The Dangerous Race for the Covid VaccineJuly 7, 2020
Michael Piontek believes his native Germany is putting too much money on one vaccine.
The reason is Donald Trump.
In June, Germany paid a whopping sum for a large stake in German drugmaker CureVac, which was developing a Covid-19 vaccine. Piontek was shocked. “Why CureVac?” he thought. The company’s vaccine is based on promising but untried and untested technology and its manufacturing capacities are limited.
But, months earlier, the American president had insulted German pride by musing about paying CureVac to relocate to the United States. The offer, first reported in the German press under the headline “Trump vs. Berlin,” set off outrage in the Bundestag, elicited cries of “Germany is not for sale!” and led the government to shell out 300 million euros for 23 percent of the firm—an unprecedented move.
Piontek, whose biotech firm is also developing a Covid-19 vaccine, says Germany would have done better to invest in multiple companies with different approaches. “Betting on one horse,” he says, is a mistake.
The strange fate of CureVac shows just how much national pride is defining the lines of the global race for the Covid-19 vaccine. While scientists try to collaborate across national boundaries, national leaders are caught up in an old-fashioned game of one-upmanship—a competition that is driving, and in some cases complicating, the most consequential medical challenge of the 21st century. Public health experts say we should be worried.
In China, where a vaccine victory could turn a country that started the virus’ spread into the savior of the world, the virologist and major general leading the country’s vaccine project has been hailed as a “goddess” on social media. “If China is the first to develop this weapon with its own intellectual property rights, it will demonstrate not only the progress of Chinese science and technology, but also our image as a major power,” she said on state TV in March.
In June, following fears that the U.S. could get first access to a vaccine produced by French pharma giant Sanofi, President Emmanuel Macron announced that Sanofi would be dramatically ramping up operations in France to put “Sanofi and France at the heart of excellence in the fight … to find a vaccine.” Invoking the “genius of Louis Pasteur,” Marcon hailed France as “a great vaccine country.”
Meanwhile, across the channel, Britain is celebrating the news that their own Oxford scientists are “sprinting fastest” to develop a vaccine, in the words of an April 27 New York Times article—though the news site Irish Central took pains to point out that the lead scientist is Irish, not English.
And then there’s Trump, who stood in the Rose Garden in May and stated definitively that “America is blessed to have the most brilliant, talented doctors and researchers anywhere in the world. And now we’re combining all of these amazing strengths for the most aggressive vaccine project in history. There’s never been a vaccine project anywhere in history like this.”
Some think the contest recalls the antagonistic days of the Cold War—“a sputnik moment,” says biotech investor Brad Loncar. Others see parallels to the dash to invent a marketable light bulb—an American discovery that stunned Europe and put the United States on the map as a center of innovation. As coronavirus cases mount around the world and economies continue to limp through lockdowns, nations are not just competing for first access to the vaccine, they’re also hoping to claim victory in a race that would affirm their national identities, resourcefulness and power—proving that their character, systems and intellect are superior.
“This national-type race is something that has been around for maybe 200 years at least,” says Naomi Rogers, a history of medicine professor at Yale University. “It’s an incredible coup to have somebody in your country develop something that has such incredible global significance. It’s hard not to feel that their discovery … was the result of the special training that they received in that country, the special resources that they were able to access in that country.”
Visible, prominent scientific achievements “reflect across a country’s political system, its economic system, its educational system,” says Jason Schwartz, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, becoming “a beacon for how countries view themselves and … how they want to be viewed around the world.”
In eras of great power competition, like today, these victories take on special significance, no matter how minuscule the achievement or how tangible the benefits. “It’s like the difference between the Soviet and American [Olympic] medal count during the Cold War,” when competition was intense, and during the 1990s, “when nobody really cared,” says James Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Today, eyes are on the not-quite-cold-war rivalry between China and the United States, who have been trading blame for the current pandemic. Beijing is gunning to eclipse the U.S. as the world leader in biotech and has put the full weight of the state behind the country’s vaccine candidates. Of the 10 vaccines currently in clinical trials globally, five are from China, according to the WHO. “For China, it would be awesome to be first,” says Carafano, even if the benefits are ephemeral—so much so that Chinese hackers have, according to the FBI, been attempting to steal U.S. vaccine research to get there.
Meanwhile in the U.S., months out from a presidential election, Trump is relying on the government’s Operation Warp Speed to deliver a Covid-19 vaccine by January 2021—a feat that “will be one of the greatest scientific and humanitarian accomplishments in history,” according to the administration. Warp Speed is pouring billions into vaccine candidates around the world, except in China.
Patriotic competitions, however, have dark sides. Friendly races can spur scientists to innovate better and faster, but experts in public health, biotech and national security see many ways today’s vaccine nationalism might backfire. It can scramble priorities and lead to bad bets, as Piontek fears. It can goad countries to cheat and take shortcuts, ultimately rolling back progress. A “me first” attitude can also undermine global health. “The danger in vaccine nationalism is that it’s not a race to the top, and of sharing, but it’s some sort of zero-sum game,” warns Ian Goldin, a professor of globalization and development at Oxford University. “That’s what we need to guard against.”
Loncar doesn’t see much of a way out. “One thing that the whole Covid-19 event has taught the world is how important biotech is to society,” he says. From now on, “governments are going to view their biotech industries as a component of national security.”
The “unprecedented” CureVac investment, he says, is just the beginning of a new era of global competition.
Scientific accomplishment has long been a country’s ticket to prominence.
When Thomas Edison announced that he had cracked safe, functional, indoor light—a discovery that inventors had been chasing for a century—Europeans refused to believe that an American with next to no formal education who had spent his teenage years selling candy on trains (and conducting chemistry experiments in the baggage car) could have beaten them to the finish line. “America in the late 19th century was absolutely seen as a technological backwater compared to Europe,” says Graham Moore, author of The Last Days of Night, which chronicles the rivalry between Edison and George Westinghouse. Only after Edison displayed his luminous creation in Paris did the French daily Le Figaro admit “Edison is not a myth.”
Edison’s invention was a boon for his country, which was now seen as an exciting place for innovation, says Moore. No longer was premier scientific research confined to the walls of austere European universities. Talent flooded in. When Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant, debarked in New York City, Moore says, he directly sought work in an Edison office.
“In the U.S., we didn’t have a Pasteur or Koch at that time, but we certainly had people who wanted to provide the opportunity for the U.S. to get one,” says Rogers. “So John D. Rockefeller set up an institution in New York City to be the equivalent” of the Koch Institute in Berlin and the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where scientists from around the world could receive fully-paid, full-time research jobs.
The nationalism of World War I further boosted the U.S. to scientific fame. After the war, “there was increasing discomfort in much of the world about the reliance everyone had put on German science,” says Rogers. “The ‘Germanness’ was seen as a little bit more relevant than it had been before.” The U.S. seized the vacuum and built public health schools like Johns Hopkins and Harvard, becoming by the 1920s “a place where the people from around the world wanted to come and study,” Rogers says.
But the Great War also turned quaint patriot rivalries into contests of life-or-death. The French had been apoplectic after they heard rumors of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, says Jim Tobin, author of To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight, but at the time believed only their pride to be at stake, considerable as it may have been. “Must we one day read in history that aviation, born in France, only became successful thanks to the Americans; and that the France only obtained results by slavishly copying them?” one member of the Aéro-Club in Paris sputtered to his fellow members after hearing reports of the Wright’s accomplishment.
It wasn’t until the end of the decade that the French dropped the attitude, and (along with the British and the Americans) began circling the Wrights, looking to turn their planes into military aircraft for a looming war.
The Wright brothers thought their invention would make war between great powers obsolete, according to Tobin. Edison, who advised the U.S. Navy during World War I, made the same prediction, declaring the possibility of aerial bombing would cow countries looking to go to war. “Invention has got beyond the thirst for blood,” he said after the war. “The power of science that has been let loose must overwhelm aggressive diplomacy.” Edison didn’t live to see World War II, when leaders coopted science—from chemical weapons to atomic bombs—to wreak unspeakable damage.
During the Cold War, rivals saw scientific breakthroughs as potent displays of power and pushed a generation of young citizens into engineering careers. But the rush sometimes backfired. The USSR became so obsessed with bridging a small gap between Soviet and Western computing technology that they became dependent on Western computer science, which they had to copy and steal, writes Chi Ling Chan in The Stanford Journal of Science, Technology, and Society. When the U.S. found out the Soviets were cribbing their software, they sabotaged it; one bug caused a Siberian pipeline to explode.
Desperation to be first poisoned the USSR in other ways, too, says Carafano. Their obsession with a competition as meaningless as the Olympic medal count, for one, “completely corrupted [Russian] sports infrastructure,” he says. “It remains corrupt to this day, when they continue to cheat and use steroids.”
“I do think getting wrapped up in the superficial aspects of competition, that’s a mistake,” he says.
To those in the health world today, science is, at its best, a global, collaborative enterprise.
And in fighting Covid-19, scientists and biotech leaders say they’re still working across borders, even as politicians harden them.
“Politicians make a national story out of [the race],” says Piontek. “I don’t think that the industry does.” His German biotech firm, ARTES, has been in touch with everyone from the National Institutes of Health and the Gates Foundation to Indian vaccine manufacturers and British scientists. His one exception: China.
“We are not extremely active in approaching the Chinese market because to be honest we are a bit afraid our technology would get lost if we work too much with them,” he says. Still, one survey found that Chinese and U.S. scientists are collaborating heavily on Covid-19.
But many in biotech and public health worry that the kind of cooperation necessary to beat Covid-19 is being undermined by some national leaders’ hunger for bragging rights, and refusal to endorse a global response. With the world now facing the most devastating health crisis in many generations, the United States, Russia and India have all refused to join a WHO initiative to promote collaboration in the development and distribution of coronavirus vaccines and treatments.
While Chinese President Xi Jinping has struck a more collaborative tone in public, many feel it’s a cover for China’s frantic efforts to boost its own fortunes and global influence. Xi’s patriotic “Made in China 2025” campaign has invested heavily in biotech—partly to take care of the country’s growing health care needs and rebalance its economy, says Jennifer Huang Bouey, an epidemiologist and senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, but also to flex China’s muscles at home and abroad. A Chinese vaccine could be a valuable geopolitical tool, if Xi were to dole it out in, say, Africa or Latin America.
At the same time, both the U.S. and Chinese governments have recently moved to chill international research collaboration—which some public health figures worry could stifle innovation at the worst possible time.
“We all know that we will rely on international cooperation to get the logistics of a vaccine to work,” one senior European official told the Financial Times. “China will be crucial, the U.S. will be crucial. If we don’t have their support, then what?”
China and the United States aren’t the only countries protecting their own resources and reputation. The European Union, along with member states France, Germany, Italy and Spain Germany, have all tightened restrictions on foreign investment since the start of the pandemic, along with Australia and Canada. Many countries are already inking deals to get their hands on whatever precious vaccine vials might emerge first, and dozens have restricted or cut off exports of protective equipment, medical devices or medicines.
In April, the American CEO of Sanofi, a crown jewel of French industry, said the United States could claim first access to the company’s vaccine thanks to heavy U.S. investment. French heads exploded; it was “unacceptable”—“unthinkable” that a French-based firm “benefiting from research tax credits would deliver a vaccine to the United States before [France],” French lawmakers and officials told POLITICO Europe. Sanofi walked back the statement; Macron summoned the Sanofi CEO to the Élysée Palace, and by mid-June, both men were announcing the company’s new expansion in France, with the CEO declaring “Sanofi’s heart beats in France.”
“I’ll bet you [Sanofi’s] next CEO is going to be French,” predicts Loncar.
In Germany, CureVac’s American CEO did not survive. Just days after a controversial March White House meeting with Trump in which the president reportedly tried to coax CureVac to the U.S. the CEO was replaced by a German, without explanation. (CureVac declined to comment for the story.)
The competition for a vaccine has spurred countries to invest heavily in health care and research. And many public health and biotech experts think that with so many vaccines in the running, multiple are likely to enter production around the same time, which will be the only way to vaccinate a significant portion of the globe.
There’s also the chance of significant breakthroughs that could end up benefiting everyone; some vaccine candidates, coming from the highly touted U.S. firm of Moderna and Germany’s CureVac, for example, use new genetic technology that, if successful, could revolutionize vaccine development. “Going to the moon itself was almost an incidental part of [the space race],” says Loncar. “The technologies that came out of it, from microchips to solar panels” were transformative. “This is somewhat of a similar type thing.”
But if countries think of themselves, rather than the public good, no amount of innovation could stop the devastation of Covid-19.
Health experts particularly fear a repeat of 2009, when during the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, rich countries raced to get limited doses of vaccine for themselves “without thinking about where a vaccine could do the most good,” says Schwartz. Mexico, where the disease originated, was still struggling to get supplies even as other countries had extra supplies. Only after the threat had passed did richer countries donate their stockpiles to poorer ones.
Students of pandemics say that any rich country who thinks that this kind of “vaccine nationalism” will save it is nuts.
“A pandemic only subsides when transmission is halted globally,” Scott Rosenstein, the director of Eurasia Group’s global health group, said in May. “The most effective way to do that would likely be to vaccinate frontline healthcare workers and at risk populations first in as many countries as possible.”
“Nationalism is not beneficial for anyone, because it slows global growth,” says Goldin. “It slows the global response to the pandemic and undermines the ability to deal with other threats.”
Complicating the race is the fact that biotech supremacy is increasingly regarded as a source of wealth and power.
“I’m a little biased,” says Loncar, the investor. “But you could argue that in the future, the most important inventions will be from biology and biotech,” he says, pointing to gene editing and CRISPR. With these developments increasingly seen as not just profitable but also as components of national security, he points out, “countries and regions around the world are going to heavily invest in making their biotech sectors self-sufficient. You want to be at the forefront.”
But for countries looking for that edge in the future, competition can be a double-edged sword. “If being first is the goal, and then you cheat and lie and steal and cut corners and don’t tell the truth, that actually undermines your competitiveness,” says Carafano.
In his quest to make China a scientific powerhouse, for example, Xi has made scientists’ promotions and salaries dependent on publishing in high-impact journals, says Bouey, leading to a number of damaging retraction and falsification scandals. International trust in Chinese vaccines has already eroded significantly since 2018, when a Chinese company was found to be making vaccines with expired products.
In Russia, there are fears that President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive vaccine timeline could lead to safety problems. Some suspect Putin is using this race to try to conjure the glory days of the Soviet Union, when Russia led high-profile vaccine campaigns.
“If you’re first to market and it turns out the vaccine is not effective or has terrible side effects,” warns Carafano, “the blowback will far exceed the fact that you’re the first guy out the door.”
All that risk for victory that could be quite fleeting. While the first vaccine across the finish line will certainly be an immediate source of pride for the researchers, the manufacturers and the countries behind them—not to mention a profit opportunity for the producers—“frankly the real achievement, the one the record books will recount, will be the vaccine that really does provide … long-lasting, strong, robust, safe protection,” says Schwartz.
That kind of long-term recognition could well come after the current crop of world leaders is off the stage. For now, victory in the vaccine race may stand as a political, as well as medical, achievement. Any excuse to rally people around a flag looms large at a time when hundreds of thousands are dying and losing jobs. And as long as there are headlines to be made, leaders will reach for them.
Goldin had to laugh when Trump, with dreams of scientific victories sliding into political ones, hit patriotic notes in a campaign rally-style victory speech after watching the silver SpaceX rocket carry two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in May. “The same spirit of American determination that sends our people into space will conquer this disease on Earth,” the president intoned, praising America’s “limitless reserves of talent, tenacity, and resolve.”
“Watching the excitement … you’d think that the U.S. had landed on Mars,” Goldin mused. “[Sending men to the international space station] is like so routine for the Russians, and the whole of the U.S. was glued to what had been done for the past 25 years.”
“The claiming of victory is not so difficult,” says Rogers. Winning the fight against Covid-19 is much harder, and that requires a different mindset.
“It is very dangerous to call it a race,” Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University and an adviser to the WHO, said in June. “It’s playing with fire.”