By Dr Rajesh Basrur
Summary: The scientific community is critical to the battle against Covid-19. But to strengthen its efforts, we need to go beyond current institutional limitations.
President Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw American funding from the World Health Organization (WHO) is unsurprising given the organizations’ failure to respond expeditiously to the Covid-19 outbreak as pointed out earlier in this publication. The problem of an institutional response will remain with us as inter-governmental organizations like the WHO have always been subject to the political dynamics of state interests, especially where major powers are concerned. It is time to look at alternatives seriously.
A foundational dimension of transnational cooperation in combating the crisis is the pivotal role of the epistemic community. Without the scientific study of how viruses emerge, the mechanics of their spread, and the ways in which they can be countered, we would be at the mercy of their depredations. Recent eruptions of viruses like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola and now Covid-19 have exacted nothing like the tens of millions of deaths caused by historic pandemics like the so-called Spanish flu of 1918-20 and the plague in the 14th century. The relatively less catastrophic damage wreaked by the recent viruses is in large part attributable to advances in public health and standards of living. But the contribution of scientific research through the global communities of knowledge development and exchange has been critical.
The SARS outbreak in 2003 galvanized international cooperation on preventing viral pandemics. As recorded in Nature in October 2012, an informal “SARS club” of scientists was quick to generate responses to MERS and curtail its effects. According to a 2016 study in BMC Infectious Diseases, 883 MERS-related papers were published in 92 countries between 2012 and 2015, enabling a successful global drive to curb a potential pandemic. Examples of scientific cooperation among countries publicly at loggerheads abound. The United States and China have actively collaborated on a host of virus-related epidemics such as SARS and HIV over the years, as Jennifer Bouey, a RAND specialist, testified before the US Congress in February 2020. Similarly, an October 2019 paper in PLOS Neglected Tropical Disease by researchers from the two countries, along with colleagues from Singapore and India, has revealed the potential virus linkage between bats and humans in Northeast India.
The explosion of collaborative research on a possible vaccine has been remarkable. As a New York Times report of 1 April 2020 notes, the urgency of a strong response has led researchers to abandon old priorities that emphasize stretched out procedures and priorities relating to intellectual property ownership in favour of speed in attaining this objective.
Such efforts provide the invaluable ammunition needed for an all-out “war” against viruses like Covid-19. But difficulties in building sustained cooperation remain. First, issues of intellectual property ownership can hamper collaboration. The example cited above does not necessarily reflect a long-term trend. The Middle East-based scientist who discovered the MERS virus lost his job for collaborating with a European colleague, who promptly filed for patents relating to the virus. Second, funding tends to be ad hoc and often short-lived. Once the SARS and Zika epidemics receded, generous government allocations were no longer forthcoming, causing losses for vaccine producers, which in turn acted as a disincentive for the development of other vaccines.
Third, and perhaps most problematic, political exigencies have significantly hampered efforts to counter the spread of viruses. In the case of Covid-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) was slow to declare a pandemic, as previously pointed out in this publication. It did so only on 11 March 2020, by which time the virus had spread to 113 countries, with 118,332 confirmed cases and 4,292 fatalities. Along with the delay in conveying warnings about human-to-human transmission from Taiwan in late December 2019, this contributed to the rapid spread of the virus around the world. Apparently, the WHO’s slowness to highlight the risk was due to the inordinate influence of China, a major source of its funding.
Collective interests underlined by the scientific community have similarly been hampered by inter-state politics in other fields as well. In the heyday of the Cold War, scientific studies – notably a major study published in Science in December 1983 – highlighted the potential risk of a catastrophic “nuclear winter” resulting from a US-Soviet nuclear war, but the protagonists continued to compete for more and “better” weapons systems, which they accumulated well beyond overkill capacity. Similarly, authoritative technical studies warning of global climate change have been published for decades, but national priorities have hindered collective action.
Warnings about the dangers of nationalist distraction and the imperative for rapid action on Covid-19 have yet to spur concerted action in a big way. The G7 has been hampered by squabbles over the origins of the virus. The G20 has produced a tepid response. Its 27 March 2020 video-summit promised much, but was short on specifics. As one commentator noted, the announcement of a USD 5 trillion injection into the global economy was misleading: the figure merely represented the aggregate of spending by individual members without necessarily coordinating their measures. The fundamental problem of generating a sustained global response based on the efforts of the epistemic community remains.
What sort of long-term institutional response can we expect? At the recent G20 meeting, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for strengthening the WHO. But we know the organization has had its problems and will likely continue to do so. From past and recent experience of responses to global crises or potential crises, there is not much room for optimism about the willingness of governments to devote attention and resources beyond a limited point for longer-term preparedness. It may be time for a global push for a bigger public-private approach of the kind already in existence in a small way.
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), launched in 2017 with the initiative of the Norwegian and Indian governments, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the World Economic Forum, is a promising example. A relatively small but rapidly growing institution, CEPI has brought together public and private funding under technical leadership for the development of vaccines against infectious disease. The strengthening of CEPI or possibly the building of a larger coalition spearheaded by the epistemic community has the potential to develop an institution that supports sustained research and development, establishes standards and channels of communications for inter-organizational interface, and acts as a check on the state-centrism of current institutions. How far this can go is as yet unclear, but it is an option that needs to be considered at length.
Opinions in this piece belong to the author
Rajesh Basrur is a Visiting Professor in the South Asia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University Singapore, and an Associate of the School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford.