No. 28 | 20.02.2022
How China’s new nationwide system works: A case study on COVID-19 vaccine development
Hu Yinglian
Hu Yinglian (胡颖廉) is a professor in the Department of Social and Ecological Civilization at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (National Academy of Governance).

According to the WHO, a total of 326 COVID-19 vaccines are in active research and development (R&D) worldwide as of November 19, 2021. Chinese vaccines account for 14 of the 38 that are in Phase III and Phase IV clinical trials. How can China, whose vaccine R&D innovation is weaker than developed countries, lead the way in this COVID-19 vaccine development? According to Hu Yinglian, the new nationwide system (新型举国体制 xīnxíng jǔguó tǐzhì) that concentrates efforts and resources on key national undertakings has played an active role in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. This nationwide system has a long history of advancing the country’s scientific development, from "two bombs, one satellite" (两弹一星 liǎng dàn yì xīng) – the Mao-era nuclear and space project – to the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program of recent years. Regarding COVID-19 vaccine development, Hu outlines how this system has worked at three levels. On the first level of national decision-making, R&D units are required to "not count the economic benefits, but only the people's health" in the development of the new vaccine, and provides special financial protection. To increase the success rate of vaccine research, the state focused on supporting five technology roadmaps (技术路线 jìshù lùxiàn) and 12 vaccine R&D tasks, and set up a special vaccine R&D team (疫苗研发专班 yìmiáo yánfā zhuān bān) – affiliated with the State Council – to select both state-owned and private enterprises to promote the research. The country’s commitment to establish a reserve of vaccines and declare it as a global public good helped give positive incentives and stable expectations for the research units. Secondly is the role of government departments at the executive level. The special vaccine R&D team reports directly to the Vice Premier. This team consists of government officials from a dozen departments including the National Health Commission, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the National Medical Products Administration. The national collaborative system brings out the professional strengths of each department and also prevents their isolation from one another, allowing government departments, R&D companies, disease control institutions, and animal laboratories to work together smoothly and efficiently. For example, the Ministry of Science and Technology relies on its long-term advantages of being embedded in the industrial networks to introduce a “race” mechanism for scientific research. This encourages independent R&D and competition between enterprises, and supports the fastest and most capable companies. At the third level is the role of enterprise as the R&D implementer. R&D units, mainly enterprises, are keenly aware of the market opportunities that arise from major public health crises and are motivated by national decisions to invest in vaccine R&D. For example, on January 19, 2020, Sinopharm established a leading group for scientific R&D, and arranged three research institutes to develop vaccines on two technology roadmaps: inactivated whole-virus vaccines and recombinant protein vaccines. The logic of the enterprise is to integrate market demand with the national strategy by striving for policy support.

Subscribe to Chinese Voices. The digest is published every Sunday in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.Download the PDF of the complete articles (automatically translated) of this issue. The opinions of the articles are not necessarily shared by Dongsheng editorial collective.

Follow our social media channels: