In War Against Coronavirus: Is China Foe—or Friend?

March 27, 2020 Topic: Security Tags: ChinaCoronavirusHealthEconomyTechnology

In War Against Coronavirus: Is China Foe—or Friend?

Can the US and China be ruthless rivals and intense partners at the same time? Holding two seemingly contradictory ideas in our head simultaneously will be difficult. But success in defeating this demon will require nothing less.

Opportunities for collaboration

Science’s search for knowledge about diseases, discovery of medicines to treat them, and the development of protocols for prevention and healing are inherently open, international undertakings. Biomedicine advances through discoveries in laboratories all around the world. Research is inherently collaborative, more than one-third of scientific articles published by Americans today having at least one foreign co-author. A third of all American doctorate degrees in STEM are earned by Chinese students.

So in the campaign to defeat coronavirus now, and build a foundation for preventing a pandemic caused by new novel viruses in the future, where should the US and China be engaging as partners?  Three key areas cry out for cooperation. 

The first is data—from genomic to epidemiologic. In attempting to assess what we now confront and to consider responses, a central factor is uncertainty: because it is a novel virus, we learn more about it daily as more data are collected and analyzed. But a second factor is the scarcity of quality data about what’s happening in various “laboratories” provided by outbreaks in various countries.  The need for trusted data from each country is a reminder of the importance of agreeing on processes and transparency in international organizations like the WHO.

When Chinese scientists quickly sequenced the novel coronavirus genome and released it to the world, they enabled a massive global research effort. Two weeks later, scientists at the NIH used the sequence to confirm the mechanism by which the virus entered the cells of those it infected, a finding reproduced by a Chinese lab the next day. Even the hunt for a vaccine currently underway relied on an early release of the virus’s genome. When the first vaccine trial began in America, as NIAID Director Anthony Fauci observed, it was “the fastest that we have ever gotten from the time we got the sequence to the time into a human.” What’s more, with genomic information, scientists can compare infections and map the spread of a virus meticulously in a way akin to constructing a family tree.

During an epidemic, rapid data-sharing during the initial outbreak enables countries to better understand the virus’s behavior. Because the earliest cases occurred in Wuhan, data collected by Chinese physicians gave rise to the world’s first estimates of the virus’s transmissibility, enabling epidemiologic models that served as the basis for responses by governments of many countries. And because China bore the brunt of the initial deaths, it provided the first set of data for global health experts to estimate the case fatality rate and to create models to predict the scope, spread, and severity of the disease, ensuring more robust policy responses.

A second area of cooperation involves diagnostics and public health measures. If China developed an efficient process for screening people that could be industrially scaled and applied in airports, businesses, and schools, could the United States adopt it? Conversely, if researchers develop and validate a high-throughput diagnostic that proves to be cheaper, quicker, and more accurate, would that not be shared? Of the $22 billion of medical equipment the United States imports annually, much of which is essential for the American health care system to respond to the skyrocketing number of COVID-19 cases domestically, about a quarter came from China before the tariff war.

The third area is biomedical research—basic and translational. To that end, Harvard Medical School has recently announced a new collaboration with a Chinese counterpart to defeat COVID-19. The leader of the Chinese partner is Zhong Nanshan, the doctor also leading the Chinese government’s coronavirus task force. In 2003 he was the first person to identify SARS. This Harvard-Guangzhou Institute joint venture is seeking to understand the basic biology of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the ways it interacts with those it infects to accelerate development of better diagnostics and treatments.

In order to develop antivirals, for example, scientists need to understand how the virus infects humans—and identifying the door the coronavirus uses to enter host cells could provide clues for designing a lock. To produce better diagnostics and monitor disease progression, they will need to identify accurate biomarkers. Even in the quest to develop a vaccine, because unbalanced immunity could result in a phenomenon called “antibody-dependent enhancement,” where the defensive proteins in our bodies instead accelerate the infection, there is an urgent need to define the precise “correlates of immunity.”

As scientists repeatedly affirm, collaboration in research generally leads to better outcomes. And in an era when no country maintains a monopoly on scientific creativity, collaboration on an urgent topic like coronavirus creates more gains than losses. As governments around the globe seek to confront the pandemic, they should bear in mind that collection and integration of data, sharing of reagents and tools will require intense communication across continents.

In sum, instead of mutual demonization, thinking Americans and Chinese should recognize that each nation needs the other to defeat this deadly enemy. Partnership, even if only a limited partnership, is thus a strategic necessity.

Can the US and China be ruthless rivals and intense partners at the same time? Holding two seemingly contradictory ideas in our head simultaneously will be difficult. But success in defeating this demon will require nothing less.

Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University where he has taught for five decades. Allison is a leading analyst of national security with special interests in nuclear weapons, Russia, China, and decision-making. 

Christopher Li is a Research Assistant at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where he focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific security, and science and technology. He works with Graham Allison in the Avoiding Great Power War Project, which examines US-China strategic competition and Chinese history and politics, coordinates the Center’s China Working Group, and contributes to the China Cyber Policy Initiative, including as an interpreter for its US-China Track II dialogue. Chris also supports the biotech portfolio of former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s Technology and Public Purpose Project, which studies how emerging technologies are developed and managed in ways that serve the overall public good. His Twitter handle is @Chris_Li14.