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[BEIJING] China is set to launch two major funding initiatives next month to tackle the country's major infectious disease epidemics and boost drug discovery.

The key epidemics research initiative targets HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and virulent hepatitis — particularly hepatitis B and the liver cancer it induces.

China has 660,000 HIV/AIDS carriers, five million tuberculosis patients and 120 million infected by the hepatitis B virus.

The funding will support research into the diseases, and the development of drugs and new treatments. The initiative also targets capacity building for prevention measures and the use of traditional Chinese medicines to treat them.

The drug discovery research initiative seeks to develop drugs for ten major diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease, diabetes and mental health.

Funding will also be put towards developing better procedures for Good Laboratory Practice for laboratory safety, and Good Clinical Practice to ensure the rights and safety of patients involved in clinical trials.

The exact amount of money invested is unknown, but it is estimated at around three billion yuan (around US$440 million) for the epidemics initiative, with six billion yuan (around US$880 million) for drug discovery. This is in line with other key research initiatives detailed in China's middle and long-term science strategy for 2006–2010.

Zeng Yi, a senior virologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and a member of the key epidemics initiative's steering committee, says the initiative will pool resources to make bigger breakthroughs, such as vaccines for hepatitis B. 

"Many individual research projects under the initiative could be streamlined to combine the pathological discoveries and the corresponding preventive or therapeutical measures," Zeng told SciDev.Net

Li Youping, a professor of public health at the Chengdu-based Sichuan University and a drug evaluation expert working for the WHO, says, "My team have found many new trends in the three epidemics in China, such as the high incidence of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. The key research initiative can combine national resources to fight them".

"But my worry is with the new initiative, more money could be given to scientists who already have many research funds, while the grassroots medical workers cannot get money for their practical work," Li told SciDev.Net.

The epidemics initiative was first approved by the State Council, China's cabinet in June, but the Ministry of Health only issued a call for grant applications on 18 August with a deadline of 31 August. The drug discovery initiative has a deadline of 11 September for applications. Successful projects for both initiatives will be announced later this month while funds will be distributed in October.

The short deadline has attracted criticism among some Chinese scientists, according to a report in Nature. They say the last minute rush for applications could reduce the quality of proposals.

And the short review time for applications has led some to suggest it would favour only those who knew about the call in advance of the official announcement.

Link to news article in Nature