China’s strategic science and technology forces key for the R&D of COVID-19 vaccine

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China’s research and development of COVID-19 vaccine has achieved a phased success, which has inseparable relationship with the national strategic science and technology forces, Zhang Xinmin, director of China National Center for Biotechnology Development, Ministry of Science and Technology, indicates in an article published lately on Bulletin of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

With the title of “Construction of China’s strategic science and technology forces from research and development of COVID-19 vaccine,” the article points out, vaccine is considered as the most effective and economical means to prevent and control a pandemic. After the outbreak of COVID-19, countries around the world are in urgent need of developing safe and effective vaccines. “So far, 12 COVID-19 vaccines have been registered for being launched to the market or have been launched to the market with conditions in many countries. Large-scale vaccination has been initiated, being an important approach to curbing the spread of COVID-19,” it says.

China is one of the few countries capable of independently developing vaccines for the immunization program. According to Zhang, as of April 2021, a total of 19 vaccines across the country had been approved for clinical research, covering all the five technological routes . Beijing Institute of Biological Products , Wuhan Institute of Biological Products Co., Ltd., and Sinovac Life Sciences  Co., Ltd. developed inactivated vaccines respectively. CanSino Biologics Inc. and other institute  jointly developed an adenovirus vector vaccine. All of the above vaccines have been approved for marketing conditionally. The Institute of Microbiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical Co., Ltd. jointly developed a recombinant protein  vaccine, which was approved domestically for emergency in March, 2021. “The speed from initiation to approval has far outpaced the regular duration of 5–18 years and surpassed that of 12–18 months in the context of a pandemic. China ranks top in terms of COVID-19 vaccine quantity, category, and R&D speed,” he reveals.

China’s success in COVID-19 vaccine R&D has built up experience in using science and technology to underpin national major strategies, and the first thing to mention is the coordinated arrangement that facilitates the concentration of nationwide efforts and resources. “COVID-19 vaccine R&D is a typical example showing how China responds to emergency through a new system concentrating nationwide efforts and resources on key undertakings,” he says. China has made concerted efforts by making full use of all available resources and intensified the investment in vaccine R&D, and also launched a state-level vaccine reserve system . The synchronous promotion of the R&D in 5 types of vaccines greatly shortens the needed time. Relevant departments work together to ensure that science and technology resources, policy examination and approval, and materials are available to meet the needs of key tasks. 

China’s success in the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines is also attributed to its long-term independent innovation in bio-medicine. China has greatly improved its innovation capacity for vaccine R&D owing to the state’s years’ support for science and technology development, and China’s strategic science and technology forces play an important role in emergency response, where “research institutions serve as the backbone,” and “major science and technology enterprises play a key role.” Universities, research institutions and enterprises collaborate to draw on each other’s strengths. “It shapes a seamless joint pattern, in which the government steers the direction, national strategic science and technology forces act as the main players, and enterprises are ready to approach government, universities, and institutions,” Zhang points out.

Another experience to learn from is that China’s R&D is demand-driven and objective-oriented. China immediately identified COVID-19 vaccine application as the research objective, spotted new science-related issues in the COVID-19 vaccine R&D, and concentrated efforts and resources to tackle critical problems, he added.

The R&D of COVID-19 vaccine sheds new light on the building of China’s strategic science and technology forces. In his reflection on China’s strategic science and technology forces in his article, Zhang advocates that a country should make forward-looking technological deployment in advance, accumulate adequate research experience, build up technological reserve, and set  fully-fledged emergency response mechanism. To accurately position national strategic science and technology forces, both long-term effect and the need for emergency should be taken into account. Moreover, a top-level design for regular and emergency purposes should be in place. “We should, step by step, set up a regular coordination mechanism to improve the research team and capacity building to guard ourselves against public health emergencies,” he elaborates. The relations between reorganization and empowerment in terms of policy design and practice, as well as between increment and stock in organizational structure and developmental mechanism, should also be handled well.

Finally, the article points out, the world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century. China has to take into full account the profound adjustment of international competition in economy, science and technology, and seize the strategic opportunity of a new round of scientific and industrial revolution. “Efforts should be made to improve the top-level design for national strategic science and technology forces and the innovation ecology. It is suggested to sharpen the competitiveness of national strategic science and technology forces through original innovation. Such initiative is driven by national major tasks and demands. We must make good use of the new system concentrating nationwide efforts and resources on key undertakings to reinforce national strategic science and technology forces,” Zhang proposes. 

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