Funding through China's multi-billion yuan key drug development scheme could become harder to come by


Hepeng Jia/Dalian and Beijing, China

Funding through China’s multi-billion yuan key drug development scheme could become harder to come by over the next five-year term of the programme, according to a senior representative.

Zhang Boli, deputy chief scientist of the scheme, made the remark during a presentation at a meeting on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) research held in early August at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Formally launched in May, the key drug scheme is one of China’s nine key science and technology programmes in the civil sector for the years to 2020. A total of 5.3 billion yuan (US$779.4 million) is due to be invested in projects covering 970 research subjects as part of the key drug scheme over the period of China’s eleventh Five-year Plan (2006-2010).

Drug scheme funds


A total of 690 billion yuan had already been planned to pour into the nine science and technology programmes by 2020, ensuring that each of the nine programmes should have continued funding for the periods of the twelfth (2011-2015) and thirteenth (2016-2020) five-year plans.

Some have criticised a lack of transparency in the scheme’s funding allocations for the current five-year plan, with allegations that funds have gone to insiders close to policy-makers and officials. Many scientists are therefore already looking ahead at money that could come from the next five-year plan.

But Zhang has warned that the funding for the twelfth five-year plan (2016-2020) could mainly go to promising projects already funded under the current plan.

’This is to ensure the sustainability of the scheme and improve the success rate of new drug development projects,’ Zhang explains.

He admits that the programme organisers lack experience in implementing such a large programme that covers so many subject areas, and that this has led to some controversies in the funding application process. 

’But we are not so strong [in drug development capacity], and more subjects could result in a bigger possibility of developing innovative drugs,’ Zhang says. It is due to this consideration that the new funding is likely to mainly go to those projects already showing signs of success.

But Zhang says that proposals will be examined on a case-by-case basis and those that are extremely promising could still be funded. He adds that because of the delay in launching the new drug scheme for the current five-year plan period, final decisions will also be postponed, though no concrete timing has been given.

It is hoped that 30 new drugs will be launched by the end of the current five-year plan period, and Zhang says that progress towards this target has been very promising. 

But a scientist in the pharmaceutical sector in Beijing, who declined to be named, questions this figure. ’In order to show the scheme is not fruitless, many drugs already in clinical trials have been included in the funded projects,’ she claims, adding that these do not constitute new drugs by State Food and Drug Administration criteria.