The coronavirus pandemic has minted a number of billionaires. Take US biotech company Moderna. A front-runner in the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, the quadrupling of its share price has enriched the two professors that created the firm.
Over in China, Jiang Rensheng, the founder of Chongqing Zhifei Biological Products, has emerged as one of the country’s 10 richest men. Within a month of Zhifei receiving the the regulatory greenlight to start trials of its coronavirus vaccine candidate, Jiang’s net worth had more than doubled to $20 billion (as of July 31).
Born in 1953, Jiang spent his childhood in a remote village in the mountainous region of Guangxi. Finishing high school during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, he spent the next seven years teaching at a primary school and working in the fields until the gaokao (the annual college entrance exam) was restored in 1977. At the age of 27 he graduated from Guilin Medical School (now Guilin Medical University) with a diploma and was assigned a position at the Guanyang County Health and Epidemic Prevention Station.
Jiang was rapidly promoted, before being posted to Nanning, the provincial capital, in the early 1990s. His various senior roles included deputy chief of the immunisation unit and chief of the biological products department.
It was not until the age of 46 that Jiang decided to try his luck in the private sector. He moved to Chengdu in Sichuan province and became a sales manager at a vaccine company. In 2002 he took over a vaccine developer in Chongqing and changed its name to Zhifei Biological Products. His focus at the time was vaccine distribution. That approach helped generate his first fortune as Zhifei was the sole agent of the only vaccine in the market that countered meningitis C, a disease that spread in China in 2005.
Opportunity knocked again on Jiang’s door in 2017 when Zhifei won the contract from US pharmaceutical giant Merck to introduce its human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine – a sought-after shield against cervical cancer (see WiC452 on its shortage) – into the Chinese market.
Since then Zhifei has been logging rapid growth, with revenues hitting Rmb10.6 billion ($1.5 billion) in 2019, versus Rmb1.3 billion just two years before.
While Zhifei’s ChiNext-listed shares have been rising steadily in Shenzhen over the last few years, Jiang’s personal fortune received a further boost in July following news that Zhifei’s experimental Covid-19 vaccine (co-developed with the Chinese Academy of Sciences) was starting Phase II human trials. That makes it one of the most advanced candidates out of eight Covid vaccines under development in China (see WiC492).
Before giving back some gains at the beginning of August, Zhifei’s shares had rallied 283% to their high point this year. That added another $14 billion in paper worth to Jiang, who has a 56% interest in his high-flying company.
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“There are some seven to eight years that I did not have my own car. I even had to sell my house and move to the company’s dorm so that I had enough money to repay manufacturers,” Jiang has recalled, recounting some of the challenges he faced in his early years. He says that this commitment to honouring his commercial agreements has earned him good standing among industry players today.
He claims that some manufacturers no longer ask Zhifei to put up deposits, and offer to extend the firm’s accounts payable timeline, because of this hard-won reputation.
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