The US should take concrete steps to expand cooperation with China in health security, building on their ties in this area and momentum from last month’s leaders’ summit, a new report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies says.
“The Covid-19 pandemic, with its novel nature and devastating impact globally, represents a critical opportunity for bilateral cooperation,” co-authors Yanzhong Huang and Scott Kennedy wrote in the report for the Washington think tank, published on Wednesday.
“Although the United States and China have entered a period of strategic competition, bilateral cooperation on health security is more important than ever.”
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After consulting experts in China, members of the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security and a dedicated working group of US-China experts, the authors laid out an agenda for cooperation. They evaluated the feasibility of working together in areas such as Covid-19 vaccines, travel rules, public health infrastructure, biosafety and biosecurity, and supply chain resilience.
Such cooperation could kick off with a visit from a senior US leader to Beijing, in a similar vein to American climate envoy John Kerry’s trip to China to discuss climate change cooperation earlier this year.
“Just as the two sides have begun to cooperate in tackling climate change, they should be able to do so in a similarly pressing issue area,” the authors said.
Reviving what has been decades of US-China collaboration on public health will not be an easy task in today’s “stark and forbidding” climate of US-China relations. But the opportunities for doing so were greater than the risks of not, according to the authors.
The CSIS report comes nearly two years after the coronavirus was detected in central China, sparking a pandemic that has deepened the rift between Beijing and Washington over a long list of issues, from trade and technology to human rights.
Since that time, the US under the former Donald Trump administration blamed China for the spread of the virus, while American lawmakers have called for an investigation into the theory that it could have escaped from a Chinese laboratory – a claim Beijing vehemently denies.
China has hit out at a call from the Joe Biden administration for US intelligence to examine that theory, and defended itself against accusations from the US and its allies that it was not transparent during investigations into the origins of Covid-19 and the early days of the outbreak.
These issues would create a considerable hurdle to moving forward to health cooperation between the two countries, but should not stand in its way, report author Huang said in an interview.
“While it is important to push for China to be more transparent, to be more cooperative in the origins probe, this should not be the stumbling block for cooperation in other at least equally important areas,” said Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Meanwhile, forging better ties on health security could potentially enable the two countries to establish bilateral agreements on issues like pathogen sharing, which could help facilitate a process made more challenging by China’s recently tightened regulations on sending genetic data overseas, Huang said.
Rebuilding cooperation in an area that previously saw significant levels of exchange – such as between the two countries’ centres for disease control – would need to take into account the larger picture of deteriorating US-China ties.
The “the broader downturn in US-China relations and an excessively charged atmosphere in Washington” made advocating cooperation with China politically risky for both the Biden administration and members of Congress, according to the report.
Instead, they laid out an evaluation of agenda areas that may be more feasible for cooperation, and called for both the US and China to draw on existing networks developed by non-state actors, including foundations, the private sector, and the local state as well as government officials.
Three areas of cooperation – facilitating travel between the countries, collaborating on strengthening public health infrastructure and exchanges, and coming to agreements to maintain supply chain resilience for medical goods – stood out as most likely to deliver substantive results in the short term, due to fewer barriers to implementation.
Cooperation in another three areas – Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics, biosafety and biosecurity, and countering disinformation – could yield “high benefits for improving health security” globally, but faced higher hurdles, the authors found.
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