Government ploughs money into pharmaceutical research


By Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China

A new epidemics research initiative is targeting China’s biggest killer diseases - HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and virulent hepatitis (in particular hepatitis B and the associated liver cancer). Funding will support research into the diseases, and the development of drugs and new treatments.

Medical workers screen children for the hepatitis B virus

Medical workers screen children for the hepatitis B virus

The initiative is one of 16 announced as part of China’s mid and long-term science strategy for 2006-2010 which covers a wide range of science projects - from space technologies to genetically modified crops. Investment figures have not been released but it is widely believed that more than 3 billion yuan (US$441 million) will be poured into the epidemics initiative, as with the other key initiatives.

China has 660,000 HIV/AIDS carriers, 5 million TB patients, and 120 million infected by hepatitis B virus (HBV). ’The target of the initiative is very practical, with an aim to dramatically reduce incidence and mortality rates of the major epidemics,’ says Zeng Yi, a senior virologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and a member of the steering committee.

The health ministry has stipulated that industry scientists must lead research projects focused on vaccines or drugs. ’Unlike regular research funding, the initiative is to concentrate resources from both academia and industries to develop solutions,’ Zeng told Chemistry World.

Beijing-based Wantai Biological Pharmacy, an HIV diagnostics kits and chips maker, has applied for several sub-programmes under the key initiative, reveals Yu Tao, its corporate affairs manager. ’We are much encouraged by the stress on industry’s dominant role. It enables us to grasp the scientific advances by academia that have potential for further developments,’ Yu told Chemistry World.

But Li Dehua, a researcher at Chengdu-based pharmaceutical firm Diao, highlights the fact that industry and academia have very different research priorities. ’There must be a better mechanism to combine the two sectors if the key epidemics research initiative is to achieve its role,’ says Li. 

The key epidemics initiative was approved by the State Council, China’s cabinet, in June 2008. On 15 August, the Ministry of Health issued a call for the first batch of grant applications. Only a limited amount of information is available because the initiatives are largely classed as national secrets.