With the global electronics industry still reeling from the latest volleys in the semiconductor trade war, biotechnology could become the latest strategic sector in the US-China technology competition. Yet if biotech is divided across geopolitical lines, it could have worrying implications for global health and biosecurity.
An executive order by US President Joe Biden in September last year to increase domestic manufacturing stoked speculation that biotechnology could go the way of semiconductors. Already in February that year, Chinese biotechnology companies were among those newly added to the Commerce Department’s unverified list, making it harder to export to those companies.
Meanwhile, China announced it was considering banning the export of cloning and gene-editing technologies.
A US report released last month laying out various federal agencies’ biotech goals offers some details on the Biden administration’s vision. Basically, Washington wants to reduce America’s reliance on China-made active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). But to do so, new and more cost-effective technologies are needed to reshore production.
Given the higher cost of domestic manufacturing, the pharmaceutical lobby last month asked the White House to consider support similar to the Chips and Science Act for semiconductors. This seems a real possibility.
But moving API production back to the US would come up against the environmental regulations that originally drove much of the offshoring. It could also set back efforts to decrease drug pricing, amid a growing outcry over new gene therapies priced at upwards of US$1 million. India is another open question. The Indian pharmaceutical industry has been vocal about its heavy reliance on China and could be a potential collaborator. But a focus on moving production back to the US seems likely to sour Delhi on the plan when Washington is trying to nudge India into its orbit.
APIs are only one part of the plan, as laid out in the report, which sets out goals for biotechnology applications in climate change, supply chain resilience, health and basic research. Data security, biosecurity and food security will also be major focuses.
The world is on the cusp of an “industrial revolution” in the field, US officials say, that will change the way we make things, what we eat, and even how well and how long we live. It makes sense to focus on emerging industries, where supply chains are not yet too deeply intertwined. And a heightened focus on biosecurity is justified when it comes to technologies that have the potential to be weaponised.