A financially troubled Chinese real-estate developer has reneged on a major pledge to Harvard University, leaving a shortfall of millions of dollars for a COVID-19 research effort involving hundreds of experts from academia and industry across Massachusetts.
This is the second multimillion-dollar gift to Harvard that China Evergrande Group has struggled to deliver in recent years, and it also follows a disappointing hospital venture that the company launched with Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Evergrande had pledged $115 million to fund a pathbreaking research effort to fight COVID-19, just as the coronavirus was sweeping the globe in early 2020. Over five years, $57.5 million each would go to Harvard and Chinese scientists.
The company provided about $12 million to the Harvard-led initiative in 2020, according to Dr. Bruce Walker, co-leader of the project. But the giant real-estate firm did not make its second installment last year, he said. Evergrande has been in crisis, laboring to pay creditors as it grapples with more than $300 billion in liabilities. It is now officially in default.
The Evergrande pledge launched an unprecedented collaboration: the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, bringing together hundreds of experts from universities, hospitals, the biopharma industry, and other institutions across the state. Consortium participants have worked on multiple pandemic-related fronts, including COVID-19 testing, vaccines, and treatments.
Evergrande’s support “was extremely effective in the first year, and obviously we could do so much if we had that kind of funding again. But sadly we don’t,” said Walker, who directs the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, in one interview last year. Walker said he believed Evergrande’s massive debts were “part of the issue” as to why the company has not followed through on its pledge.
“In terms of our financial planning, we’re not planning on other funds from Evergrande,” Walker said this month.
Harvard Medical School dean George Daley, who spearheaded the creation of the consortium, declined to discuss details of the Evergrande gift. But he acknowledged that “Evergrande’s initial support was catalytic in jumpstarting the critical work of the consortium.”
Daley emphasized, “I sincerely cannot think of a more important effort that I’ve had the privilege to convene, and I’ve been awed and inspired by how it’s grown and flourished.”
Evergrande representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Years earlier, another Evergrande donation to Harvard also launched initiatives, but there, too, the company had trouble delivering on its promise.
In December 2013, the university announced that Evergrande funds were supporting the creation of three Harvard centers: the Center of Mathematical Sciences and Applications, the Center for Green Buildings and Cities at the Graduate School of Design, and the Evergrande Center for Immunologic Diseases at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Harvard mathematics professor Shing-Tung Yau, known as a prodigious fund-raiser, had connected Evergrande’s billionaire chairman, Hui Ka Yan, with the university, paving the way for the gift. Yau went on to direct the new math center supported by Evergrande.
Harvard officials refused to say how big that 2013 pledge was. But Yau did not hesitate: “I helped raise $200 million from the Evergrande Group, China’s largest real estate developer, to found three new centers,” Yau stated in a memoir he co-wrote.
The Boston Globe Spotlight Team recently explored another Evergrande project involving Brigham and Women’s Hospital that originated around the same time, with Yau as matchmaker. Brigham Health, the umbrella entity that includes the Harvard-affiliated hospital, made a deal worth millions with Evergrande to help create a hospital for elites in China. The venture was largely a failure, with very few patients, and Brigham’s contract with Evergrande ended last June.
Meanwhile Evergrande’s promised funds to Harvard didn’t always arrive on time. Its payments for Yau’s new math center, for example, were repeatedly late — sometimes months late — and Yau sought out smaller donors to help support the center’s work, according to a person connected to Harvard with knowledge of the center’s funding, who asked for anonymity because of career concerns.
Yau declined repeated requests for comment.
Harvard officials refused to discuss financial details of Evergrande’s 2013 gift, including how much it had received in total. “We don’t comment on individual gifts or donors,” said a spokesperson for Harvard, which boasts an endowment of more than $53 billion.
Harvard’s extensive relationship with Evergrande began in an atmosphere of enthusiasm. The company’s announcement of its 2013 gift featured photos of a signing ceremony hosted by Harvard, with then-president Drew Faust and Hui, the Evergrande chairman, exchanging gifts.
Days after becoming Harvard’s new president in 2018, Lawrence Bacow hosted Hui and his entourage in a campus visit that included a museum tour and a grand banquet. The next year, Bacow met with Hui at Evergrande’s Hong Kong headquarters, and media accounts reported that university officials discussed cooperation with Evergrande on research for electric vehicles. A Harvard spokesperson said no initiatives resulted from that visit.
When COVID-19 struck in early 2020, the effort to create the consortium came together with lightning speed. Dr. Jack Liu, then chief quality officer for the Brigham-affiliated Boao Evergrande International Hospital in China, remembered getting an urgent call on vacation in February 2020: Evergrande leaders had a bold plan to contribute to the virus fight and wanted Liu’s help in working with people at Harvard.
“I went to Hong Kong, and altogether we flew to the United States,” recalled Liu in an interview. He and Evergrande executives took part in a flurry of activity in Cambridge, meeting with Bacow and other Harvard officials to help establish the scientific effort.
“Everyone was so interested in combating this new virus, it was so touching,” Liu recalled.
With Evergrande’s gift, plus $5 million from philanthropists Mark and Lisa Schwartz and more from other donors, the Harvard-led consortium awarded $17.6 million in the first year to 64 research projects in areas from COVID-19 rapid testing to epidemiology and treatment using monoclonal antibodies.
Subsequently, the consortium moved on with less funding, some saved from the first year and some from other donations, Walker said. The group’s research subjects now include viral variants and long COVID, issues of serious concern as the pandemic evolves.
According to Daley, the consortium continues to raise funds from other donors and will soon announce an additional $8.5 million in awards to 35-40 projects at 11 partner institutions.
The consortium’s galvanizing investment is “important for patients, for the region, for all of us to return to normalcy,” said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, co-leader of the consortium’s working group on long COVID and director of the Boston University Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Policy and Research.
“We’re not giving individual scientists millions of dollars. We’re giving them a network, a community, and handling a lot of the administrative issues so the science is seamless,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, a co-leader of the group focusing on viral variants and an infectious disease doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Despite the Evergrande funding setback, Walker is confident the consortium’s work will continue.
“Fortunately we have more than survived what could have been financial ruin,” he said. “It’s not money that’s driving this consortium right now, it’s the intellectual environment that’s been created. I don’t think there’s any going back.”