Politics seen as blocking cooperation on COVID

The political rift between the US and China is detrimental to the long-term fight against COVID-19, according to a prominent American scientist.

William Haseltine, who is also a businessman and philanthropist, referred to China as “our closest knowledge partner” when presenting his new work — a long-term plan for COVID-19 management — at the Brookings Institution last week.

“To me, the tragedy of our tension with China will be in the scientific realm. It’s cutting off our hands in the future,” Haseltine said.

From a public health perspective, China is the standard for success in controlling the pandemic, Haseltine said.

From a global containment perspective, the US needs to cooperate with China, and losing it as the “closest knowledge partner” would be a great loss, he said.

As chair and president of the global health think tank ACCESS Health International, Haseltine described “how badly” the US underestimated the COVID-19 pandemic and has “underestimated this virus and its ability to maneuver the public health battleground”, letting the pandemic evade the defenses of public health measures, then drugs and treatments, and find new avenues of attack.

Now with the fifth wave, “we hold out hope for [a] vaccine”, while “you’re vaccinated [so] you’re not going to die” is still one of the not-necessarily correct assumptions. In Haseltine’s view, it is misguided to formulate policy on that assumption, and in general, “we’ve underestimated what this pandemic is and translate that into policy”.

Haseltine also was a professor at Harvard Medical School, where he founded two research departments on cancer and HIV/AIDS. He also founded several biotechnology companies and was a founding chairman and CEO of Human Genome Sciences, which pioneered the application of genomics to drug discovery.

Before bilateral relations drifted into the doldrums, there were frequent exchanges between China and the US on public health; Haseltine was involved in many of them.

He recalled that the Chinese side sent its top people to the US every summer for workshops for 10 years, and Haseltine’s team went to their central party school to participate in the writing of the book on how to control the pandemic. The Chinese government “followed to the letter” how to deal with COVID-19, Haseltine said.

“I would say the [Chinese] central government realized what was going on well, [and] they just executed what the plan was. I can’t tell you how it breaks my heart to realize the plan we (the US) wrote works, but we don’t use it,” said Haseltine.

Haseltine noted that the plan is not complicated: “Find out who’s infected; contact and trace everybody who was infected and treat them, whether they are infected or not, as if they are infected, because they might be — which means isolate them from everybody else, which means isolate the whole city for two weeks, which means accessing 10 million people in five days.”

Haseltine expressed regret that the US has “the capacity to do it” but “we didn’t do it, and we won’t do it”, and “that’s the problem”.

“I see a government that followed the rule book, and I see people who are willing to sacrifice their temporary inconvenience because other people will do that for them,” Haseltine said in expressing appreciation for China’s performance in the pandemic.

“The outcome is [that] China is virtually COVID-free now. Yes, COVID keeps coming in, so first, they are shutting down Ningbo, then Shenzhen and then Harbin, and then Nanjing, but they’re keeping it low, and people are not dying. So, what’s going to happen to us is we’re going to continue to suffer from repeated bouts of COVID.”

Haseltine mentioned the examples of Australia, New Zealand and Singapore to support his view: they used the China-style pandemic-control strategy and got the staged success; then they relaxed the measures and COVID rebounded quickly.

He also emphasized that more than 700,000 people died from COVID-19 in the US, while China’s death rate is “close to zero”.

Although it has seen a downward trend in recent weeks, the US has been reporting more than 100,000 new coronavirus cases per day since the end of July.

At a webinar held by the Center for Strategy and International Study (CSIS), Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said, “ultimately China is too much of the world’s population, too much of the world pharmaceutical manufacturing capacities, scientific expertise and so on” to be excluded from discussions led by the US on overcoming COVID-19.

“If the world is going to be a safer place against future pathogens, China has to be part of that,” Sands added.

Loyce Pace, director of the Office of Global Affairs, Department of Health and Human Services, revealed that collaboration and communication actually “continues with China, particularly at a technical level”, even while relations are turbulent.

“So, in addition to CDC being on the ground [in China], FDA is there; I have a staff person — they are helping during the tension with Beijing. So those are important to highlight because we haven’t given up on health and the opportunities to work with China, in particular on these critically important health priorities, including pandemic preparedness and response,” said Loyce.

Haseltine identified relations with China as “a broader issue”, suggesting the creation of an entirely more friendly environment and calling “our tensions with China” a “tragedy”.

Seeing China as the “closest knowledge partner — my students and my fellow students are them; they are us, and they’re taking their science to new heights as we are”.

What will China’s Development Policy be after Covid-19?

The many different trade and aid policies being pursued by China globally have been heavily criticised but can developing countries become more independent or will China’s policy reform?

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