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Coping with COVID creating new opportunities

By HE WEI in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2022-04-19 10:59
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A visitor checks out AliHealth's healthcare system during an expo in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. [Photo by Zhan Yu/For China Daily]

As it has been doing for all industries, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented both challenges and opportunities for the healthcare sector.

It triggers rapid and large-scale responses, such as a reliance on virtual care delivery, an increased focus on mental health and wellbeing, and a push for quicker drug and vaccine candidate discoveries.

As such, leading tech giants in China are pouring money into funding the future of health by investing in a myriad of startups in the burgeoning sector.

The most obvious sign is the immediate availability of COVID antigen self-test kits in March across multiple online stores, after China allowed such tests amid a race to control the spread of the Omicron variant.

An array of e-commerce platforms, from Alibaba's Tmall, to JD and online-to-offline service Meituan, have started selling these gadgets with promotions ranging from 5 to 10 percent off based on each purchase.

But more enterprising endeavors are aimed at building an indigenous healthcare service system or empowering the existing medical system through technologies.

Alibaba's financial arm Ant Group has rolled out a one-stop healthcare digital platform via its Alipay mobile wallet. Its cloud service and office software DingTalk are working in tandem to help hospitals with digital infrastructure buildups.

Since its inception eight years ago, AliHealth, its dedicated healthcare business unit, has formed a comprehensive ecosystem encompassing healthcare e-commerce, healthcare AI, product tracing and medical insurance.

Last year alone saw AliHealth invest in six medical startups, including Xiaolu Zhongyi, an online medical platform featuring the use of traditional Chinese medicine, according to company info platform Tianyancha. Last year's wave alone represented one-third of AliHealth's total investment portfolio.

Leveraging its strength in logistics and supply chains, e-commerce giant JD trained its sights on retail pharmacy and online medical consultation, with retail business at its core. It has partnered with several local governments like Taizhou, Jiangsu province, and Fuzhou, Jiangxi province, to advance digital healthcare services, the company said.

Other internet giants take the approach of financial injections. O2O service provider Meituan invested 500 million yuan ($78.5 million) last year in a surgical robotics firm. A subsidiary company of Meituan also invested in a medical equipment startup.

ByteDance, parent of short video app Douyin, has since 2020 acquired medical information portal Baike Mingyi, purchased a medical technology firm and led a Series C funding of Good Mood Internet Hospital.

Gaming and social media giant Tencent had made more than 40 investments in the healthcare sector as of early this year. Recipients include healthcare information portal DXY and WeDoctor-a medical health technology platform.

Apart from financial injections, Tencent also formed an in-house healthcare business group. These include digital healthcare cards, medical insurance services, AI-based medical solutions and the Tencent Healthcare mini-program, all of which are backed by the company's wide range of offerings and capabilities including data, AI and civic services.

According to a report by consultancy Deloitte, many investors, especially corporate venture capitalists, see the post-pandemic era as the beginning of a multiyear opportunity rather than a bubble in investing in healthcare.

The study singled out China as a key market with interesting innovator and investor activities. It said China stands out among emerging markets, having invested $7 billion in health tech in 2020, while the number of Chinese investors participating in US deals has increased.

"Specifically, products and solutions that address well-being and care delivery, along with open, secure data and interoperable platforms, are likely to continue receiving the lion's share of funding in 2021 and beyond," the report said.

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