Viewpoint: US faces policy nightmare if China wins race to produce a safe, effective COVID vaccine

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President Trump and China's President Xi Jinping, shown in 2019, have faced criticism for their handling of the coronavirus. Both are now pushing hard for a vaccine. The United States has already agreed to pay a drug company more than $1 billion to produce a vaccine that's yet to be approved. Xi says if China succeeds in developing a vaccine, it will be declared "a global public good."

It’s very possible a Chinese [COVID-19] vaccine could be the first to succeed in Phase III trials. If Warp Speed contenders fail, the U.S. could be perhaps six to eight months behind in developing one. What happens then?

Health and national security experts envision, in that case, the future unfolding like a kind of “choose your own nightmare” narrative, each potential pathway leading to geopolitical quagmires and thorny scientific traps. What if China refuses to give a safe vaccine to the United States, instead using it as a bargaining chip to combat U.S. power? What if the Trump administration, or a Biden administration, refuses to accept it? What if a Chinese “victory” pressures the U.S. or Europe to cut corners in their vaccine development or approval process—a worry only increased by President Donald Trump’s recent comments drawing the Food and Drug Administration into his political fights?

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A vaccine that works will be “the most important human resource in modern history,” says Larry Gostin, professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University… “It’s very possible that China’s not going to sell [a vaccine] to the highest bidder,” he says. “They’ll use it for political influence or political payback or part of the trade negotiations with the United States. … It’s very possible the United States could be at the end of the line.”

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