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Epidemiologist Warns Congress that U.S.-China Tensions Harm Collaboration on Coronavirus Epidemic

Feb. 17, 2020 (EIRNS)—Jennifer Bouey, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and George Washington University professor, outlined to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Asia subcommittee Feb. 5 hearing on the coronavirus, the great benefits which U.S.-China collaboration on developing China’s public health capabilities have made to the battle against global virus threats. Bouey warned, however, that the weakened collaboration on health matters between the two as a result of today’s increased tensions, has real consequences for fighting the current novel coronavirus epidemic.

When the SARS virus hit China in 2003, China had neither a national center for disease control nor a national case-reporting system, nor could any physician or journalist alert the public of any infectious outbreak before the Ministry of Health announced it, Bouey reported in her written testimony. Faced with its unpreparedness, China shook up its approach to domestic and global health. China’s Ministry of Health signed a multi-year partnership with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department in October 2003, to build up China’s public health infrastructure. Under the agreement, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Chinese National Influenza Center (CNIC) worked together in 2004 to develop China’s influenza technical expertise and surveillance capabilities, so that it could deal with the outbreak of the H5N1 avian flu virus.

When the H1N1 swine flu then hit Mexico and the United States in 2009, American and Chinese authorities shared information and technology to fight the virus, and China became the first country to mass-produce an H1N1 vaccine.

In 2010, China’s CNIC, which by then included 408 laboratories and 553 sentinel hospitals, was designated the fifth WHO Collaborating Center for Reference and Research on Influenza. The CNIC began testing more than 20,000 influenza viruses annually and training other countries on influenza control.

In 2013, U.S.-China collaboration proved key in the outbreak of the highly-mortal H7N9 avian flu (with a 30% fatality rate) in China, and again in 2014, with the outbreak of the even more fatal Ebola epidemic in West Africa. U.S. and Chinese medical teams collaborated on the ground in Africa, and in 2015, held a U.S.-China Symposium on Ebola, Research, and Global Health Security, hosted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In the last three years of tensions, however, collaborative meetings have stalled; NIH and CDC staff based in Beijing have been reduced; the U.S. closed its National Science Foundation office in Beijing; China has enacted legislation restricting foreign NGO activities.

Bouey urged the Congress and administration to use the coronavirus crisis to turn this around. Rather than stigmas and punitive remarks, she proposed that the U.S. CDC work with China’s CDC and the China International Development Cooperation Agency, to map out potential collaboration on helping countries which do not have health care systems capable of stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.

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