US weaponizing bioscience, hegemony over humanity

THE Kennedy Moonshot speech of September 22, 1962 is considered a symbolic date for the supremacy of American science. In that speech, Kennedy recommitted the nation to the lunar landing goal he had proposed to Congress in May 1961 and called on the people to get astronauts safely to the moon and back before the end of the decade. The Apollo landing in 1969 propelled American science straight to the forefront of the world.

On the same day this year, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Kennedy moonshot, Biden announced his version of another moonshot: end cancer. He appointed Dr. Renee Wegrzyn as the first director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), a new agency formed in March to drive biomedical innovation and implement biotechnology policies. However, Moonshot’s cancer story was overshadowed by the executive order he signed on the same day, signaling the decoupling of biotechnology research from China.

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The executive order announced steps to strengthen the “bioeconomy” in the United States. This classification covers research and development for a wide range of products, including medical supplies, sustainable new fuels and food, and technologies to combat climate change.

The order required the US government to help establish domestic manufacturing facilities for biotechnology products and the supply chains of the raw materials needed to operate them. Also included are actions such as encouraging more funding for research and development, supporting innovators in the form of federal data that helps identify unmet needs, streamlining regulatory approval of new products, and collaborative programs with international partners. Eventually, the US government will mandate federal agencies to increase mandatory purchasing requirements for domestic biotechnology products.

In a briefing on the executive order, the US government clarified that the government is bringing home more US-based biotechnology manufacturing in response to other countries, notably China, accelerating investment in the sector.

Life science is placed at the same level of sanctions as others:

The US National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), under the Director of the Government of National Intelligence, has identified five technologies the country needs to be at the forefront of if it is to remain a superpower in October 2021. They are artificial intelligence, quantum computing, life sciences, semiconductors, and autonomous systems. China is identified as the Americans’ peer competitor in these five areas. The CHIPS law and sanctions imposed on Chinese companies reflected an American desire to slow or halt Chinese advances in these cutting-edge technology areas in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Of the five areas, many experts hoped the US government would not subject life sciences to the same decoupling measures as the other four. They posited that life sciences touch on people’s health and are unlikely to be associated with military activities like the other four. But the executive order issued by Biden dashed hopes that life sciences might not be a target of decoupling.

Slow down Chinese Contract Research Organizations (CRO) and Contract Development and Manufacturing Organizations (CDMOs):

The Contract Research Organization (CRO) is a subdivision of the pharmaceutical industry. It supports the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device industries by providing outsourced research services on a contract basis. For example, a CRO may provide biopharmaceutical development, biological assay development, commercialization, clinical development, clinical trial management, pharmacovigilance, outcomes research, and real-world surveillance.

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The CRO started its current business model in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the pharmaceutical industry began to experience sustained escalation in costs. As a result, the market for CRO services experienced explosive growth in the 1990s. They had successfully reduced costs and dealt with the countless tests and regulatory requirements in the drug development process more quickly.

The CRO industry has an estimated business volume of US$70 billion in 2022, and the R&D expenditure of the R&D budget of the top 15 pharmaceutical companies in 2022 is estimated at US$130 billion. The comparison showed the importance of CRO for the pharmaceutical industry today,

The CRO industry started in China in the mid-2020s by multinational pharmaceutical companies and returning scientists from overseas. The country enjoyed a major competitive advantage over developed countries in pharmaceutical research and development in terms of a huge pool of highly qualified local health scientists, a favorable regulatory environment and the huge patient base, particularly in the field of cancer.

A 2021 report by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology estimated that China produced 1,520 health science PhDs in 2000, up from 894 in the US in the same year. The comparative figure was 9,668 compared to 3,150 in 2019. As a result, China’s CRO share of the global market increased from 1.3 percent to 4.4 percent in 2020 and is expected to increase to 7.5 percent by 2025.

There are more than 1,100 CRO firms worldwide, but the consolidation trend is accelerating as technological sophistication increases. In recent years, the large CRO has expanded vertically into manufacturing, becoming the CDMO. As a result, the top ten companies, led by IQVIA, Covance and LabCorp, together hold a 50 percent market share. Chinese company Wuxi Biologics was the only Chinese company in the top 10 CRO list and ranked 10th with sales of US$800 million in 2021.

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Wuxi Biologics is fast moving into the CDMO model. It had bought Bayer’s manufacturing facility in Germany, Pfizer’s manufacturing facility in China, and building manufacturing facilities in Massachusetts and Ireland. The company is recognized as an industry peer in pharmaceutical-scale manufacturing, and Edward You, an NCSC executive, last year expressed public concern about the US drug industry’s potential dependence on Chinese manufacturers.

Humanity or national industrial policy first:

With Biden’s executive order, America is essentially demonstrating that no area is off limits in its quest to maintain its hegemony, and is even willing to politicize the life sciences industry by placing it under its national industrial policy. This forces other countries to react. How effective the move will be is uncertain, but it already raises a question of humanity towards national industrial policy. It is hoped that ARPA-H’s implementation rules still leave room for US-China cooperation to work together on critical drugs that can save lives.


Editor’s note: For developing countries like the Philippines, we had better prepare and arm ourselves to weather the storms ahead when superpowers clash on unprecedented proportions as the US unsettles traditional competitive norms.

dr Henry Chan is an internationally recognized development economist based in Singapore. He is also a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace and an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Integrated Development Studies Institute (IDSI). His main research interests are global economic development, ASEAN-China relations and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

New Worlds from IDSI, for the intelligent, progressive reader who wants to see the world beyond the headlines ([email protected]).

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