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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Is the Research Works Act Dead? | Main | More on the NIH's Molecular Libraries Program »

February 27, 2012

Inside A Chinese Pharmaceuticals Maker

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Posted by Derek

Courtesy of C&E News, here's an interesting look inside the Chinese labs of HEC Pharm, a company making APIs and generics. The facilities look good. I have to say, that's an awful lot of HPLC capacity, starting at 0:41.

The idea of company housing, though, is a bit harder to get used to. . .

Comments (49) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Chemical News


1. Anonalso on February 27, 2012 1:33 PM writes...

Living next to the lab...makes me think about my grad school and post doc days.

Being on call 24/7 does not lead to greater innovation.

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2. Contrarian on February 27, 2012 2:01 PM writes...

Being on call 24/7 does not lead to less innovation...

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3. Hap on February 27, 2012 2:11 PM writes...

It depends how many of your employees lose their minds. Or lives.

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4. processchemist on February 27, 2012 2:35 PM writes...

Wide and clean labs, but honestly I didn't get so much of the "crystallization facility" and of the pilot plant. About innovation, no projudice. We're still waiting for the news.

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5. Churl on February 27, 2012 2:35 PM writes...

Don't they have nets around the Foxconn factory dormitories to catch the falling innovators?

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6. grad student on February 27, 2012 3:30 PM writes...

I enjoyed the "team building exercise."

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7. Anonymous on February 27, 2012 3:42 PM writes...

As mentioned elsewhere, there did not appear to be computers connected to any of the HPLC instruments. Are these new models?

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8. HelicalZz on February 27, 2012 4:13 PM writes...

Well, if generics are the plan, the 'pilot plant' is woefully undersized.

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9. Anonymous on February 27, 2012 4:15 PM writes...

Nice propaganda film.

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10. leftscienceawhileago on February 27, 2012 4:19 PM writes...

The video does imply the apparent spread between the worker houses and senior researcher houses, and the implications of living on site. But is it really so so different here?

Many people spent obscene hours (not always productive ones) in the lab during grad school, they may as well have lived on site (compan^H^H^Hschool housing would have been cheaper too).

Man people across in many different fields spend a lot of time working at the office (tethered by phone), in many cases for what really isn't a lot of money.

And the housing spread? You are telling me that senior faculty/managers don't have much much nicer houses that their underlings? Just from looking at the outside, things like very very comparable to me.

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11. ZombieSymmetry on February 27, 2012 4:30 PM writes...

My boss used to want me to do something in microreactors, or with ionic liquids or supercritical CO2, because he imagined that somehow one of those things would equate to a US technological edge. It was as if he thought all chemistry in China was performed in jelly jars and in grass hut laboratories.

While pharmaceutical companies in the rest of the world waste their time with Kaizen events and 5S and operational excellence, those guys are building the pharmaceutical army that will conquer the world.

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12. Curt F. on February 27, 2012 4:34 PM writes...

@7. Anonymous: Agilent (at least, and maybe others) have supported running multiple HPLCs from a single remote computer over local intranets for years.

I didn't watch the video, what brand of HPLCs were they using?

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13. hn on February 27, 2012 5:07 PM writes...

Those worker apartments look very nice, by Chinese standards. We don't know how many they pack into one unit though.

I've always enjoyed living close to school/work. Avoid traffic, go home for a nap or meal, swing by lab after dinner to set up an overnight experiment. Chinese cities like Dongguan, where they are located, are crushing megapolis. It's a good thing to be close to work.

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14. Bruce Hamilton on February 27, 2012 5:09 PM writes...

Curt F.

I only saw a low resolution image, but they looked like Agilent HPLCs ( with DAD and thermostated autosamplers ) and GCs ( with headspace ).

As it's probably a cGMP pharmaceutical environment, I'd expect they would be using a full Client/Server lab software system, so no PCs required or permitted.

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15. Anonymous on February 27, 2012 5:23 PM writes...

Military style pharma, complete with military housing and military drills. Do the scientists have to do "team-building" exercises too? Bloody scary.

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16. Fries With That? on February 27, 2012 5:37 PM writes...

What is their annual salary? Do they have health insurance? Utilities? Who pays for that?
Do they get money or company script?
Can they get married and have children? What happens if they make a mistake, are they fired? Executed?
The housing idea is not all that bad, considering the joys of commuting with 5 dollar a gallon gasoline. Although living next door to co-workers and being watched 24:7 (security cameras,etc.) could start to wear thin.

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17. Chemjobber on February 27, 2012 5:44 PM writes...

@16: Claimed annual salary for new Ph.D. chemists is $24,000.

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18. Chemjobber on February 27, 2012 5:47 PM writes...

@11: The "Kilo Nazi" is effin' brilliant.

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19. Hap on February 27, 2012 7:00 PM writes...

Living in company dorms probably means that if you quit or are fired, you are instantly homeless. Sounds like a great employee control tactic, but not so good if you're the employee.

In the article on FoxConn that Chemjobber wrote about, the employees sounded like they were on call all the time. Living near work (with its lower time requirements and costs for transit) only helps if you have time that is yours and not your employers. If you don't, then living close to work is a bug, not a feature. It also sounds too much like the worker dorms in Thailand described in Mother of Storms. At least you know that grad school will end, and you will probably have options when it does.

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20. JF Tremblay on February 27, 2012 8:03 PM writes...

Thanks for watching the video.

I went to see HEC’s labs, just to see what they had been up to. Then, after I came back to HK, I figured that a video would be good, otherwise people wouldn’t believe me if I wrote “the labs are impressive” and so on. So I went back to dongguan to shoot this. Last summer, I had a piece on pharma R&D in China that was met with much skepticism in this particular forum, so now I try to really show the audience that I don’t think they’re dumb and that I can them some tall tale. A video allows the audience to see what I saw.

The scientists are allowed to bring in their family members to live with them in the family housing. Money is very important to workers in China, so a lot of people will calculate that they’re saving a lot of money by living on the company site. The meals at the ordinary cafeteria costs about $0.40, and it’s less than $2 at the fancy company restaurant. They have a 50m swimming pool, and tennis courts.

As a personal observation, things that have just been built tend to look great in China. But maintenance can be a problem.

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21. PoorGradStudent on February 27, 2012 8:06 PM writes...

$24,000 for PhD to work in the lab? No wonder why the post-docs love working in my lab.

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22. NH_chem on February 27, 2012 10:24 PM writes...

So if you build a fancy lab, does that mean you know what you are doing? I cannot see how a place can build out a cGMP facility and just start making materials with no issues.

cGMP is an environment that needs to take time to grow and get up to speed. You cannot build a cGMP place and expect it to run perfect out of the gate.

I have well placed people in China that have seen first hand people in QC/QA that guaranteed no issues in a new facility. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Go to a place that built their own facility but is owned by Western resources and put their own people in place. I would not trust a straight Chinese manufacturer. Too risky.

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23. Sisyphus on February 27, 2012 10:39 PM writes...

The HPLC's are run from computer chips implanted into the worker's brains.

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24. resveratrolreceptor on February 27, 2012 11:35 PM writes...

is that the statue of liberty at the beginning? also, why does it look like the acropolis?

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25. Anonymous on February 28, 2012 12:40 AM writes...

Dear C&EN - thank you for that inspirational video. Now, maybe you can do a video of where I work here in the good ol' USA. See, we don't have a great facility like HEC Pharma and actually I bought a lot of our equipment that we use everyday on eBay. Actually, some of it even has a cathode ray tube. We don't have an NMR and our LC/MS is broken right now. I guess Agilent has sold all the back-ordered parts to HEC Pharma so we'll just have to wait. And after all, it's likely that Agilent parts are made not too far from HEC Pharma. We understand.
Now I have to tell you that we don't have any people doing military exercises in the parking lot, although there's about 8-10 other tiny biotech's in our little tiny industrial park so if we all got dressed up we could march up and down the square. Also, we don't sleep there either. Crime rate is a little high for most of us. It's sort of a dump. But unlike the HEC video - we actually do have scientists at work in the labs where I am. We've salvaged and scavenged everything we have but it works and it gets used by people who know what they're doing with it. But I guess that's not much of story for you guys since we're looking for more money now or the show is over.

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26. Ricardo Rodriges on February 28, 2012 3:03 AM writes...

It is not about equipment, it is not about clean labs, it is not about thousands of employees, otherwise big pharma would have producing new medicines like crazy. It is about scientists being allowed to do their jobs.

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27. Matt on February 28, 2012 5:39 AM writes...

The video gave me the chills. Especially that army of HPLCs and elephant trunks atop! if they can solve their "ethical" problems and start thinking on their own (which the Chinese gvt is pushing for by bringing back veterans of the US pharma industry) we are soon reporting to our local McDonald's.
Seeing the C&EN watermark on the video is making me cringe. Why is it stll called the American Chemical Society and not the Relocalized American Chemical Society? Still paying your dues on time everyone?

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28. JorgenPK on February 28, 2012 9:37 AM writes...

I don't see how excellent instrument/environment is contradictory to creativity. Otherwise we would have solved the current problems of almost all big pharma: just go back to stone age so that you can be creative and productive.

Isn't it a bit arrogant and sour to assume inverse relationship between instrument condition and creativity?

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29. ba on February 28, 2012 11:03 AM writes...

re: the claims that Chinese works are on call 24/7, tied to their benches, and such: wildly ficticious. I work closely with a major Chinese outsourcing company, and they work 9-5:30. In fact, it's almost impossible to work outside of those hours because all of the workers take company transportation and the bus leaves at 5:30. Period.

And don't kid yourself, $24k is an aweful lot of money when your housing, transportation and food are all paid for. Oh, and your currency is artificially undervalued.

There are SO MANY opportunities in China right now, it's almost impossible for folks in the US to fathom. If a Chines worker screws up big time and gets fired, he can either a) jump out a window, or b) walk down the street to the next pharma company that's desperately tring to hire enough people to fill their labs, or c) walk a couple of blocks and work at the electronics factory that is desperately trying to hire enough workers, or d) walk a couple more blocks to the shoe factory that is desperately trying to hire enough workers, or e) start their own pharma company with government seed money, or f) etc. etc. etc.

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30. okemist on February 28, 2012 11:29 AM writes...

HPLC's do not = drugs. At the large pharma company I was at, every lab had at least 1, mine had 3 or 4 left over and rehabbed from other labs. That facility was not very succesful. As for generics, you certainly don't need this much analytical, but I would believe they have more production capacity than shown here. I have worked with excellent Chinese scientists, but again that does not = drugs, I wish them all the best of luck. Maybe cancer will be eradicated from their research, but I am sceptical.

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31. anana-mouse on February 28, 2012 12:38 PM writes...

Troll, PCR Agent, also known as an H4 Visa vacationer. Gagg.

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32. MoMo on February 28, 2012 1:00 PM writes...

What's the missing piece here, fellow scientists? MISSING VIALS, STAINS ON THE COUNTERS AND OTHER SIGNS OF HUMAN ACTIVITY!

Was this film made by Terry Gilliam? It reminded me of the movie "BraziL".

In the meantime, I am going out today to get a "Chairman Mao" haircut. Just so I fit in when we start taking their money.

Happy Days Are Here Again!

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33. chemist on February 28, 2012 1:58 PM writes...

@ comment 21
$ 24,000 may not seem a lot of money in western countries, but it is quite good when cost of living is less than half in china or any other developing country. Where else in the world you can get lunch for 4o cents?
People comes to many western labs more for good experience and less for money (30-40 K is not bad for a year or two)

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34. KW's hairdresser on February 28, 2012 4:09 PM writes...

"Living in company dorms probably means that if you quit or are fired, you are instantly homeless. Sounds like a great employee control tactic, but not so good if you're the employee.

In the article on FoxConn that Chemjobber wrote about, the employees sounded like they were on call all the time. Living near work (with its lower time requirements and costs for transit) only helps if you have time that is yours and not your employers. If you don't, then living close to work is a bug, not a feature. It also sounds too much like the worker dorms in Thailand described in Mother of Storms. At least you know that grad school will end, and you will probably have options when it does."

or the Katritsky labs for that matter!!

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35. BCP on February 28, 2012 4:23 PM writes...

I agree with the first line of @32. I've been wary of working with some CRO's when we've had similar tours but the amount of equipment exceeds the number of employees able to use said equipment. Signs of activity and yes, work having been done in the past in the same location (aka some "mess") would give me more comfort. Yes, I know this is supposed to be cGMP, but something doesn't seem right here.

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36. Useless Molecule on February 28, 2012 6:10 PM writes...

Chinese R&D is slowly taking over "Western" R&D. Instead of trying to find negative aspects about it, "Western" scientists only have to work hard and stop acting sycophantically on a daily basis.

People in America are simply not working hard enough.

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37. Chairman Mao on February 28, 2012 8:18 PM writes...

Yes, work harder.

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38. JF Tremblay on February 28, 2012 9:35 PM writes...

I am replying to comment 25, Anonymous.
I don't do videos of the US because I am in Hong Kong. CE&N has not relocated to Asia. In Asia, there is me and 2 occasional contributors, one in Mumbai and one in Beijing. My colleagues can do videos in the US and some have done so. My role is to let readers in the US know some of the things happening here.
HEC is well equipped because they're generating cash from their generic drug business, and there's further financial muscle from the aluminum business that is also part of the group (that's in the text that goes with the video, in the magazine). It's different from a research startup.
There's no workers in the HPLC "forest" because they're all sitting acros the hall monitoring the data from the HPLCs on monitors set up there. That's to limit exposure to fumes, I was told. The HPLCs are Agilents.
I wish you all the luck with your ventures. I started my writing career in an industrial suburb of Taipei, it wasn't glamorous.
JF Tremblay

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39. David S. on February 29, 2012 4:41 AM writes...

I work in a Chinese CRO which is just about to start manufacturing generics.
The number of stains and corrugated bits of fumehoods are pretty much up to the level of human activity. We work 8.30-5.30 and lunch is roughly 1$ at the local cafeteria. HPLCs are Agilent and break down as regularly as the Agilents we had back at uni in the UK.

I only posted this highly dull comment because I am sad. Youtube is blocked you all make this video sound fantastic...*sigh*

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40. MoMo on February 29, 2012 3:24 PM writes...

David S,
Thanks for the candid perspective. We feel your pain, although not many comments were actually flattering.

Tell us more about your life as a scientist with such opportunities in research within China.

It is a recurring theme here and we are all interested, sincerely!

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41. Fries With That? on February 29, 2012 4:19 PM writes...

The video shows an overcast sky, cloudy day or massive air pollution?

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42. Bruce Hamilton on February 29, 2012 6:26 PM writes...


The HPLCs were clearly in an instrument room, consequently vials would be in racks inside the thermostated autosamplers, and some vials were also seen on the Headspace analyser. Spills should not occur, and racks should be stored in fridges elsewhere.

Samples would have been prepared elsewhere and brought to the instrument room. For cGMP, any manipulation of samples ( eg dilution/ concentration etc. ) has to documented and thus performed in a regulated sample prep area.

For cGMP products, stability monitoring is a major user of HPLCs with DADs and GCs with headspace, as all the earlier method development during product development has identified the chromatographic behaviour of degradation products. If a company can afford to have HPLCs set up for specific product types, the cost per analysis plummets, as instrument setup, qualification, and verification is very time consuming and expensive.

This looks like a lab for a company already selling ( or preparing to ) a diverse range of pharmaceuticals.

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43. JF Tremblay on February 29, 2012 9:22 PM writes...

David S,

The video shows facilities that resemble those of other Chinese CROs. The HPLC "forest" is one thing I had not seen before, but you can see the photo in the magazine. Other than that, HEC seems extremely ambitious even by Chinese standards. You could contact me via the contact page of C&EN and I'll try to somehow get you my original version that was 8min long. The one on youtube is only 2.5min and I don't have a copy of it. Youtube facebook, and many sites are blocked in China, but Reuters and CNN aren't, it makes no sense.

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44. David S. on March 1, 2012 12:39 AM writes...

@40: To be perfectly honest, my experience as a scientist in China is rather limited. I have only been working here for one year following my Ph.D. graduation, in a medium-sized CRO company which is now moving into generics manufacture. My job is extremely dull and the contribution in creativity which is expected of me is close to nil. The labs are reasonably well furnished but, as mentioned JF Tremblay, maintenance is really a major issue. With the exception of our analytical equipments, everything breaks down far too often, repairs are superficial are far between. I cannot go too much into the details of business ethics but, based on my limited experience, let me just say is not pretty; this is actually where most of my input in creativity is to be found. But beyond the boredom, struggle with the equipment and communication issues, the worst part of my life as a chemist in China is to be witness to the environmental impact of our activity in a country where regulations either do not exist or are not enforced. Solid wastes are invariably dealt with as follows:
1. Wrap in a large rubbish bag. ¬ 2. Dump outside, by the road.- 3. Forget about it.
When I say solid wastes, I mean all solid wastes and that includes dirty sample vials, chemical containers and used silica gel. Now those of you who have some experience of living in China may already have guessed what fate awaits these bags. They are simply picked up by the locals who scavenge for recyclable material in order to make a living. On one occasion, a windy day, I saw a man literally engulfed in a cloud of used silica while loading the back of his vehicle with these large bags. I contacted management, made them aware of the problem and simply suggested that a note warning of the hazardous nature of their content be attached to these bags. That never happened, which reminds me I should send them another message about that.
Having said that, all my colleagues are Chinese or formerly Chinese (some changed nationality after an extensive stay abroad) and the level of competence in the lab is generally very good. Most of them are very friendly and warm-hearted, which is really nice considering that everything else is not.

Oh sorry, you asked me about my life as a scientist in the context of these fantastic opportunities. I cannot say that I have been very much looking into these since I simply cannot imagine staying in China one day longer than necessary. However I do have one colleague who got fed up with the job last summer, and started looking around for a better one. He is still sitting at the desk next to mine as I write this message; it turned out our company offered better working conditions than the four to five places he visited in the area. Another colleague of mine who holds a Ph.D. joined the company shortly before I did, and confessed to me that he preferred his former job. In the year I have been here, not one of the group leaders or lab technicians has left this company even though a lot of them do complain a lot about the problems I mentioned. And just to cover the whole spectrum, I have been told the average salary for a post-doc position is roughly 400-500$/month. The rent for the flat we live in is about 280$/month, we used to rent a 240$/month flat but it was really rubbish, which is why we moved to a more expensive one. This was just to put the postdoc salary into some sort of perspective.

Now this is only based on my own experience and I cannot honestly say it is representative of anything in China. You asked me a question and my answer missed the point almost entirely because... I just needed to get these things off my chest in the presence of a sympathetic audience. I feel so much better now.

@JF Tremblay: Thanks for your comment; I will take a look at the magazine.

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45. JF Tremblay on March 1, 2012 3:19 AM writes...


You'll get nowhere with our contacts page. I got it wrong. I am here:
Fascinating about the trash. I should go have a few picnics with a camera near the big CROs, near the gate the trash comes out from.
Indeed, looking through the trash to find useful stuff occupies a lot of people's time in China.

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46. In the Journey on March 1, 2012 9:41 AM writes...

It is a mixed feeling when read through the comments here. Some actually reflect the reality in the biopharma in China. Some are just simply biased. Saying these since I have returned from US several years ago working in a Western Pharma's R&D site as a scientist. Firstable, things are not always pretty as advertised in the magazine or elsewhere. But, certainly not bad as some of the commenters worried. I wish I could provide you more examples on both sides later on. The whole industry is in booming stage due to many reasons that you all know. Whether it will turn out to be successful or just the same as happened in Japan, no one can predict it. Good thing is that more people who are in the up management in this industry are fully aware of the uncertainty. As you can imagine, they are thinking hard to do drug discovery differently from what the Western painfully experienced in the past decades. At the same time, the government is taking action to better support the growth of the biotech and biopharma in China. So far, as I can feel, it stays positively.

I agree with some of your worries like quality, experienced scientists, environment pollution (as @44 cited)... I have the same worries. But, as the China biopharma is becoming a essential part of the global drug industry, we need to have a positive view or even support on it. This would lead us to a win-win situation.

I am reading Derek's blog in the daily basis and learning a lot from all of you. I appreciate all the honest comments here, which help my career in one way or another.

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47. Sundowner on March 1, 2012 11:01 AM writes...

@36 and @37

Your comments are really infuriating, even if I do not work in America.

In my company all chemists work hard every day, every week to meet the deadlines. But the big gap with chinese CROs is not that you work harder: it is that your price is cheaper due to several reasons. We have to pay higher salaries, higher taxes, follow expensive safety and disposal protocols, which by comments of some people around is something that many chinese CROs do not have to do, because simply, China is not Europe nor America. It is another country, with a different set of rules.

If you want to throw up a lot of clichés, do it. We can do the same about asian people. But please, do not tell me that your are cheaper because you work harder. There are other reasons, you know it and we know it.

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48. MoMo on March 1, 2012 5:08 PM writes...

Thanks David, You are truly a kindred spirit and sometimes perserverance is what it takes to stay in science. So keep up the good work and learn to fix those instruments yourselves! Big Pharma in America has the same problem! Its not rocket science and is just glorified and miniturized plumbing!

But there you have it American Pharmaceutical Industry Executives!

Study parts of what David had to say-then let me know if you can sleep at night dreaming about peasant Chinese trash pickers surrounded by clouds of solid phase.

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49. Pieter on March 5, 2012 8:26 PM writes...

What has happened to our craft? Somewhere a bean counter at a US Pharma is watching this with his you-know-what in his right hand.

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