Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

Combating COVID-19 Without China

The White House is reaching out to global science leaders while China leans into its coronavirus disinformation campaign.

Bonnie Girard
Combating COVID-19 Without China
Credit: U.S. Centers for Disease Control

As China charges the United States military with creating the coronavirus COVID-19 and seeding a global pandemic, Washington is leading its own efforts to unite scientific communities in the rest of the world to share information and resources in a race to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus and develop a vaccine to prevent it in the future.

In the United States, that collaboration is being headed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Calling its efforts “Scientific Diplomacy,” the OSTP is coordinating with science leaders and advisers in countries around the globe to focus scientifically-based solutions on the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leading the effort for the White House is the president’s science adviser, Director of OSTP Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier. Droegemeier is a member of President Donald Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force.

According to the OSTP, Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and several member nations of the EU have all engaged in teleconferences with the United States this month, seeking to ensure that maximum resources are mined for information on the novel coronavirus, and then directed at combating the illness and its spread.

Droegemeier, a fierce advocate for the joint roles of science and technology in education, industry, and government, noted at a meeting at the White House in early February, “People care a heck of a lot about what science does, even if they don’t care that much about science itself.”

Seven weeks later, those words seem prophetic, with the world looking to science to slow and eventually halt the progress of the virus.

The international group of scientists working to combat the virus, led by Droegemeier, has pushed to “make all COVID-19-related publications and associated data immediately available in a public repository such as PubMed Central.” The OSTP reports that “over three dozen and journals answered the call-to-action.”

This means that the epidemiologic knowledge necessary to understand deeper characteristics of the virus and its infection patterns will be available to researchers around the world. As open-source information, that data presumably will also be accessible by countries not participating in the global forum sponsored by the White House.

The bureaucracy of American federal departments and agencies that create and carry out U.S. government science policy, initiatives, and research is large and labyrinthine.

The majority of cabinet departments familiar to the public (Defense, Energy, and Agriculture, for example), and several well-known independent federal agencies, such as NASA and the Smithsonian, are funded by the U.S. budget to carry out R&D activities relevant to their areas of scope and interest.

But the OSTP, a less publicly known but no less powerful executive branch entity, oversees the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The NSTC, a Cabinet-level council chaired by the sitting president, “is the principal means within the Executive Branch to coordinate science and technology (S&T) policy across the diverse entities that make up the Federal research and development enterprise.”

The vice president, secretaries of cabinet departments, and heads of agencies with significant S&T responsibilities are all members of the NSTC.

Droegemeier co-chairs three of the NSTC’s six primary committees. Critical U.S. policy affecting the economy, military capabilities, and the comparative competitiveness of the United States is made in his orbit. Ultimately, the discussion and the decisions taken by these groups speak directly to the national security of America.

Now, in the face of the pandemic, the outcomes of their deliberations also involve the security and welfare of the world.

China’s absence from the international COVID-19 discussions brokered by the White House means it is missing out on opportunities to both contribute to, as well as learn from, a significant forum of global scientists that is fostering coordination and collaboration among experts to beat the pandemic. This is at a time when the Chinese government says it may now be facing a resurgence of cases, primarily among people returning to China from abroad.

The result of China’s absence from COVID-19 efforts led by the United States means that perhaps the only major forum in which both countries are simultaneously active on mitigating the novel coronavirus is the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO’s chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, and OSTP’s Droegemeier have been collaborating “since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak,” according to the OSTP.

“OSTP is working with WHO to streamline international information sharing in order to improve prediction and forecasting capabilities, [and] characterize the virus more rapidly,” according to an OSTP press release. They are also “collecting and sharing information on genetic sequencing, serology testing approaches, social/behavioral decision-making, and general COVID-19 research.”

But outside of that tangential relationship through the medium of the WHO, China at this point has a difficult path to finding ways to successfully collaborate with the United States and many of its allies in battling COVID-19, should it even want to.

As Droegemeier testified in a hearing on February 27 to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the NSTC has created the Joint Committee on Research Environments (JCORE) “to take a whole-of-nation approach to ensuring the security of our research enterprise, while keeping it safe and inclusive, reducing the administrative burden, and enhancing rigor and integrity.”

“It’s an issue of research security. We are balancing with a different environment today. Particularly China is taking unfair advantage. We have put in place policies that address those issues. Universities are taking a lot of actions on this, policy actions… We don’t want you here if you don’t play by the rules.”

Sadly, although American officials have reached out to China since the known onset of the novel coronavirus earlier this year, the return to a closed, defensive, and opaque Chinese government posture, so familiar from the 1980s and 1990s, dominates the environment.

One may imagine that a genuine willingness to partner with the United States on COVID-19 mitigation would be welcomed at the OSTP and throughout the American research enterprise.

Sadly, however, the Chinese Communist Party’s reputation of suppressing critical information in times of emergency, and compromising the technology of others in times of normalcy, remains a barrier to fruitful cooperation and collaboration even, or perhaps especially, in a worldwide health emergency.