How Many Lives Would Have Been Saved if We Had Collaborated on Vaccines With China?

November 21, 2020

We know that Republican office holders are not allowed to say that Joe Biden won the election. Apparently, there is a similar ban in place for news outlets when it comes to the question of the United States collaborating with China, and other countries, in developing vaccines against the pandemic.

In recent days, there have been articles in several major news outlets about how China vaccinated close to 1 million people, under an Emergency Use Authorization, for vaccines that are currently in Phase 3 clinical testing (here, here, here, and here). While the large-scale distribution of vaccines, that have not completed testing for safety and effectiveness, is probably not a good public health practice, none of these pieces raised any questions about whether the United States and other countries, might have benefited from access to the Chinese vaccines.

It would not be reasonable to distribute Chinese vaccines here based on safety and effectiveness data that had not been thoroughly vetted by the Food and Drug Administration. But, if we had chosen to go a collaborative route in developing vaccines, we could have done our own tests, in addition to using data available from tests done by the Chinese manufacturers. 

And, the claims made in these pieces do suggest a high degree of effectiveness. For example, the CEO of Sinopharm, one of the leading vaccine manufacturers, claimed that they gave the vaccine to 81 of the 99  people in an overseas office of a major Chinese corporation. He said there was an outbreak in the office, and 10 of the 18 people who were not vaccinated became infected. None of the 81 people who were vaccinated became infected. This is of course not a carefully controlled clinical trial, and claims by the CEO of the company should be viewed with skepticism, but if anything close to this claim is true, it would suggest that we could have had an effective vaccine much sooner if we had chosen a route of international collaboration with China.

There are now many people in both political parties who want to have a new Cold War with China. There are certainly grounds to have complaints about China’s conduct, most importantly its abysmal human rights record and specifically its abuse of its Uighur population. But regardless of what we think of its government, it is not going away. 

For this reason, it makes sense to cooperate in areas of mutual benefit. Developing vaccines and treatments against the pandemic would have been an obvious example. Going forward, this applies to biomedical research more generally. It also applies to developing solar and other forms of clean energy in the effort to combat global warming. 

It is unfortunate that hostility to China, and the absurd “America First!” philosophy of the Trump administration, along with a quest for pharmaceutical industry profits, prevented this sort of collaboration on a vaccine. It would be interesting to speculate on how many lives here and elsewhere could have been saved if we adopted this approach. Unfortunately, reporters at major news outlets are not allowed to ask this sort of question.

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