Though China considers itself to be a developing country, it is making strides in modern technology, even in the ethically cumbersome eld of biotech. China’s ability in biotechnology was thrust into the limelight during the Ebola epidemic. Sichuan Pharmaceutical, one of the country’s leading generic drug producing companies, bought the rights to sell an experimental anti-Ebola drug which was originally developed by the Chinese military to treat various strains of influenza.1

In October 2014, China sent the drug to West Africa in dosages enough to treat about 10,000 people. The goal was to ensure the availability of the drug in case Chinese medical workers sent to West Africa contracted the disease.2 But the drug, which had not completed its clinical trials, was not used to treat African patients. To date, information about the drug and future plans on clinical trials, sale and distribution remain scant.

The most successful Chinese anti-Ebola drug, however, is MIL77. In June 2015, the New York Times published an article discussing how a nurse who contracted the disease in Sierra Leone was discharged from an Italian hospital after receiving experimental treatments.3 A doctor working in the hospital described it as “absolutely miraculous.” The treatment included the Chinese MIL77, which closely resembles the anti-Ebola drug ZMapp, developed collaboratively between the United States and Canada.

ZMapp was grabbing headlines since it was used to treat American healthcare professionals, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, who had contracted Ebola in Liberia and were repatriated for treatment. Their triumph against the disease raised hopes about the drug. Unfortunately, however, ZMapp was not mass-produced and quickly ran out. Amid the low-supply crisis, a Chinese company called Beijing Mabworks produced about 100 doses of MIL77, a drug closely related to ZMapp but produced differently. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that MIL77’s efficacy is comparable to ZMapp’s in monkeys.4

This, of course, quickly led to questions about intellectual property rights. The CEO of Beijing Mabworks disclosed that the company had made a licensing agreement with ZMapp’s intellectual property rights holder, presumably Mapp Biopharmaceutical, a small biotech company based in San Diego.5

But that did not appease critics. Robin Robinson, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, said that Chinese scientists might have infringed patents if they tried to sell the Chinese MIL77 outside China.6

The legal complication has not slowed MIL77, however. WHO states that MIL77 is currently prioritized for use on Ebola patients, in condition of not interfering with the clinical assessment of ZMapp. ZMapp has been going through clinical trials beginning in February 2015 and the study is being conducted in the United States, Liberia7 and more recently, in Sierra Leone. The randomized controlled clinical trials are expected to determine the overall efficacy of ZMapp and inform future medical decisions.

The ZMapp-MIL77 anti-Ebola story perhaps illustrates a microcosm of what is going on in the larger geopolitical arena. China is eager to show Africa, other allies and critics that it is equipped with the science as well as the benevolence to be considered a major superpower. Skeptics, like many in the U.S., are weary about whether China’s rising power can be tamed to follow international laws, especially intellectual property regulations. Meanwhile, China’s speed in taking action, which some say leaves little room for thorough planning, can be an asset in situations such as an epidemic. After all, the speedy production of MIL77 saved lives.

Although Ebola showed signs of defeat in the early months of 2015, it seems to be resurfacing. In May 2015, a 17-year-old boy died in Liberia, two months after the country was declared Ebola-free. Now that the world is clinically better equipped, it would be interesting to see how ZMapp and MIL77 and by extension, the United States and China, will continue to fight against Ebola.

Footnotes

 

  1. Patti Waldmeir, Lucy Hornby, Financial Times, “Chinese company develops Ebola treatment, October 9, 2014
  2. Patti Waldmeir, Lucy Hornby, Financial Times, “Chinese company develops Ebola treatment, October 9, 2014
  3. Sheri Fink, New York Times, “A Chinese Ebola Drug Raises Hope, and Rancor,” June 11, 2015
  4. World Health Organization (WHO), “Ebola Vaccines, Therapies and Diagnostics: Questions and Answers,” July 6, 2015
  5. Sheri Fink, New York Times, “A Chinese Ebola Drug Raises Hope, and Rancor,” June 11,2015
  6. Sheri Fink, New York Times, “A Chinese Ebola Drug Raises Hope, and Rancor,” June 11,2015
  7. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “Liberia-U.S. clinical research partnership opens trial to Ebola treatments,” February 27, 2015