Seattle’s global health community has strong presence in China

Chinese President Xi Jinping talks about how the Chinese symbol for the word "people" resembles two sticks supporting each other as he speaks Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, at a banquet in Seattle. Xi was in Seattle on his way to Washington, D.C., for a White House state dinner on Friday. AP

Chinese President Xi Jinping talks about how the Chinese symbol for the word “people” resembles two sticks supporting each other as he speaks Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, at a banquet in Seattle. Xi was in Seattle on his way to Washington, D.C., for a White House state dinner on Friday. AP

It’s not on the official agenda or getting much attention during the Chinese President’s visit to Seattle, but this region’s leadership in global health has already built strong connections to the People’s Republic.

One of the main reasons President Xi Jinping decided to stop off in Seattle on his first state visit to the U.S. – on the way to meet with President Barack Obama in the ‘other Washington’ – was to meet here with Bill Gates and participate in a meeting focused on how best to collaborate on technology and business.

Many years of the Gates Foundation, along with others in Seattle, collaborating with the Chinese on health matters may help inform that discussion.

Map showing Seattle-Washington state global health partnerships worldwide. Source: Washington Global Health Alliance landscape study 2015

Map showing Seattle-Washington state global health partnerships worldwide. Source: Washington Global Health Alliance landscape study 2015

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s biggest philanthropy, has one of its largest foreign offices in Beijing. This has mystified some observers since China has done a pretty good job of reducing its poverty rate on its own, without much help from philanthropists or aid organizations. Last year, Humanosphere explored the question Why is the Gates Foundation still in China?

While the more skeptical might say it’s likely because Bill Gates, as an unofficial but clearly still powerful adviser to the current CEO of Microsoft, simply wanted to have another influence lever in China – whether they wanted his philanthropic help or not. In fact, China did accept some modest grants to work on HIV prevention, tuberculosis and tobacco control.

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By Gates standards, these were smallish grants; the Chinese didn’t seem to really want them to help directly with delivering health care. Thanks Bill, but we got this, the Chinese seemed to be saying.

But rather than pack up and open an office in some needier corner of the world (in addition to offices in India, in parts of Africa and such places already), the Seattle philanthropy decided to shift its focus away from trying to help China help the Chinese to investing in China’s growing role aimed at helping out in the developing world.

As Ray Yip, a widely renowned infectious disease expert and the former head of the Gates Foundation’s China office, explained to Humanosphere last year:

Ray Yip

Ray Yip

“We want to help make China a global center for research and development,” said Ray Yip. “It’s a 180-degree change from what we were doing originally.”

 

Several Gates Foundation projects have already shown the promise of shifting from trying to aid China to investing in China’s ability to aid the poor worldwide – a low-cost vaccine against a deadly scourge little known in the West called Japanese encephalitis, a Chinese-produced low-cost TB diagnostic test and a better vaccine transport cooler (developed in concert with Bill’s techno-buddy Nathan Myhrvold at Bellevue-based Intellectual Ventures).

“Seattle, the Puget Sound region and Washington state is clearly a center of excellence in the global health sector,” said Lisa Cohen, executive director of the Washington Global Health Alliance. Much of that is due to the Gates Foundation making fighting diseases of poverty its primary mission, Cohen said, but it isn’t just about Gates. A number of local organizations like PATH and the Center for Infectious Disease Research (formerly Seattle Biomed) were working on innovative solutionsin global health long before it was called that, she said.

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The Alliance recently produced a report, an economic analysis of the impact the global health sector has on the region – a hard-nosed, data driven case made for how we do well by doing good. It’s available at the WGHA website, entitled the Washington Global Health Landscape study.

“I would argue that we have a unique community almost impossible to find anywhere else,” said Cohen, who added that other places are leaders in global health as well (Atlanta, Boston, the Bay Area, to name a few). But Seattle’s global health community is fairly significant as an ‘industry’ (they prefer to call it a sector) and uniquely positioned to assist others in developing their own solutions – rather than flying in humanitarians to help out.

In a nutshell, the WGHA analysis found that 168 organizations (including non-profits, research institutes, biotech firms, philanthropies and universities) in the region work on global health problems with more than 5,000 projects in 151 countries. The sector has higher-than-average job growth and, in 2013, generated $5.8 billion for the local economy.

“The report shows how robust this ecosystem has become here,” said Steve Davis, CEO at PATH, which has worked on many of the Gates Foundation projects in China.

While the Gates Foundation is clearly the primary driver of the region’s worldwide leadership in global health, and perhaps in helping create many of the biomedical bridges between China and Northwest, Cohen said it’s important to recognize all of the other organizations making similar collaborative inroads – Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center working with Chinese scientists on the infectious disease connection to cancer, Spash.org’s work on access to water, studies of child respiratory illness by the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth, the Infectious Disease Research Institute exploring how to improve vaccines, and so on.

So, yes, Bill Gates gets (and deserves) to sit at the head table for the banquet welcoming the President of the People’s Republic of China to Seattle. But the global health connections between this region and China are not just due to the Gates Foundation. It’s a many headed and munificent dragon.

Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates,left, and his wife Melinda, right, sit with guests during a banquet for Chinese President Xi Jinping. AP

Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates,left, and his wife Melinda, right, sit with guests during a banquet for Chinese President Xi Jinping. AP

 

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.