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Foreign Policy

Fighting the Novel Coronavirus Together

Feb 18, 2020
  • Sun Chenghao

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

    medical investor and former employee at Novartis in Boston

In his State of the Union address on Feb. 4, U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned China twice. On one occasion, he said the U.S. was coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely with it to fight the novel coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV and the potentially deadly pneumonia it causes.

Responding to the epidemic, the Chinese government had already kick-started actions to ensure early detection and treatment of infected people. Several diagnostic kits received registration certificates to test for the coronavirus, and medical guidelines were drafted. In addition, a drive to develop vaccines was launched, and promising antiviral drugs from pharmaceutical companies were used on adult patients in hospitals to test their efficacy and safety.

Yet the United States government was the first to suggest the partial withdrawal of its embassy staff in China and the first to announce a U.S. entry ban on Chinese citizens — even after the World Health Organization made it clear that it did not recommend, and even opposed, such restrictions.

One would have hoped that the U.S. government would make a real effort to cooperate with China in combating the coronavirus rather than making empty promises and creating unnecessary panic around the world. China has always offered assistance to the U.S. when it was faced with challenges like the terrorist attack in 2001 and the financial crisis after 2008. The bilateral relationship has become more resilient and enduring as the two countries have dealt with global challenges hand in hand. The U.S. once argued that China should be a responsible stakeholder around the world. Now, the U.S. should give itself the same suggestion.

Around the world, the public and private sectors should work together to fight this epidemic. China and the U.S. should cooperate by investing in medical resources, research and development capabilities in the interest of patients in infected areas. Communication and partnerships on a global level will support the exchange of experience in disease control and meeting medical demand.

It is essential that countries with epidemic-control capabilities follow the recommendations of the WHO and thus make reasonable, fact-based judgments, especially when it comes to travel restrictions. The Chinese government is working closely with other countries to monitor the epidemic and disclose information.

A major epidemic outbreak always triggers a surge of medical and nonmedical products and services, and a top priority is to activate national preparedness and response plans to build capacity. Overreactions, especially from developed nations such as U.S., needlessly spread panic around the world and undermine China’s epidemic-control efforts.

Back in 2009, when faced with H1N1 bird flu outbreak, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama adopted mitigation plans at an early stage, such as standard surveillance and responses similar to those of seasonal influenza cases. The coordination cleared the way for resource distribution and addressed the disease with minimal impact.

China and the U.S. should take the lead in healthcare improvement globally by leveraging resources in a cooperative manner and communicating effectively. Mutual understanding is a fundamental prerequisite for achieving a rapid resolution of epidemic conditions around the world. (The same goes for other public health issues). Clinical trials of an antiviral drug were immediately launched after positive results were observed in a patient in the United States. This demonstrates how epidemic-control efforts can be aided by the effective exchange of information.

China and U.S. have been making efforts to expedite the process of drug development and registration in recent years. However, regulatory policies of drug and medical products have been criticized for lack of transparency, lengthy review timelines, local bureaucracy and other hindrances. The National Medical Products Administration of China has attempted to address concerns by implementing several reforms since 2016 to accelerate drug registrations and encourage innovation. The administration emphasized quality control for clinical trials and manufacturing, clearance of excess bureaucracy by fast-tracking approvals and the swift acceptance of good data from global trials.

The China-U.S. phase one economic and trade agreement states that both countries are to provide effective protection and enforcement of pharmaceutical-related intellectual property, including patents and undisclosed tests or data submitted as conditions for market approval. Both countries should continue high-level talks on the basis of this framework. Obviously, China has committed to regulatory changes and shows an open attitude toward further improvements in the pharmaceutical industry.

Other countries should take China’s situation into consideration in the healthcare market. Besides the temporary lack of protective clothing and face masks, several issues and unmet medical needs were exposed by the outbreak of the coronavirus. For example, ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) devices — pumps to circulate blood through an artificial lung back into the bloodstream — are in dire shortage. These devices can buy severely ill patients time as they wait for effective treatments. In addition, if point-of-care coronavirus diagnostics can be developed, a shorter turnaround time would result and more patients could be saved.

The biotechnology industry in the U.S. has advanced and can provide integrated solutions based on years of accumulated knowledge and experience. U.S. companies should understand the distinct medical needs of China so that partnerships can be nurtured to motivate innovation and manage product lifecycles strategically.

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