The race to develop coronavirus vaccines is heating up
President Donald Trump is putting everything he has into an investigative effort called Operation Warp Speed, which brings together pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, and the military. So is China, which has an initial advantage at a time when the two countries are already engaged in a dominance fight that affects everything from trade to the deployment of 5G communications networks.
What is at stake in finding a coronavirus vaccine could not be greater. In just a few months, the disease has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives and shattered economies around the world.
Lockdown 3.0: latest updates
While many leaders speak of global collaboration, history suggests that national interests will dominate: the government that can immunize its workforce first will not only gain an economic advantage, but validation of its technological prowess and international influence. If that government is in Beijing, the impact could be as dramatic as Yuri Gagarin’s trip to orbit almost 60 years ago.
“When it is as tense as it is now between the United States and China, geopolitics distorts everything,” said David Fidler, a cybersecurity and global health specialist at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. Should Beijing produce the first vaccine, the United States “will worry that China will arm the vaccine in geopolitical terms,” he said.
More about Covid-19
Both the United States and China have downplayed the competition talks, and Chinese officials in particular emphasize the common nature of the Covid-19 threat. No vaccine has ever been manufactured in the types of schedules that are run, counted in months rather than years. Scientists familiar with the process warn that it is not certain that one can develop at all, much less by the end of the year. So the risk of disappointment is high.
In a recent town hall on Fox News, Trump said the United States was working with Britain and Australia on vaccine projects, and was not focused on who came first. “I really don’t care,” he said. “If it’s another country, I’ll take my hat off to them. We have to come up with a vaccine.”
Health Secretary Alex Azar said this week that the United States hopes to start manufacturing the drugs on its own, regardless of the scientific advance.
Still, in the early months of the pandemic, signs of geopolitical rivalry have been there for all to see, and lack of trust even among allies.
The Berlin state government accused the United States of “modern piracy” for allegedly snatching shipments of Chinese protective equipment destined for Germany, a claim denied by the United States. Europeans are introducing new rules to protect their pharmaceutical companies from foreign acquisitions. China has irritated western governments with the public transport of medical aid to selected countries, and suggests that its success in containing the virus is proof of a superior political system.
The United States is signaling that its own efforts are focused on protecting the American people first. Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday described the United States’ vaccine program as a goal “to develop a vaccine for the people of the United States.” The administration aims for 300 million doses, enough to inoculate most of the country, by January.
China’s research process is now more advanced, with a total of 508 volunteers joining a second phase of testing for a potential vaccine that the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences is developing with a Tianjin-based company, CanSino. Biologics. The results of the trial could be known as early as this month.
Russia has at least four vaccine projects underway, including at Novosibirsk Vector, a laboratory that once worked on Soviet biological weapons programs, according to Sergei Netesov, a former executive at the laboratory who now teaches at Novosibirsk State University. The goal, he says, is for Russia to ensure that its own population has protection without depending on rivals.
Others are also in the mix, with the UK saying that if a promising Oxford University project is successful, the British will be at the forefront of the line.
To be sure, France and Germany are leading the charge for a more cooperative approach, securing pledges of 7.4 billion euros ($ 8 billion) in a Group of Twenty virtual fundraiser on May 4. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, meanwhile, has said it will strengthen manufacturing capacity to make all seven vaccines available, even before they exist, an unprecedented effort to ensure wide and rapid availability.
“This pandemic is a global challenge and therefore we can only overcome it globally,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G-20 video conference. “We are ready to take new paths.”
But past experience is not encouraging. During the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic, governments also issued joint statements pledging to collaborate in vaccine development and distribution. However, as soon as they became available, countries could afford to buy doses and stockpiles to make sure their populations were inoculated first.
The United States rejected the G-20 vaccine initiative, objecting to the World Health Organization’s involvement, while officials from Washington and Beijing have indulged in conspiracy theories and blame games to accuse the other of the virus liability. Trump blamed WHO for failing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and halted US funding to the organization. China is first coming out of its blockade to restart its economy, while the United States and Europe are still struggling to contain the virus and accumulate large sums of national debt to cushion the economic impact, risking long periods of slow growth.
Even the leadership of Merkel’s G-20 and French President Emmanuel Macron is designed in part to offset the failure of the European Union’s collective response to the coronavirus thus far, according to Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, based in Brussels. think tank The perception of German and EU failures to help Italy at the start of the crisis caused resentment and opened a diplomatic window for China and Russia, which sent high-profile shipments of medical aid to Italy.
“Bill Gates said this is like a world war and that we are all on the same side,” says Lehne. “This is not so obvious.”