Covid-19 Vaccine & Geopolitics: EU Pushes for Global Cooperation Amid US-China Rivalry

Written by | Monday, June 29th, 2020

The increasingly bitter rivalry between United States and China is drawing international concern that politics will be put ahead of public health if either country is the first to come out with an effective vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. Whereas getting to a vaccine first would be a shot in the arm for China‘s global image as a technology leader, an America-first vaccine could boost US President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are at least eight candidate vaccines moving forward in phase two of clinical evaluation, with developers from the US and China combined having the most candidate vaccines currently in human trials. Two of these are being developed by US-based biotech and pharmaceutical companies and other four by Chinese research institutions. Other leading vaccine candidates are the US pharma giant Pfizer, who is working with Germany’s BioNTech on developing a candidate currently in phase two trials, and also Oxford University/AstraZeneca in the United Kingdom that has a $1.2 billion US investment attached.
“Given that the pandemic has become wrapped up in the geopolitical competition between the US and China, being the first to develop a safe and effective vaccine could bring some benefits to the ‘winner’ of the vaccine race,” explains David Fidler, a cybersecurity and global health expert at the US Council on Foreign Relations. Hence, the Trump administration plans to pump $10 billion into research, manufacturing and purchase agreements in a campaign dubbed “Operation Warp Speed”, which includes six major US pharmaceutical companies, and AstraZeneca, with the goal of having at least 300 million doses of a vaccine in stock by January next year. General Gustave Perna, who leads this operation, has said recently that the US would be willing to work with “any nation that offers cooperation or information relevant to developing vaccines,” adding that this would not include China. Some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned if this would make the US and its allies more vulnerable, in case China comes up with an effective vaccine first.
Public health experts at Harvard Medical School warned in a recent article that “vaccine nationalism,” or a “my country first” approach to vaccine distribution is the wrong way to reduce global spread of the Coronavirus, as countries without access to a vaccine threaten to prolong the spread. And while both the US and China are cooperating with other countries on vaccines, just not with each other, European countries have sought to encourage global cooperation to meet this challenge. Thus, the AstraZeneca vaccine candidate, for example, is the outcome of a British research institution’s collaboration with a British-Swedish pharma conglomerate, with clinical testing being done in Brazil. Also Germany has called for an alliance of EU member states to secure access to a vaccine, and the EU is prepared to tap a €2.4-billion emergency fund to make advanced purchases of promising candidate vaccines.

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