China Leads The Worldwide Race To Develop A COVID-19 Vaccine

May 19, 2020
Originally published on May 19, 2020 8:21 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The worldwide race for a coronavirus vaccine is on. Yesterday a Massachusetts-based drug maker called Moderna reported promising preliminary results for the vaccine it's developing. But as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, teams in China, where the outbreak first emerged, are near the head of the pack.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Chinese).

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Chinese volunteers in clinical trials proudly rattle off their identification numbers in a news report. Worldwide, eight vaccines under development have been approved for human trials according to the World Health Organization. Half are in China. The Chinese government has fast-tracked promising projects and poured money and resources into efforts to find a vaccine. Experts say that's because the ruling Communist Party recognizes there is much more at stake than just public health. Yanzhong Huang is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says one of the biggest concerns is the economy.

YANZHONG HUANG: You know, there's a strong incentive, you know, to reopen the economy - right? - to have the business back to normal.

RUWITCH: The party's legitimacy has long depended on a strong economy. Before the pandemic, the government was targeting 6% GDP growth this year. In the first quarter, the economy shrunk by nearly 7%.

HUANG: The vaccines would be, indeed, a silver bullet.

RUWITCH: A homegrown inoculation would serve another purpose for the government. Beijing has been beset by criticism for its early handling of the outbreak. It faces international calls for an investigation into the origins of the disease, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Wang Zuoyue is an expert in the history of science in China at California State Polytechnic University Pomona.

WANG ZUOYUE: If the Chinese scientists could come up with a workable vaccine, I think it will help diffuse that kind of blaming or call for even reparation.

RUWITCH: And if China wins the race to develop the first COVID-19 vaccine, it would be a big propaganda victory. Officials in Beijing have disparaged Western responses to the disease as slow and problematic and argue that China's authoritarian political system is superior, especially in the face of a crisis like this. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also pledged to share any vaccine with the rest of the world. William Lee is chief economist at the Milken Institute, which is tracking global vaccine projects.

WILLIAM LEE: A success story with a COVID vaccine would be such a marvelous cherry to put on that picture.

RUWITCH: Before the pandemic, China was already investing heavily in areas like pharma and biotech in pursuit of ambitious plans to become a world leader across a range of sectors. According to government statistics, R&D spending in science and technology last year was 24 times the amount in the year 2000.

The Ministry of Science and Technology is funding many of the COVID vaccine trials in China. The furthest along is a collaboration between a military medical institute and a private biotech company. Chen Wei, the People's Liberation Army general and virologist running the project, has become something of a national hero. She told state TV in April that developing a vaccine relates to national security.

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CHEN WEI: (Speaking Chinese).

RUWITCH: With more than a billion people, she says, we can't rely on others. We must rely on our own scientific strength to protect our people. But with Beijing speeding ahead on its own, national pride risks getting in the way of science, says Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University who advises the WHO.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: Instead of having a complete coordinated international response the way scientists want. This is almost becoming, you know, a race to the moon.

RUWITCH: And it's a race that China wants to win.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

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