Beijing develops ebola drug | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.10.2014
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Beijing develops ebola drug

The first effective Ebola medication could come from China. It is meant to heal, but it may also take the wind out of the sails of the African critics of China's foreign policy, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

It could be a light at the end of the tunnel for Ebola victims in West Africa: a new drug is in sight - and it's not from the US or Europe, but China. Sihuan Pharmaceutical, the third biggest pharmaceutical firm in the country, last week sent several thousand doses of the experimental medication JK-05 to the region. Though the drug is intended for Chinese aid workers at first, should they get infected with the virus. But the company is continuing its research, together with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS), in an attempt to refine the medication as quickly as possible, and could be made available to the African population before the end of the year.

JK-05 has achieved some encouraging successes in the laboratory, but there have been no experiments on humans yet, which is why the drug has only been approved for military emergencies. Should the human test results prove positive, the Chinese medication could be the first one suitable for wide use, since its simple chemical structure makes it relatively easy to mass-produce. That is an advantage over, for instance, ZMapp, an experimental drug from the US, reserves of which are already running low even in its test phase.

Image-improving drug

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China

DW columnist Frank Sieren

The Chinese military played a major role during the SARS epidemic a decade ago, when a vaccine was made available to the general population with surprising speed. That helped make sure the outbreak was kept under control. Unlike in the US, there is much greater political pressure to deliver quick results. That could be a decisive advantage - and not only for the tens of thousands of Chinese people working in the affected areas in West Africa.

Beijing is also convinced that its drug could also be very useful politically. It may improve China's image in the West and among China's many critics in Africa. That's why the government is investing a lot of time, money, and resources into a drug that is not urgently needed in China itself. On top of that, the government is likely to use the potential success for internal PR, by telling the Chinese population that it had been more successful than the West on the question.

Limited financial aid so far

Critics have accused China of exploiting Africa without heeding the needs and human rights of the African people. And China is still on the defensive when it comes to Ebola - at least from the West's point of view. Beijing has recently faced serious criticism for not contributing enough to the financial aid for the Ebola region. The figures don't look good - Europe has promised 450 million euros ($570 million), the US has pledged around $150 million, so the $40 million from Beijing gives the impression that China cares less about Africa. Even private citizens like Bill Gates - who has pledged $50 million via his foundation, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, with $25 million, have offered similar amounts.

But Beijing's contribution does not include the money it is investing in developing new medication. On top of that, Beijing likes to underline the fact that it has invested more than average in Africa's infrastructure. Roads, power grids, telecom networks all help to fight the outbreak of the virus. And so that China can counter the old allegation that it is going its own way, last Sunday (19.10.2014) the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi announced that they would fight the Ebola epidemic together.

Joint lab research is to be intensified and experiences with epidemic prevention are to be shared. The two countries also want to expand cooperation in West Africa. The French are hoping to bind themselves closer to China, perhaps so that they can win the odd contract for France's weakening economy. It might sound cynical to make Ebola part of the day-to-day political power struggle between nations. But for the sufferers it could be an advantage.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has been living in Beijing for 20 years.

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