. When deciding whether to build a bottling plant, we must evaluate all stages and factors.
Does Sinovac not have the conditions to invest in Chile?
We are not saying that certain conditions are required, but that certain factors can be conducive to it. Today we are registering our products. Signing up takes a long time, it takes a long time at the ISP, and it’s still a work in progress. We are participating in the tender. We didn’t win last year. We respect the Chilean market and this very liberal economic environment. In tenders, winning is not guaranteed as it depends on many factors. What we try is to register as many products as possible to be able to participate in more bids. This way we can guarantee the market in Chile. That way, over time, by participating in these tenders, we can see that we have a fairly stable market from which we have invested in the construction of bottling plants. This is going to be a bit of a lengthy process.
Do you think the decision to go to Colombia will damage Sinovac’s reputation in Chile?
To clarify here, we are looking to develop products in Chile and Colombia. Both are completely independent, except that we have temporarily paused the Chilean project while the Colombian project is still ongoing. We didn’t leave Chile and chose Colombia. Latin America has a population of over 600 million, but we see no vaccine production factories. From Sinovac’s perspective, having factories in Chile and Colombia is not enough to produce vaccines in Latin America. There can be multiple plants at the same time.
How have the crime and litter issues in Kilikula impacted on the delayed construction of the plant?
Instead of stopping, we slowed down. We are growing, but at a slower pace than we planned two years ago because of the demand for COVID-19 vaccines during that period. If I continue at this pace and I build the factory and I find there is no demand in the market, why do I need that factory? That’s why we move slower. When we do that, we’ll have a market to satisfy. Currently, we only have the flu vaccine on file. Hepatitis A and chickenpox vaccines are still being registered. Products that are not registered in Chile cannot be sold.
Littering and crime are never a positive thing. So, these factors don’t support investment, but we can’t say they are critical factors that would slow us down.
Is this slow?
Yes, I haven’t even launched a product into the market, so why is it progressing so fast? This kind of health registration is very common. In other countries they often take a long time. One year, two years, even three years. Although this is a slow process overall, if progress can be made within the normal process, it will obviously speed up Sinovac’s process. This is a big support for us. Now let me give you an example: we are registering the hepatitis A vaccine, which is not new in Chile. It’s not like no one has used it. We sell this vaccine to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the government purchases it through them. So for the vaccine that’s already in use and produced at Sinovac, we turned two years old in February and haven’t registered it yet.
Today we are changing the registration so that instead of distributors selling vaccines, we will sell them directly. We consider this process to be more administrative than validity verification. It’s already been evaluated and it won’t take that long.
Former President Eduardo Frei described the negotiation process between the current government and Sinovac as “disastrous.” Do you feel there is a lack of support for improving company initiatives?
We’ve had great conversations with previous and current administrations. Yesterday we had a meeting with the Minister of Economy and the Minister of Science. We had great communication there. At that meeting, we agreed to form a group to advance our project to build a vaccine manufacturing plant and development center in Kilikula. So, things are going well now. We always look forward, and now we see a pretty optimistic path. We hope that everyone has the same goal. Chile has a vaccine production plant for the sake of health sovereignty. We want to move forward together towards the same vision, rather than always looking backward.
What makes Antofagasta an innovation center?
As with any type of research center, everything depends on scientific developments. Take, for example, the Antofagasta development plant we proposed two years ago. It was during a pandemic, and everyone knew that the coronavirus would mutate during that time, and it would mutate from time to time. At that time, it was very good to have a local laboratory in Chile that could treat this mutation. At this point, we are not saying that COVID-19 is no longer important, obviously it is relevant, but it is not a priority. Therefore, at this moment, if we decide to set up an innovation and development center, the most important thing is that between Sinovac, various research institutes, and academia, we need to figure out what research topics affect safety. Population and situation let’s take a look. Why are we growing plants now if we don’t have a theme or subject of study?