US increasingly excludes China from coronavirus research projects

07-Jul-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 10:07 AM Print This Post

In October 2003, Tommy Thompson, then the US Health and Human Services secretary, visited China in the wake of the Sars epidemic.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome, a fatal disease caused by a coronavirus, had emerged in China’s southern Guangdong province a year earlier, infecting 8,400 people and caused about 800 deaths globally. The US had 75 cases and no deaths.

In the years that followed, Thompson’s team partnered with the Chinese Ministry of Health, helping train thousands of public health staff and build a surveillance system that included hundreds of laboratories and hospitals. The system tested more than 20,000 influenza viruses each year and eventually provided the World Health Organization with crucial vaccine strain information.

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That was a different time. Today, as another coronavirus grips the world, Washington is looking the other way.

In a race to develop a safe and effective vaccine that requires all available brainpower and resources to come together, the US government has increasingly excluded China from research projects internationally and domestically.

“This notion that we can just decouple from China, and go our own way especially on issues like a pandemic, just simply doesn’t apply,” said Evan Medeiros, the Penner Family Chair in Asian Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, who also served as senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under then president Barack Obama.

“We have to understand that China’s going to have to be part of the solution. The question is when we get to the stage of producing an international vaccine and distributing an international vaccine, do we want to think about cooperating and coordinating with the Chinese in doing that, because it’s going to be a multinational effort?” said Medeiros at a recent House Intelligence Committee hearing.

In just over seven months, the Covid-19 pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus that emerged in China in late 2019, has infected more than 11 million people and killed 500,000 worldwide. Almost 3 million Americans have contracted the virus and nearly 130,000 have died from it.

The pandemic shows little sign of abating as daily new cases in the US just hit a record of more than 55,000 on Thursday.

Rising death tolls are putting pressure on the White House to come up with a vaccine, which China leads in the development with a number of candidates in clinical trials. But as the presidential election draws near, the administration has criticised China for failing to contain the virus.

At a recent congressional hearing, general Gustave Perna, President Donald Trump’s point person to help lead the Operation Warp Speed initiative to develop a vaccine, ruled out the possibility of working with China on research.

When asked whether he would pledge to work with all countries around the world, Perna said “I am committed to working with all nations that we deem are friendly to our national security.”

“Does that include China?” asked Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.

“Right now, for me, it does not,” he said.

Perna’s unwillingness to collaborate with China in a global public health crisis is the Trump administration’s loudest assertion yet that nothing, not even the welfare of the public, can go above the political fray.

From trade conflict to technology rivalry, tensions between the world’s two largest economies have escalated over the years, causing pain in global trade and tech development. Now pulling back from collaboration in health care amid a pandemic has pushed decoupling to an unprecedented level.

“I’d like to see us have more of a wartime Manhattan Project mentality around this, in which there is a synergy between … [Leslie] Groves types, who manage things aggressively and firmly, and the [J. Robert] Oppenheimer types, who brought the creative genius that got the problem cracked,” said Larry Summers, president emeritus at Harvard University and former Treasury secretary.

“Those kinds of partnerships are not easy to construct, but they are essential.”

Yet, the US government has increasingly excluded China from recent collaborations.

In April, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a public-private partnership the Accelerating Covid-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) to develop a research strategy for treatments and vaccines. China was not part of the group of 18 pharmaceutical companies from the US, Japan, Germany, Britain, Switzerland and France that took part.

It is a glaring omission as nine out of the 19 vaccine candidates in clinical trials are being developed by Chinese companies, according to WHO. China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) said its vaccine candidate became the world’s first to start phase three clinical trials, the last step before a vaccine seeks approval from regulators. The vaccine candidate by Sinovac Biotech, a Beijing-based biotech firm, is also set to start phase three clinical trials in early July.

Soon after that partnership was formed, the NIH abruptly cut off funding for a coronavirus project New York-based EcoHealth Alliance had with Chinese research entities including Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab that some have accused of leaking the novel coronavirus, a theory most epidemiologists have dismissed.

The genetic sequences of two bat coronaviruses developed under the project were used in testing remdesivir, an antiviral medicine that is likely to become the first approved treatment for Covid-19.

“At this time, NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the programme goals and agency priorities,” said Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the institute, in an April letter. The agency also demanded the project stop spending the $369,819 remaining from its 2020 grant.

The grant to the research titled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence” was first awarded in 2014 and was most recently renewed for another five years in 2019 after receiving raving peer reviews.

EcoHealth Alliance said in a statement at the time that the terminated research “aimed to analyse the risk of coronavirus emergence and help in designing vaccines and drugs to protect us from Covid-19 and other coronavirus threats,” and that it addresses “all four strategic research priorities of the NIH/NIAID Strategic Plan for Covid-19 Research.”

“It is clear that this research is vital for protecting the lives of Americans, and people around the world who are battling Covid-19,” EcoHealth Alliance said. “More importantly, international collaboration with countries where viruses emerge is absolutely vital to our own public health and national security here in the USA.”

A group of 77 Nobel laureates requested an investigation into the cancellation. On May 20, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology sent a letter to the NIH director Francis S. Collins, saying the grant cancellation politicised science.

Anthony Fauci, the top epidemiologist and director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said two weeks ago the funding was cancelled under the guidance of the White House.

A representative at the National Institutes of Health said the NIH does not discuss internal deliberations on grant terminations, while the White House did not respond to a Post email seeking comment.

But a White House official had told news outlets including POLITICO that the White House encouraged the decision to cut the funding, but that HHS, which runs the NIH, ultimately made the call. A HHS spokesperson said that “the grantee was not in compliance with NIH’s grant policy”, and declined further comment.

Each year, the NIH grants about $32 billion in biomedical research to organisations around the world. The unit that focuses on disease research, the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), funds 8,868 active projects totalling $6.3 billion. Many of the projects take place in countries outside the US.

Little is likely to go to projects associated with China.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar co-leads with Perna of Operation Warp Speed, the $10 billion effort to deliver 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine for Covid-19 by January 2021.

“The pandemic could have, and should have, been a moment for Washington and Beijing to cooperate on understanding the virus, accelerating vaccine development, and preventing the spread of Covid-19 to other countries,” said Michele A. Flournoy, former undersecretary of defence for policy, in a testimony on Wednesday in Washington. “Our failure to do so has left us all less safe.”

At the Perna hearing, Hawaiian Senator Hirono asked: “It could very well be that China might be the one that actually develops an effective vaccine and then where does that put us?”

Despite questions and concerns from lawmakers and scientists, Perna’s position was confirmed a week later.


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