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China and the United States should collaborate more

During the last four years, relations between China and the United States have been strained, mainly for economic and security reasons. Since the beginning of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, these tensions have got worse, especially concerning questions about the origin of the virus and exchange of information. However, the global fight against COVID-19 requires these two countries to collaborate well.      

In the past, collaborations between China and the United States have borne fruit in the the health domain. Since the 1980’s, there have been numerous scientific partnerships in areas of public health, in biomedical research and in education. Taskforces have created initiatives, with the involvement of the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), the NIH ((National Institute of Health) and academics and politicians of both countries. These partnerships have led, for example, to policies for the development of folic acid (vitamin B9, which has an important role during pregnancy) in the United States, to the creation of a “Chinese CDC” (today the main public health agency), to tuberculosis prevention programmes in China, and to frequent student exchanges (including Harvard and Yale). They have also allowed China to be more reactive when confronted by various epidemics including SARS-CoV, bird flu and COVID-19. As well as the importance of government agencies from both countries, charitable foundations have also played a significant role in these exchanges (the China Medical Board and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example).

Political and economic differences between the two countries have, however, impeded these exchanges and long-term solutions need to be found so that dialogue can be maintained. The Chinese CDC has seen its personnel reduced, Chinese students are subject to growing pressure in the USA, and the virtual dialogue that has taken place during the pandemic has not helped. Nevertheless, the two countries share the same public health dilemmas: an ageing population and soaring population growth in urban areas, problems with the environment and climate, growing energy needs, and a high rate of non-transmissible diseases (diabetes, heart disease, and illnesses caused by cigarettes, bad diet and sedentary lifestyles). These problems, added to those brought brought about by the epidemic, may well overwhelm other, more fragile, countries.  

In order to be able to help these countries, China and the United States need to collaborate and share their different areas of expertise. The US is more involved in world health issues and therefore has more experience, while the Chinese have a geopolitical reach into areas inaccessible to the States and can provide substantial logistical and human resources.  

The current pandemic is showing us the need for global, transparent sharing of information and communication resources. China and the United States should jointly invest in health innovation so that access to medicines is available worldwide. The Biden government may be able to ease current tensions: it has just confirmed that the States will work with the WHO (World Health Organisation) and has agreed to collaborate with the COVAX programme (COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access) to help, alongside China and the WHO, countries with limited financial resources to combat COVID-19. Even though many points of disagreement remain, experience has shown that these countries can work together efficiently in areas of health and medicine.

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