Biological Business in China


Deep in the remote western mountains of the Xinjiang province in China, local botanists search for miracle drugs to share with the world. Drug companies such as Swiss drug giant Novartis AG are looking at China for new drugs from ancient Chinese remedies that exist in plants and fungi native to the country. Due to the increasing costs of developing new drugs, companies such as Novartis are optimistic that traditional Chinese medicinal cures will lead them in the battle to fight modern diseases

It is important to recognize there is a fundamental difference from the way China and the way the West discovers drugs. Over centuries, Chinese doctors have tweaked concoctions with variable amounts of different substances until they achieve their desired medicinal purpose. This was mainly completed by trial and error, so these eastern doctors are not certain which parts of the body the medicine is targeting. Alternatively, western doctors take the reverse approach by finding the targeted area of the body, and working backwards to find the correct chemical compound to cure the problematic area. This is why collaboration between the East and West will probably not occur.

Fortunately, drug companies such as Novartis and French Drug maker Servier are working together with the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica (SIMM), to isolate the active compounds in Chinese traditional medicine by testing the raw extracts from plants collected by Chinese biologists. Over the past three decades SIMM has been hunting for the rare plants and herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat ailments ranging from cancers to common aches and pains. The way Novartis sees it, ‘China has thousands of years’ experience of using plants in Chinese traditional medicines. The idea was, why not use the Chinese experience as a kind of filter.

Novartis has previously used traditional Chinese cure for fever to fight malaria with the plant with a native ‘sweetworm’ plant. The cure for this disease was found written on silk in a tomb which dates back during the West Han Dynasty which existed over 2200 years ago. In the 1970s scientists working for the Chinese military used this drug in Vietnam to combat malaria. Novartis later decided to make a deal with the Chinese to purchase rights to the sweetworm plant for several million dollars. Today, over 1,000 natural products have come to Novartis working with SIMM, resulting in cures for a number of diseases. As the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry progresses into the next generation it will become increasingly important for them to protect their future…and defend the world’s endangered environments.

Now you may be asking yourself…why should business’ worry about preserving the natural environment of China? There are several moral issues to this question.

First, If China continues to grow westward as it currently is, many of the drugs which organizations such as SIMM are searching for will become extinct before they are obtained. It is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of higher plant varieties in China are endangered (threatening the existence of 40,000 species of organisms related with them).

Continued westward expansion of Chinese industry could threaten these species which may hold the answers for solving the world’s most crippling diseases.

Second, by preserving their environment the Chinese government can ensure the next generation of Chinese will have enough to eat, clean water to drink, and healthier people. China already has the worst air quality in the world. Fortunately, China is now awakening to these rising environmental issues and is taking action by building reserves, botanic gardens, protecting endangered endemic species and by building genetic banks for rare plants. Additionally, with the Olympics coming in 2008 their government is attempting to give China more eco-friendly by erecting a ‘greenwall’ or ‘treebelt’ around Beijing to stop harmful dust and particles from reaching the city.

Lastly, helping out the environment is an important ethical issue. Many businesses operating today maximizing profit in the short-term by harming their environment and their people. Take for example the logging industry in China. With forests being cleared in China, not only is the world loosing reserves potentially for future miracle drugs, but these trees no longer exist to filter out CO2 and other pollutants in the air which filter out other diseases such as bird flu or SARS. Does this mean they should stop cutting down trees? Of course not. At the same time, businesses must be aware and responsible for the actions they make and the consequences which result.

With nearly 10 million kilometers of land, holding over 10 percent of the world’s plants and terrestrial vertebrate species, China’s rich biodiversity is faced with a critical situation. With international trade increasing in China at increasing rates, exotic pests and invasive plants are creating additional stress for the already endangered varieties of medicinal plants, fungi and herbs. Who is responsible for saving the Chinese environment? While the government is playing an important role, I believe businesses need to play a stronger role in protecting these future resources. Imagine the economic difference between finding a fungus in the Chinese forest which holds a cure for Alzheimer’s vs. clear cutting a few acres of the same forest to sell as lumber. The answer should be obvious…

Submitted by Steve Rodger

This entry was posted in 2011 Student , Blogroll , Uncategorized . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Biological Business in China

  1. Chris Carr says:

    A very interesting article. It’s fascinating to learn about some of the differences between traditional Chinese medicine and Western approaches.

  2. Ashley Smith says:

    Steve makes several good points to the importance of preserving the environment in China. However, my question is how are we actually going to do this? It is very difficult to get an entire country (especially the size of China) to agree that the long term benefits of preserving the forest and the environment outweigh the short term benefits of continually expanding westward.

    The same thing has been happening in South America for a long time. The local people have no choice but to cut down the rainforest because it is their source of revenue. It is their means of survival. I have a feeling that China may be feeling similarly but more in the business context. China wants its’ economy, markets, and businesses to survive and it seems that destroying the environment is the price China is willing to pay. How do we stop China from destroying such valuable resources when it feels like it is necessary to cut them down?

  3. Lonnie says:

    I think the women, children and their families, who are now part of a 500% increase in cancer deaths in less than ten years, will rally the populace. The masses, through as many a 17,900 riots/demonstrations this years alone, will cause the government to wake up to the need for conservation, clean water, air and treatment for the ills industrialization has brought here….

    Nice post…

    Greetings from South China

    Lonnie B Hodge

  4. Chris Carr says:

    Lonnie — thanks for the post! As someone living there full-time and in the trenches, do you think that the level of freedom of assembly/associataion in China is, or will develop to, a high enough level so that the masses can, in fact, rise up “enough” and be effective to get the government to move more quickly on some of the issues China is grappling with (e.g., better protecting the enviroment, not let the gap between rich and poor go completely nuts, etc.)?

    Great blog, by the way (One Man Bandwidth). I love reading your stuff.


  5. Danny Allustiarti says:

    I think this is a very important topic to think about. I agree that this is a very complex issue. It is easy to say that the Chinese should do more to protect the environment. I think they should, but it is not just that simple. The ‘Food is Heaven’ section of the China Rises video really opened my eyes to why I think helping preserve the environment is necessary for the future.

    The water supply in China is becoming more and more polluted/contaminated by the various factories that are dumping waste into the water. This is not only starting to pose a huge problem for workers that rely on these water supplies, but also on the population as a whole. Those contaminated water supplies are being used in the agriculture industry. Because of this, many of these foods are not qualified to enter the USA because of the many regulations and standards we have for our food. These crops are being used to feed the people of China. It is early to tell the health issues and repercussions of these actions, but I think it would be better to address the issue now before it is too late.

    As for deforestation, I think this is an issue that not only needs to be addressed in China, but on a global scale. Many scientists attribute El Nino to the fact that the deforesting that went on hundreds of years ago had a major impact on the climate, in which resulted in droughts and floods hundreds of years later. But as stated above, economies need lumber in order to survive. So, there is a huge tradeoff between what benefits the now and what harms the future. What do you guys think about the water supply and deforestation issues?

  6. Christopher Arena says:

    Before getting onto the topic of corporate responsibility, the environment and ethics, two things jump out at me.

    First, the connection between Dr. Morris’s presentation on China and the contents of this article are amazing. It’s surprising that Western medical companies are just now realizing that China has a thousand year head start on curing medical problems with plants and substances found in rainforests and nature.

    Second, the co-operation being exhibited by both the Chinese and foreign drug manufactures is great. Not that I am an expert in international relations, but I can’t recall a situation where two groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum have been so willing to co-operate. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.

    Recently it has become apparent that answers to many medical secretes could lie in the worlds tropical and remote forest regions. Unfortunately, many of these lands are being destroyed due to deforestation and urbanization. Herein lies the question. How concerned are multinational conglomerates about deforestation and preservation of ecosystems? How concerned is the Chinese government about over population and urbanization of farmlands? (The answer to the latter question is very concerned) Is the bottom line more important, or is providing a clean healthy place for our children to live the priority? Not to get onto an ideological rant but it’s a basic question of ethics. Where do our priorities ly? It is clear that the Chinese are very aware and are taking steps to curb overpopulation. But it is not so clear if big corporations are so concerned with the ecological conditions left in their wake.

  7. Lonnie says:

    Thanks for the comments…

    Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that the rural poor will lead the way in China’s reformation.

    The majority of my students are rural born and raised and surprisingly many are anxious to return to their homes to improve the quality of living for their neighbors. I believe that education and abject poverty will soon prove to be a lethal mix for the current system.

    If you guys head South I hope you will let me spring for some Guangzhou cuisine and expat chatter…



  8. Lindsay Yoshitomi says:

    I can understand the interest Novartis has in finding the miracle drugs. Growing up, I often saw my uncle who is Chinese unwrap strange looking plants and herbs wrapped in butcher paper. They were remedies from an apothecary. Amazingly, I also never saw anyone get over a cold or flu faster than he did after drinking awful smelling brews concocted from the interesting plants. With so many over the counter cold remedies, Novartis may be on the right track. As my uncle used to say, “One billion Chinese people can’t be wrong.” The collaboration between Novartis and SIMM could produce break-through natural drugs, but at a great price to China’s environment.

    Although Novartis gave China monetary compensation for its plants, that does not let them off the hook as far as moral responsibility for the environment. It also does not let China off the hook because someone else is taxing their environment by exhausting their natural resource. Just as the two are collaborating on a business deal, both are morally responsible for protecting and defending the source that contributes economically to both of them. A lot is at stake when you look ahead. Novartis needs to protect its future in more ways than one. If China’s miracle drugs expand the number of natural cures for the drug company, the monetary gains could be huge, but can nature keep up? To protect this lucrative avenue, Novartis must also protect the provider. On the other hand, China must hold them accountable and ensure a moral obligation to their endangered environment. However, with China’s westward expansion, this causes a dilemma and an uphill battle for Novartis. You have China progressing west which could threaten plants that could hold miracle cures. Then you have Novartis and its need for China’s plants. Both movements could lead to extinction of a valuable resource. Novartis has a moral obligation to help protect China’s environment, but China’s westward expansion may leave Novartis feeling like it’s eating soup with a fork.

    Any business that maximizes its profits by taxing the environment has to be held accountable; it’s an ethical responsibility. Whether it’s the oil or lumber industry, Novartis is in the same company. When the balance of nature is upset by man, he must make amends. A country such as China, going through an industrial revolution is also going to place increasing demands on the environment. The Chinese government must be a watchdog as it invites businesses that bring them into the world market.

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