Geographies in Depth

The next Google in biotech: will it be Chinese?

'I believe the next Google-level company in healthcare could come from China' - Jackson Zhu Weiyan, CEO of My Bio-Med. Image: World Economic Forum

Kate Lamb
Writer, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

Can the world benefit from the pace of Chinese biotech without veering into ethical and regulatory grey zones? In this panel discussion at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China, which got underway 1 July, ethicists and biotech CEOs attempted to plot the way forward.

Two hundred million Chinese citizens will be 60 by the year 2020 and, today, one in four cases of cancer occurs in China.

Demographic necessities and rapidly ageing societies are driving up healthcare bills around the globe and the drug and biotech sector is growing in response, particularly in China, which is moving strongly in this direction.

Medical innovation and advances in China have some experts predicting the country is poised to become an influential biotech powerhouse in the near future.

“I believe the next Google-level company in healthcare could come from China,” reckoned Jackson Zhu Weiyan, CEO and Founder of My Bio-Med. “China is truly embracing innovation.”

Healthcare innovation has been moving at a rapid pace in the country in recent years – from artificial intelligence and digital pathology to genomics and stem cells, with numerous start-ups and crossovers between biotechnology and IT, including big data and precision healthcare.

Commending the pace of development while also noting that technology is a double-edged sword, Xu Xun, President of Research BGI, called for greater conversations about innovation, regulation and responsibility. “There may not be a clear way to solve problems, but it is important to keep the conversation between different parties on biotech going to make sure we are not killing good technology,” noted Xu.

Scientific responsibility, but not at the cost of good technology - Xu Xun, BGI.

On the flipside, he continued, it is also important to ensure we’re having discussions not only about cutting-edge research and innovation but also on “scientific responsibility”.

A Chinese researcher who last November claimed he helped make the world’s first genetically edited humans – twin girls born in the same month – may represent the ethical grey zone those at the frontier of biotech are grappling with as globally innovation continues to outpace regulation.

Situating China’s biotech space in a historical context, Cong Yali, a professor at the medical department of ethics at Peking University, described Chinese scientists as diligent and hardworking, but also driven by a sense they need to catch up, which in some cases has resulted in scandal.

“No country has perfect governance, but we have to recognize our weak points and make a risk evaluation to ensure public safety,” suggested professor Cong, “My role should be to help the biotech community and scientists engage in self-reflection.”

'No country has perfect governance' - Professor Cong Yali, Peking University

The Chinese government is working hard to address some of the ethical grey zones the biotech industry is confronting, with new laws on data collection, effective as of today, introducing stronger rules for privacy protection and more detailed provisions on consent.

“When it comes to data privacy in biotech, the regulations are becoming more and more mature,” offered Xu. “It’s a hot topic in the community right now, how to protect participant rights.”

Given its pace of development, competitive environment and strong talent pool, many in China are bullish about the prospects of the country’s biotech industry.

Noting that China is quickly catching up, Zhu Weiyan said the country needs to start thinking about the future of 5G, more R&D to foster a better understanding of intercultural differences to encourage multinational companies to work in China, and ways to leverage Chinese innovations globally.

“If you apply ‘China speed’ into other markets it does not work,” noted Zhu Weiyan, “So we need to manage that. We can do quick studies and research, but we need greater collaboration and integration.

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