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Biden's initiative on COVID-19 should include cooperation with China

Biden's initiative on COVID-19 should include cooperation with China
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President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Sasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE is wisely putting together a task force on COVID-19. One dimension of that could be to see what we can learn from China’s recent virus control successes and its scientific and research developments.

Despite growing tensions between the U.S. and China on a range of issues — which the Biden administration doubtless will have to address early on — the U.S. still has a big stake in cooperation between American and Chinese researchers and scientists on development and production of therapeutic treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19, as Dr. Jennifer Bouey of RAND Corporation has noted. These treatments could save millions of lives around the world. The cooperation should include scientists, research centers, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and successful public health strategies. 

There has been a rising narrative among some in America about decoupling from China — and even, perhaps, outright confrontation — but we cannot afford to do that in the area of medical science, particularly given the urgency for developing COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Scientists and researchers on both sides of the Pacific can learn from one another, and public health officials here can learn techniques on how to better control the spread of the disease. I underscore the need for such cooperation not to make a political statement; there certainly are major differences in other areas that must be resolved through tough negotiations ahead. Rather, this is an urgent issue of medical and human importance.

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American and Chinese scientists have a long history of working together in the field of medicine. Many of China’s leading doctors and researchers have studied in the U.S. and worked in American labs and hospitals. Many still do. As early as 1915, the Rockefeller Foundation agreed to provide financial support for the Peking Union Medical College and modeled the school after the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The hospital still ranks one of the best in China, and regular exchanges of doctors and research results continue to take place.

Exchanges of doctors among U.S. and Chinese hospitals, as well as world-class researchers more broadly, have increased enormously since, rising rapidly in scale and mutual value in recent years. Chinese doctors and researchers have made great contributions to hospitals and the practice of medicine here, as Americans have done in China. Additionally, medical data are shared, especially before and during flu season, when American companies seeking to make vaccines can benefit from Chinese data on the most recent version of seasonal flu in Asia.

Much of the early data on COVID-19 came to the U.S. from Chinese scientists and doctors, giving American researchers information they needed to start or better inform their own research.

The exchange process continues. On one variety of vaccine, for example, an American company,  with financial support from a Chinese investment firm, is in Phase 3 trials. Of the roughly 180 vaccine candidates at various stages of experimentation and development worldwide, China is involved with eight. And, as Dr. Bouey pointed out, 30 vaccines are in human clinical trials, eight of which were sponsored by Chinese labs.  

Beyond these examples, a lot of interaction happens between our two countries’ companies, researchers, scientists and hospitals. Much of what is discovered is published quickly for peer review or in medical journals, and thus what is available in the U.S. is quickly read by scientists all over the world, including China. Likewise, research data and publications from China are widely read abroad, including in the United States.

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So an intense, even frenetic, mutual learning process is under way in the search for therapeutics and vaccines that can be introduced quickly and safely in both countries (and elsewhere). More scientific engagement and information exchange is a good way of finding answers in some areas.  For example, some features and components of Chinese vaccines may well be similar to those under trial in the U.S. Some of these are being incorporated in human trials of large numbers of people in China. So it would be helpful for our scientists and researchers to receive information on their safety and efficacy in China as the result of its experience. And many techniques for containing the virus there need to be better understood here.

The Chinese are closely following progress in the U.S. For American companies and researchers, as in other fields, respect and protection for their intellectual property and trade secrets is essential — especially to maintain trust in communications and mutual research efforts. Our companies have every right to protect their trade secrets and intellectual property, and this must be part of any cooperative formula. The U.S. government must insist that they be provided that. Success can produce benefits for both nations and many others.

As Dr. Bouey noted, there is little prospect of a Chinese vaccine competing with American producers in the U.S., or vice versa. She explains that the U.S., Europe and Japan have their own regulations for testing and producing pharmaceutical products, based on the Stringent Regulatory Authority (SRA), whereas China and other countries utilize a quality control regime known as the National Regulatory Authority (NRA). Hundreds of millions of people desperately need a vaccine in these countries; they could be the beneficiaries of a successful Chinese vaccine. But their vaccine probably would not have access to SRA countries — unless, of course, China’s vaccine is subject to the SRA, which so far has not happened.

American vaccines and drug treatments, which are making dramatic progress, could be sold to a wide range of countries, under the right conditions. They should have access to the many areas of the world where successful vaccines and therapies are greatly needed. The need for making available a successful vaccine to treat people worldwide quickly could lead to major changes that would enable one country’s successful vaccine to go through the other’s safety and quality control procedures. But rigorous controls and trials in such areas certainly would be essential here and in other nations.

Even if that process does not happen, each side can benefit from the other’s success. In a pandemic, there are no sealed borders. The virus can be imported to a country by visitors, returning workers, or members of families reuniting and unknowingly spreading the virus. Pockets or clusters of infections in our country have been traced to individuals coming in from abroad. So to the extent that one country’s vaccine or therapeutic treatment can succeed in one broad group of countries — whether SRA or NRA countries — the other group of countries benefits by being less vulnerable to imported infections.   

In a global world, we must miss no realistic opportunity to succeed in stopping this devastating pandemic, and recognize that the U.S. and China — under the right conditions — both have much to offer. 

Robert Hormats is managing director of Tiedemann Advisors, a New York-headquartered financial firm. He was undersecretary of State for economic growth, energy and the environment, 2009-13; a senior official of Goldman Sachs from 1982-2009; assistant secretary of State, 1981-82, and a former ambassador and deputy U.S. trade representative, 1979-81. As senior economics adviser to three White House national security advisers from 1969 to 1977, he helped to oversee the U.S. opening to China. Follow him on Twitter @BobHormats.