How China’s high tech boom can benefit global health

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Earlier this year, President Xi Jinping gave a passionate defense of globalization at the World Economic Forum. This should not have been surprising to anyone who has paid attention over the past several decades. China is the largest economy in terms of PPP and a major player in global manufacturing and trade. Global media has not often noticed that China has assumed increasingly important roles in global development and health insurance for expats in China, linking them explicitly as necessary to support and accelerate global economic growth.

As leaders gather in Dalian this week for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions (WEF’s), globalization needs another type of Chinese champion: its private sector innovators. China is at the forefront of a technological revolution. China is home to the largest number of electric cars in the world. Its companies are motivated by its huge market and fierce competition to create products that will work wherever people live.

China’s shared-bike revolution is transforming urban transport and taking over cities. WeChat Wallet has exploded the e-pay market by linking services from every sector to bring innovation to its customers’ fingertips. This is not only good news for China’s economy but also for global health. It is precisely this type of innovation that will save millions of lives.

China’s contributions to global development and health have always been focused on the sector of health. China has provided medical professionals and doctors to develop countries for decades. Most recently, it was a member of the WHO-certified emergency medical teams that respond to emergencies. It has contributed to the financing and construction of large-scale infrastructure projects such as hospitals and healthcare centers.

Recent participation by the private sector has increased. China joined the global vaccine market four years ago with a Japanese encephalitis vaccine (JEV), which was China’s first vaccine to be pre-qualified for use by the World Health Organization. The WHO is currently pre-qualifying other Chinese vaccines, including an inactivated Polio vaccine (IPV), which is essential for the endgame strategy to eradicate Polio. The President met in January with the WHO Director-General in Geneva to agree to radically increase access to healthcare outside of China. This is part of President Xi’s desire to reenergize trade and infrastructure networks linking Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Global health faces many challenges. One is how to improve healthcare delivery, including vaccines. This can be done by connecting high-impact innovation with countries that most need them. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and UNICEF have made great progress in improving access and quality of healthcare services. 81% of children in developing countries now receive routine immunizations. This has helped to reduce childhood mortality by halving it. 1.5 million children below five years old still die each year from highly preventable diseases, as 19 million children do not have access to vaccines.

This inequity must be addressed by finding new ways to deliver vaccines to children who are difficult to reach and filling the gaps in health systems, supply, and data. Drones are a great way to do this. China is the country that has developed the majority of civilian drones in the world. This makes China the global leader in drone technology. Although the drones are primarily intended for consumers, there is a lot of potential for humanitarian use.

For example, in Rwanda, an autonomous drone-based delivery system has been launched that delivers blood supplies from the capital Kigali to rural areas. Instead of waiting for hours to receive blood from a motorcycle driver, a mother can now have life-saving blood delivered to her in 20 minutes if she is bleeding during childbirth. This was developed in partnership with Zipline USA, the Rwandan government and UPS. The plan is to eventually expand this to deliver vaccines.