By Ludwig Burger

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – BioNTech struck a collaboration deal with Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical over the German biotech firm’s rights in China to an experimental coronavirus vaccine, the latest gambit in a global race to halt the pandemic.

Once regulators approve the vaccine, Fosun will market it in China, with BioNTech retaining rights for the rest of the world, the German group said, adding that it was aiming to start testing on humans from late April.BioNTech also said it was in advanced discussions with its existing partner Pfizer over the development of the vaccine outside China. The U.S. pharma giant earlier this month identified BioNTech as a potential partner for the development.

Mainz-based BioNTech, founded in 2008 and listed on the Nasdaq exchange in October last year, said it intends to initiate clinical testing for the compound called BNT162 in Europe, the United States and China.

The race is on to develop an immunisation, which is seen as by far the most effective tool to halt the global spread of the pathogen.

U.S. rival Moderna, which is working with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is the closest to human testing, announcing plans to start a trial in Seattle this month.

BioNTech’s unlisted German rival CureVac aims to be ready by July to request the go-ahead for testing on humans of an experimental vaccine, while Johnson & Johnson has said it is optimistic it can start vaccine testing later this year.

Signs of a tussle between national governments over medical gear and rights to therapeutics have already started to emerge.

The German government is trying to stop the U.S. administration from persuading CureVac to move its research to the United States.

China’s Fosun will pay BioNTech up to $135 million in upfront and potential future investment and milestone payments for development achievement, BioNTech said, adding that the two companies will share future gross profits from the sale of the vaccine in China.

Fosun will also take a 0.7% stake from new shares in BioNTech for $50 million.

BioNTech said it plans to produce the vaccine for the clinical trials together with contract manufacturer Polymun GmbH at BioNTech’s manufacturing facilities in Europe.

BioNTech, CureVac and Moderna have specialised in so-called messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules which instruct human cells to produce proteins that trigger an immune response in the body against cancer or infectious diseases.

(Reporting by Ludwig Burger, editing by Thomas Seythal, Edward Taylor & Shri Navaratnam)