Cablegate: Guangdong Strengthens Infectious Disease Research Capacity

DE RUEHGZ #0056/01 0310715
R 310715Z JAN 08





E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Guangdong Strengthens Infectious Disease Research Capacity
- Is It Enough?


(U) This document is sensitive but unclassified. Please protect

1. (SBU) Summary: The Chinese central and Guangdong provincial
governments have invested significant resources to expand the
province's infectious disease research capacity; this includes two
new infectious disease research institutes. Obstacles remain to
the development of an effective research infrastructure, including
limited funds, lack of coordinated strategy, and inadequate
facilities for handling highly-infectious specimens. End

--------------------------------------------- ----------
Building and Expanding Infrastructure of New Institutes
--------------------------------------------- ----------

2. (U) China has learned numerous lessons from the 2003 SARS
outbreaks in the south, few more important than the importance of
developing research infrastructure for diagnostics, vaccines, and
therapies to deal with emerging infectious diseases, especially
respiratory diseases. As a result, two new research institutes have
been established: the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases
(GIRD) and the Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health (GIBH).

3. (U) GIRD was first established in the 1970's as part of the First
Hospital of Guangzhou Medical College, which receives the majority
of its funding from the provincial and municipal governments.
Although led by Dr. ZHONG Nanshan, the well known respiratory
disease clinician, the institute has but a very small research
program - only 4 principle investigators and approximately 30 staff.
The Institute focuses on the clinical aspects of viral respiratory
diseases, particularly influenza, avian influenza, and SARS. GIRD
also researches the side effects of using anti-viral drugs and
corticosteroids to treat viral respiratory infections. It has a
large collection of specimens and a valuable patient database.

4. (U) After the 2003 SARS outbreak, GIRD's role in emerging
respiratory diseases research became more prominent. To further
expand capacity, the First Hospital of the Medical College is
constructing a brand new 32-story facility, in which GIRD will
occupy 11 stories. It will be able to establish a new clinical
trial unit capable of phase 1 and 2 studies. Construction of the
new facility is being funded by the municipal and provincial
governments at an estimated 240 million RMB (USD 34.3 million).
This expansion will make conducting additional human clinical
research of new vaccines and drugs for respiratory diseases possible
in South China; at this point, such clinical studies are still not
very common.

5. (U) The second institute, GIBH, was founded in 2005 in response
to the 2003 SARS outbreak. It was established jointly by the
Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and Guangdong provincial and
Guangzhou municipal governments, with a combined initial investment
of 300 million RMB (USD 42.9 million) (reftel). Within two years of
its establishment, more than 20 principal investigators, mostly from
overseas, and over 400 technical staff were recruited by the
institute. GIBH's is also constructing new facilities. Its new
main campus, on the outskirts of Guangzhou, will house comprehensive
research and development programs, from early discovery to
preclinical developments of vaccines and drugs. A primate center
for conducting preclinical research on infectious diseases is
included in the plan. Thus far, GIBH has attracted international
interest from both the U.S. and Europe for its potential as a major
collaborator in South China.

6. (U) GIBH's initial focus was to find ways to turn basic research
into new diagnostics, vaccines, and drugs to combat emerging
infectious diseases and HIV infection. Currently, GIBH researches
on infectious diseases include the search for new vaccines for HIV,
influenza, and malaria, of new treatments for herpes simplex virus
(HSV) and influenza virus infection, and the development of rapid,
simple diagnostic technology for viral pathogens. The technology
will include a rapid test for AI infections based on viral gene

7. (U) Better research infrastructure is also being developed at
Guangdong's leading university, Sun Yat-sen (Zhongshan) University.
Sun Yat-sen University receives more central government research
funding for life sciences than any other university in China.
Funded by the "863" and "973" Projects of the Ministry of Science
and Technology (MOST) and the Chinese Natural Science Foundation,
the University School of Life Sciences has a biosafety level 3 (BSL

GUANGZHOU 00000056 002 OF 002

3) facility - it's a joint research laboratory with a local biotech.
Both the School of Life Sciences and School of Medicine have
established programs to study host immunity in relation to
infectious diseases using genomic technologies. Researchers at the
schools are developing new vaccines and promoting the discovery of
new antibiotics from marine microbes as they work to combat emerging
infectious diseases.

Challenges to Research Development

8. (U) Despite significant investment in research infrastructure,
the amount of funding - administered by the Ministry of Science and
Technology (MOST) - may not be enough. The Institutes under the
Ministry of Health (MOH) also receive operational funding from MOH
but not enough to operate without additional outside funds.
Although Guangdong is the richest province in China by total GDP,
the provincial government's support of basic and applied biomedical
research for infectious diseases is considered by many researchers
here as insufficient. Moreover, the central government in Beijing
allocates proportionally more resources to poorer provinces, even
though Guangdong is considered a major 'hotbed' for emerging
infectious diseases. Therefore, MOH institutes in Guangdong
normally fall through the cracks of funding from both the central
and provincial governments. Small amounts of funding are now
becoming available from the private sector, such as local biotech
and pharmaceutical companies, which often collaborate with the
research institutions. However, funds from non-government
organizations, such as from private foundations, to support public
health research initiatives in south China remain almost

9. (SBU) In addition, infectious disease research in Guangdong
suffers from the lack of a clear strategy at both the national and
provincial levels. There is no Chinese counterpart to the U.S.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease which can
effectively chart a concrete research strategy, prioritize research
programs and resource allocation, and coordinate research efforts in
the infectious diseases area. Chinese researchers and top
government officials, including Dr. CHEN Zhu (the Chinese Minister
of Health who in his last visit to the U.S. in 2007 was the
President of CAS), have previously voiced the need for such a
strategy and coordination.

10. (U) Applied research, which is necessary to develop basic
research into vaccines, tests and treatment, is not as highly
respected in Chinese academia as the basic research. China adapts
and heavily relies on scores of science citation index (SCI) and
impact factor (IF) of publications to evaluate researchers'
achievements. Normally, results of applied life science research
are published in journals with low IF and low SCI.

11. (U) Guangdong also lacks proper biosafety facilities for the
research of highly infectious specimens. The current biosafety
level (BSL) 2 and 3 facilities in Guangdong are limited and
insufficient to support research needs. Many provincial infectious
disease hospitals and research institutions, including Guangdong
CDC, GIBH, and GIRD, do not have adequate laboratory facilities for
handling highly infectious specimens. In addition, with very few
exceptions, there is a general lack of knowledge of how to construct
or maintain a proper BSL facility within a research setting.

Addressing the Challenges

12. (U) In order to confront these challenges, several prominent
south China researchers have been promoting the consolidation and
sharing of research resources between institutions and provinces.
Last year, GIRD and GIBH formed a joint national key laboratory for
respiratory diseases by combining the research strengths of each
institute. Pending final inspection, this joint initiative is
expected to receive funding of up to 15 million RMB (USD 2.1
million) from MOST under the auspices of the national "973" Project
for funding research of respiratory diseases. In addition,
Guangdong researchers are looking for new international research
collaborations and funding opportunities.


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