Taking a jab

BGI founder’s vaccine comment spooks outcry


Wang Jian: has a controversy gene

Prevention, detection, treatment. Over the centuries that has become the gold standard for controlling disease.

But last month Wang Jian, the head of the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), ruffled feathers when he appeared to have suggested a vaccine wasn’t necessary – at least in the case of cervical cancer – and said Chinese women should take instead his company’s cheap, self-administered tests for the virus that causes the cancer.

“If rich people with nothing else to do want to get the vaccine that is fine. But for the common people I think our test is better,” Wang said.

His comments fit into a wider debate about how to better protect Chinese women against cervical cancer. Over 100,000 women are diagnosed with the illness every year, roughly double that of Western countries such as the US, and around a third of those Chinese women die. But until last year Chinese women did not have access to a vaccine to help protect them against human papillomavirus (HPV) – the sexually transmitted disease that is connected to almost all cases of cervical cancer.

Cervarix and Gardasil – the two HPV vaccines currently approved for use in China – are produced by British-based GlaxoSmithKline and the American company Merck.

While teenage girls are routinely offered the shot in countries like the UK, Chinese women have had to travel overseas to get it – most commonly to Hong Kong.

When the first shipment made it to Chinese clinics in the autumn there was not enough to meet demand. Indeed, some clinics still have long waiting lists, despite that fact that people have to pay upwards of Rmb2,200 ($338) to obtain the short course of injections.

In fact, Wang was not suggesting that Chinese women shouldn’t receive the vaccines against HPV. He was trying to sell BGI’s latest offering as an early-detection measure that could save medical resources.

Wang’s point is that the vaccination is too costly for many Chinese, and that his own Rmb50 home test kit is more affordable. Women in remote areas can also use the kit and send it off to get the results. Some local governments are already equipping local heath workers with the BGI test.

In past interviews Wang has also spoken out about his desire to roll the test out globally to help women in remote parts of India and Africa.

Yet many Chinese watching his most recent Tencent interview were angered because he got basic facts wrong, seemingly with the goal of promoting his product.

Vaccines against HPV do not need to be repeated every five years, as he said, nor is there any evidence to suggest that Western vaccines are less effective on Chinese people because of genetic differences.

“Detection cannot replace prevention,” rebutted Sina News.

“A high-tech company, whose products are used by people, should have a culture of honesty and a respect for science,” a gynaecologist also hit back in the Southern Metropolis Daily.

Yet Wang is no stranger to controversy. Shortly after BGI was founded in 1999 it was kicked out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences for being “too crazy”; some are uneasy about the firm’s research into the genetic causes of intelligence.

Wang himself is a colourful character: a fitness enthusiast who has climbed Mount Everest, he is rarely seen in anything other that sports clothes and he speaks in a straightforward, unpolished manner.

His relationship with the Chinese government can be strained. Wang has criticised the Communist-led system for stifling ambition and innovation. In 2007 BGI left Beijing and moved to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, to be as far away from the establishment as possible (see WiC195).

With that background, Wang is unlikely to be fazed by the public outcry he has just stoked up.

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