Beijing and Washington have opposing views on nearly everything from North Korea’s nuclear development program to trade and development in the South China Sea. But one area of collaboration is emerging as a potential bright spot in what has otherwise devolved into a tenuous bilateral relationship: global health.
Throughout both the SARS outbreak in 2002 in Hong Kong and southern China and the Ebola epidemic, Chinese and U.S. health officials shared resources and information. In 2o14 during the Ebola outbreak, staff from the U.S. Center for Disease Control worked with staff at a Chinese laboratory.
Today, the U.S. CDC and the Chinese CDC are working to build an African CDC headquarters in Ethiopia and five additional centers throughout the continent to help fight infectious diseases. China is providing $2 million and the United States is funding $10 million for the venture.
Now these partnerships are extending into the private sphere.
The New Vaccine Provider
Just last month, Bill Gates traveled to Beijing to open the Global Health Drug Discovery Institute—a partnership between the Gates Foundation, the Beijing municipal government and Tsinghua University—that will focus on early drug discovery to combat diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and HIV. The three entities provided more than $100 million in funding for the first five years of operation.
The institute, GHDDI, is the first foreign-funded NGO to operate in China—a feat that required the government to bend the rules even as it introduces further restrictions for foreign nonprofits operating in the country.
As part of the government’s efforts to consolidate power and limit what it sees as foreign influence, a new law rolled out Jan.1 requires all foreign non-profits and NGOs to register with the police and maintain a government sponsor, which could limit funding.
“The Beijing government had to look at the regulations to accommodate this because they need to innovate themselves if they are going to attract the likes of this institution,” said Alex Ng, deputy director of the China office for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Attracting institutions like GHDDI is, in fact, part of China’s long-term strategy to both build up its pharmaceutical industry, the world’s second-largest, and become a key player in global health.
While the United States has historically had a strong role in providing vaccinations, reducing global deaths from measles, polio, and malaria, China is evolving from a receiver of aid and vaccinations to a provider.
During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, Chinese researchers reverse-engineered the drug ZMapp, created by American and Canadian researchers, and produced 100 doses after health officials exhausted their supply of ZMapp. The move raised questions about intellectual property rights but experts say it’s also an indication of China’s role in international health crises.
“When I think about the projects that we are doing, especially in relation to vaccines, frankly it would not be possible without China and Chinese institutions,” said David Shoultz, director of drug development at PATH, a global health organization.
PATH worked with Chinese scientists to develop a vaccine against Japanese encephalitis, a disease that spreads through mosquito bites and causes the brain to swell. In 2013, it was the first vaccine from a Chinese manufacturer to be given pre-qualification status by the World Health Organization. India bought 82 million doses from China in 2015.
Today, PATH is helping Chinese firm Shandong Xinhua Pharmaceutical submit its drug to combat parasitic worms for pre-qualification to the World Health Organization, much as it did with the Japanese encephalitis vaccine. The drug was first discovered at the Chinese Center for Disease Control in the early 2000s and approved by the Chinese Food and Drug Administration.