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Can China, US Join Hands Against COVID-19?

Mar 11, 2020
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University
  • Li Zhuyun

    medical investor and former employee at Novartis in Boston

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, China has been enforcing strict quarantines nationwide and has sent its best doctors to Hubei province to help prevent and control it. People all over the country have made great efforts to combat the outbreak.

The epidemic has been reined in significantly in China. New cases of the potentially deadly pneumonia, or COVID-19, have not been trending upward for a while. However, in the United States and elsewhere, there have been many new confirmed cases and deaths. As the numbers continue to rise, the U.S. medical system will face a severe test. The country’s government should work with China in the fight against the epidemic, as cooperation can only make bilateral relations more durable. 

Working with the WHO 

The United States should learn from China’s response to the epidemic but not copy it. All countries must follow World Health Organization recommendations and make judgments and enact policies to control the spread of the epidemic based on their national conditions, especially policies for restricting travel and enforcing large-scale quarantines.

As they respond to a new type of epidemic, countries must urgently activate national preparedness and response plans to increase their benefits. Overreactions, especially in the case of inadequate preparation of materials and goods and people’s lack of medical knowledge, often lead to a surge in demand for medical supplies and daily necessities. For example, the improper implementation of a tough travel restriction will only trigger panic-buying and cause fear to surge.

To slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Chinese government resolutely adopted strict prevention and control policies. By contrast, the U.S. government is currently adopting mitigation measures similar to those taken by former President Barack Obama in response to the H1N1 flu in 2009. While working to minimize social impact, it is concentrating social resources to improve logistics to increase the reserve of medical resources and distribute them more rationally. The danger of this policy is that there is no restriction on population movements, which may lead to the wider spread of the virus.

The WHO also believes that the way China is working against the epidemic could be the most effective way for it to deal with the outbreak, but it may not work for the United States or other Western countries.

First, massive quarantines require social mobilization and personnel placement. The people will have to be mobilized toward complete community supervision, screening and communication in a short period of time. Under the so-called democratic systems, Western countries have complex decision-making processes and often lack execution ability, unlike China, which has higher organizational and mobilization capabilities.

Second, medical masks are widely used in China to prevent the spread of disease. The United States simply cannot produce or buy masks sufficient to meet its needs in the short term. To avoid the spread of panic, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence warned the public at a White House news conference that there is no need to snap up masks.

In addition, all countries should be ready to participate. Any country refusing to act is shortsighted. Some U.S. doctors of Chinese ancestry co-authored an open letter to Pence and the secretary the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on how to optimize controls in the United States. The experts offered 10 suggestions for optimizing control of the epidemic. To improve preventive capacity, it was proposed that certain hospitals or clinics be designated as specialized treatment centers in large cities, and that unnecessary large gathering activities should be eliminated wherever possible.

Ignoring the truth and sincere suggestions from other countries will not lead to miracles in the United States. The U.S. once said that China should be responsible for global public health. It should now give itself the same advice. 

Cooperation needed 

First, China and the United States, as major countries, should share resources and play a leading role in global healthcare. In response to the epidemic, the Chinese government has taken action at all levels of society since the Chinese New Year to diagnose, quarantine and treat infected people. Nucleic acid detection kits have successively obtained registration certificates. To avoid missed detection, computed tomography scans (CT) have also been included among the detection modes.

Pharmaceutical companies immediately started the development of antiviral drugs and are working toward clinical validation. In February, an antiviral drug developed by Gilead Sciences, Inc., an American company, appeared to have cured a COVID-19 patient in the United States. Subsequently, the company cooperated with China in a clinical trial in Wuhan. The 761 COVID-19 patients currently in the test group are undergoing treatment and follow-up.

At the end of February, the American pharmaceutical company Moderna announced that it had successfully developed a human vaccine against COVID-19, and had sent the first batch to the U.S. National Institutes of Health for clinical trials. The messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) drug development platform, also from Moderna, has greatly reduced the cost and time of early drug development. At present, these pharmaceutical research results are either undergoing clinical trials or are in the process of applying for trials.

Second, China and the United States should not only carry out in-depth cooperation in the research and development of vaccines and clinical trials but also need to strengthen their ties in developing medical products in the current context.

In addition to the temporary shortage of personal protective equipment, including face masks, the COVID-19 outbreak also exposed some problems and shortages in medical diagnosis and treatment. The sensitivity and detection limits of the nucleic acid diagnostic kits currently in clinical use need to be improved. A certain number of markers must be accumulated in the body before they can be detected with the current method. By the time they are detected, the patient’s condition will have developed and other symptoms will have appeared. More sensitive methods can avoid false negative test results and can thus effectively screen and judge suspected cases, and subject people concerned to quarantine or other measures as soon as possible.

Similar to other public health issues, information exchange and resource sharing are the basic prerequisites for an efficient solution to the epidemic. 

Governmental cooperation 

The United States should create a better atmosphere for Sino-U.S. cooperation and stop making disagreeing more disagreeable than it needs to be. U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned China twice in his recent State of the Union address and emphasized that the United States was coordinating and working closely with the Chinese government to fight the epidemic.

However, the recent actions of the United States have not convincingly demonstrated its sincerity in cooperating with China. Instead, the U.S. government and Congress have continued to ramp up their attacks on China without constraint. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even blamed China for the inadequate epidemic prevention in the U.S., saying that the incomplete data provided by China put the United States in a bad position. It was a messy signal that contradicted Trump’s policy. These actions have poisoned the political atmosphere of cooperation between the two countries.

 Public health is closely related to the health and lives of the people of the two countries. It would be better for China and the United States to cooperate first in epidemic prevention and control. This will let the people of the two countries truly feel the positive effect of cooperation, and respond with the facts to the notion fostered by some in the U.S. that China-U.S. cooperation is not beneficial.

As the joint China-U.S. response to climate change became the highlight of Sino-U.S. cooperation during Barack Obama’s term as president, American politicians should have enough political wisdom and determination to work with China to cope with the current epidemic. Tough suppression and unreasonable accusations against China will not be beneficial to the United States in its fight against the epidemic, nor will they be conducive to Sino-U.S. relations and the real well-being of the two peoples.

 It is imperative for China and the United States to strengthen ties in global supply chains. Affected by the epidemic, the temporary closure of Chinese factories and the disruption of shipping routes have affected the supply of raw materials in manufacturing and both upstream and downstream processing.

COVID-19 cases have been reported in more than 80 countries around the world. It is expected that supply chains will continue to be blocked or slowed. In the medical and pharmaceutical fields, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that 80 percent of the United States’ APIs, especially many key antibiotics and antipyretics, are imported from foreign countries, and China is the largest — in some cases even the sole — global supplier of the active ingredients of some important drugs.

In the context of the epidemic, all countries and companies must learn the importance of diversification of the supply chain and gain a deeper understanding of the significance of interest inclusiveness and integration.

Tariffs and retaliatory tariffs in the Sino-U.S. trade war in recent years have also caused multinational companies to reflect on their dependence on China. The U.S. government, as well as companies, should be active and cooperative in participating in the diversification of the industrial chain, rather than exclude other countries. The United States should be aware that both countries will face a series of global challenges in the future, and neither of them can tackle them alone. If the U.S. wants to claim that its “America First” approach is not isolationism, then it should avoid excluding China from the industrial chain or decoupling the chain from its trade with China. Only in this way can global prosperity and stability be ensured. 

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