Like the space race, countries competing to develop COVID-19 vaccine

Posted at 1:09 PM, May 11, 2020

In the middle of the 20th century, we saw the world focus on the space race. Some would say the world is again focused on another important race – one for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“What we have is a race between the U.S. and China, in some respects,” said Stephen Morrison with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “This has become in recent weeks a strategic confrontation, a strategic competition.”

Morrison directs Global Health Policy division at CSIS.

“Right now, there’s about 90 vaccine candidates in development,” said Morrison. “Seven of the 90 are in active field trials, four are in China, three are outside of China.”

While most of the world has joined together in a pact to collaborate on a vaccine, the two most powerful countries in the world are working independently. China has its scientists working in Wuhan and Beijing, and The White House announced the United States’ own initiative called “Operation Warp Speed.”

“I don’t think it is surprising that governments, the most powerful governments in particular, are saying ‘this is too important to us to leave in the hands of others, we are going to dominate this and go in it alone’,” added Morrison.

The country that develops the vaccine could become a global “hero,” of sorts, and have an added bonus of having a faster economic recovery in their respective country. Any country that created a vaccine could potentially monetize it and capitalize on manufacturing it first.

“The problem though is that we have to have some form of collaboration, the go it alone logic doesn’t work in terms of scientific enterprise of developing a vaccine,” explained Morrison. “We have to have some form of collaboration outside ourselves in order to understand what is happening in the virus.”

The novel coronavirus is so widespread that Morrison and others believe it is critical to have scientific minds from around the world sharing what they are seeing and what is showing promise in their part of the world. Working on a vaccine in a silo, Morrison fears, could lead to a less effective vaccine discovered or an overall delay in a vaccine for COVID-19.

That fear, along with the reality of what is at stake now, points to the major difference between the space race in mid-20th century and the race for a vaccine now.

“Power and prestige were factors in the space race,” said Morrison. “Today in the midst of this crisis, the open question is will China emerge stronger and hegemonic? Will the United States be able to rebound and recover? So, it is getting wrapped up in who will emerge on the other side of this crisis as the dominant power.”

People were not dying every day because astronauts were not already in space. The cost of working alone to come in first, to become the dominant world leader, in the space race, was measured in dollars. The U.S. spent at least $25 billion on the space race. The cost of working alone to come up with a vaccine first, Morrison fears, could be measured in lives. The number of lives it could cost is unknown.

“This is a planetary crisis, it’s a planetary human crisis, it’s a planetary economic crisis,” said Morrison. “The notion that you can come up with a narrow solution that is grounded in the sovereign interest of a single country doesn’t speak to the gravity and scope of this crisis.”