A breakdown in relations between the United States and China could put the entire world at risk when the next pandemic strikes.
For 40 years, the two superpowers cooperated on health and bioscience, benefitting the global community, before their relationship began to falter not long before Covid-19 swept through the world. Poor relations could impede planning for the next pandemic.
The world has a lot to lose if scientific collaboration splits into camps. It isn’t only Chinese scientific progress that will slow down. Western scientists will lose some of their best collaborators and access to important data sources, especially as China is one of many sources of new viruses.
Despite the deterioration in relations, doctors and scientists shared a great deal of information from the onset of Covid-19. All of the major breakthroughs in fighting the disease involved cross-border co-operation, including years of work between scientists in the US, Australia, United Kingdom, China and other countries to understand coronaviruses. The US and Germany cooperated on the Pfizer vaccine and there was international collaboration on most of the other vaccine development and testing.
The speed with which the world was able to respond to the pandemic was in part a product of robust global scientific collaboration over previous decades. China’s rapid integration into cutting edge global scientific discourse – as described in science writer David Quammen’s book on the Covid-19 virus and how scientists worked to contain and defeat it Breathless – made this process more effective.
That process began in the 1970s when the US and China began working together, even before diplomatic relations between the two countries were normalised in 1979. In those early years, there were groundbreaking discoveries, such as the importance of folic acid supplementation to prevent neural tube defects, preventing millions of birth defects.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) worked most closely with China’s CDC on many projects, including establishing one of the world’s largest influenza surveillance networks. It also assisted the Chinese CDC’s transformation from a research institute into an action-oriented public health agency.
This work was deepened in the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2004-2005 H5N1 avian influenza outbreaks. While the outbreaks were contained, they increased concern about the likelihood of a global pandemic. The US CDC expanded into more countries as part of its Global Disease Protection Program. But China remained a major focus, critical to its monitoring work for novel infections and for its scientific innovation.
There was further cooperation in the early 2000s when US institutions collaborated with the Chinese government in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS. China’s efforts were extraordinarily effective, with the number of people living with HIV/AIDS kept to a fraction of what the United Nations had predicted.
Beyond tracking diseases, Chinese bioscience developed with two institutes in China joining the human genome project. The Beijing Genomics Institute became a world leader in sequencing. When Covid came along, many Chinese groups sequenced the SARS-CoV-2 virus much more rapidly than anyone had been capable of doing back in 2003 with SARS-CoV-1.
Things began to unravel in the later part of the Obama administration, and mistrust grew between the powers during the Trump years – worsening as Covid-19’s origins became mired in conspiracy theories. This sparked a response, with China spreading rumours about how the virus actually originated in the US.
But there is hope. Scientists are still communicating with each other. Even at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, doctors on the ground in the US were actively consulting with their colleagues in Wuhan on treatment.
The National Institute of Public Health holds regular webinars with scientists and doctors from around the world. Most recently, in September 2022, it hosted speakers from China, Germany and Rwanda. There is still some cooperation at some levels of government, and the US continues to have a Health Attache and a large Food and Drug Administration office in Beijing. The positive relationships built over years of collaboration are still a basis for resuming closer cooperation. But it will require some patience and diplomacy on both sides.
The costs of not trying would be to split the global scientific establishment, especially if the kinds of controls that have just been put on scientists working with computer chips were to be put on those in the biomedical sciences.
The result would be poor communication, and even less warning and preparedness for the next pandemic.
Deborah Seligsohn is an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University, Pennsylvania, US, and a non-resident senior associate of the Trustee Chair in Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
She declares no conflict of interest.