By Xulio Ríos
Although it may surprise some people, the reality is that China is one of the few countries in the world with the capacity to develop and produce vaccines against Covid-19 on a massive scale that can’t be matched anywhere. Currently the CanSino, Sinopharm and Sinovac laboratories are producing four vaccines that are being marketed in numerous countries, adopting five different technological approaches. Meanwhile clinical trials are being carried out on 17 more vaccines, seven of which are in phase 3.
In reality there is no mystery in all of this: China’s scientific advances in health are not an isolated event. On the contrary, they are the consequence of an enormous economic, political and social effort to realize the country’s historical potential. It should be remembered how the British biochemist Joseph Needham – known in China as Li Yuese – needed no fewer than 15 volumes to document China’s scientific contributions to human civilization in his monumental work «Science and Civilization in China».
More recently the formulation of the four modernization projects, including science and technology, determined a vision of the country’s development associated with scientific and technological development. It is not that China now wants to fight a battle for global influence or for global hegemony, using technology as a springboard as some would have you believe. What we are actually seeing is the consequence of an exercise in historical continuity that could even go back several centuries.
China is today a power that shows its scientific advances in all sectors of society and hardly a day passes without a new discovery, the creation of new infrastructure (such as the recent national center for technological innovation) or an increase in financial commitments. Chinese spending in R&D was $372 billion dollars in 2020 and on basic research – almost double the amount from 2015. Over the course of the XIII Five-Year Plan, the average annual growth rate in R&D spending was 16.9 percent, while China’s position in the Global Innovation Index, published by the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), went from 29th in 2015 to 14th in 2020. Meanwhile China’s research universities are rapidly climbing positions in the global rankings and everything suggests that this enormous effort will continue in the coming years.
During the XIV Five-Year Plan, which will be approved in the coming days in Beijing within the framework of the ‘lianghui’, the country will implement a series of important prospective and strategic projects on a national level in science and technology in cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum information, integrated circuits, life and health, brain science, genetic technologies, and clinical medicine.
In other areas, the achievements of Chinese space scientists and engineers can no longer be ignored. This year, the construction of the Chinese space station will enter a decisive stage, a goal that adds to the success of the lunar or Mars mission with the Tianwen-1 probe.
Scientific advances are contributing to the vitality of high-quality development. And this affects both the smart economy and industrial digitization as well as the improvement of the quality of life and the general management of health, thanks to a multilevel educational format that will provides high level talent for different areas f society.
A lot has been achieved in just a few years and with limited budgets and capacities compared to the most developed countries: China, for example, has overtaken the US in the number of operational robots; it produces twice as many vehicles as Japan and the US combined; it has almost a billion Internet users (triple that of the US); it is in second place in artificial intelligence worldwide but invests twice as much in it as the US. China is also the first digital economy in the world with a volume of payments 20,000 times higher than that of the US …
All these elements help to understand the reliability and quality of the country’s production in all areas. China’s vaccines have been tested in many countries and continents beyond its borders and despite the original doubts of some, they are now making their way to more and more latitudes. In this way, China is not only reducing dependency but also offering an alternative to third parties.
Cooperation is a constant in the Chinese scientific proposals and that was made clear at the beginning of the pandemic when China shared the genome sequence of the coronavirus strain, which contributed decisively to the global efforts to combat the coronavirus. As the WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has claimed, this global health emergency that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, needs solidarity to avoid a catastrophic moral failure. And Chinese science, with its vastly enhanced capabilities, is an asset that humanity cannot do without.