China is rapidly gaining on the United States when it comes to creating technology that mitigates disease threats and developing pharmaceuticals faster, and it’s a phenomenon driven by a philosophy that the state, military, and the private sector are one in the same.
That was the testimony of Tara J. O’Toole, senior fellow and executive vice president at In-Q-Tel, before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. The hearing, Biological Threats to U.S. National Security, examined everything from China’s push to develop biotechnology infrastructure to luring research scientists away from the United States to work in China.
“China has said repeatedly and forcefully, and they’re backing up their words with actions, that they intend to own the biorevolution,” O’Toole said. “And they are building the infrastructure, the talent pipeline, the regulatory system, and the financial system they need to do that.”
China is partly accomplishing this by combining its internet giants, such as Alibaba, with its biotech companies. The combined strength of these companies’ research focuses on the industrialization of artificial intelligence in which China is “institutionalizing it” whereas the United States is only “experimenting with it,” O’Toole added.
China’s goal is to make biotechnology 5 percent of the country’s GDP by 2020. China has changed regulations for its own version of the Food and Drug Administration to be more like that of the United States in order to more easily market to the world. The country has created a talent pipeline that incentivizes its own students to go into the life sciences and bioengineering. China also has at least 20 programs intended to bring scientific talent from the rest of the world.
There are good reasons China is going after the biorevolution: it has the highest incidences of cancer on earth and the population is aging. It also must find an affordable way to deliver health care to a rising middle class.
And China is delivering health care to the world. The country is the largest producer of active pharmaceutical ingredients. However, reliance on foreign pharmaceuticals has national security implications. As many as 80 to 100 percent of critical drugs are manufactured outside the United States. U.S Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) told the committee that following the 2001 anthrax attacks, the U.S. was dependent on a single foreign source for a broad-spectrum antibiotic to treat anthrax.
“To what extent is the U.S. reliant on foreign sources for key drug products and medical supplies such as syringes and needles and other critical medical supplies that we would need to respond to a biological attack today?” Peters asked the panel of experts.
The United States is critically dependent on China for several drugs and has been shipping manufacturing capacity to Asia for more than a decade.
“There isn’t a CEO of a major pharma company that hasn’t been recruited by China to build facilities there,” O’Toole said.
To address the drug supply chain, the United States has begun exploring the possibility of using synthetic biology to make active pharmaceutical ingredients, especially in response to epidemics.
“If there were a natural pandemic in which the entire world needed drugs, I’m sure China, as we would, take care of its own people first. Yet, we don’t have the surge capacity to produce enough very common, well-used medicine in time to deal with an epidemic,” O’Toole said.
Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the committee that the U.S. treats medicines too much like commodities that can be sourced for the lowest price somewhere in the world.
“In a crisis, everyone in every part of the world would be looking for medicine at the same time,” Inglesby said. “There should be at least a strategic examination of the kinds of things we must have, and we should consider how to bring some of those medicines back to the U.S. Obviously that can’t be done with all medicines. We’re an interconnected world. But for national health crises, we should be thinking about making them here.”
Part of the problem is that the United States has not done a good job at translating biology to products, O’Toole said, or building infrastructure for securing and promoting the bioeconomy. Our translational infrastructure for biology is mostly coming from small start-up companies in the private sector, which are the innovation engines for biology, but do not provide the robust infrastructure to manage epidemics, whether deliberate or natural.
The experts made the following recommendations:
* Take on synthetic biology as a national security priority;
* Use the National Defense Education Act to improve access to stem education and establish greater scientific careers within the U.S. government;
* The contingency fund levels for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USAID should be increased and sustained;
* Support and strengthen the military’s infectious disease research laboratories;
* Provide strong, coherent leadership at the National Security Council essential for guaranteeing effective oversight, long before a crisis emerges;
* The U.S. Department of Agriculture should prioritize stronger crop surveillance, animal wildlife surveillance, more support for animal vaccine development, and more funding for agricultural biodefense overall;
* Strongly support the biological weapons convention.
During epidemics, the U.S. should be able to immediately create diagnostics that could be used similarly to a pregnancy test so that people can determine for themselves who is sick and who isn’t. Officials should be able to rapidly develop a new vaccine in response to an epidemic, O’Toole added.
These same tools also apply to diseases that affect agriculture and the U.S. animal supply. More than half of all infections that people contract are spread by animals.
“I’ll start by acknowledging that mother nature is a really good terrorist,” Julie L. Gerberding, co-chair of the Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the committee. “China today is experiencing a dreadful outbreak of swine fever that has probably cost the death or culling of at least 50 percent of their entire population of pork which is a major source of protein for people in China. So, this is a major socioeconomic threat to the state of China today and that’s mother nature.”
Swine fever, however, is not spread to humans, though it has a devastating economic impact. And U.S. farmers are concerned about trade and travel bringing such infectious diseases to this country.
“I would say that the first alarming statistic is that we spend probably about 100 times less on agricultural threats than we do on human threats,” Inglesby said. “I think there are many reasons for this. But one includes a kind of reluctance within the U.S. government to talk about this threat until quite recently.”