When the Soviet Union put the first man into space in 1961, the shock to America's self-confidence was electric. If China should be first to produce a successful vaccine against the coronavirus, US prestige is likely to suffer a similar blow.
President Donald Trump is putting everything he's got into a research effort dubbed Operation Warp Speed, which pulls together pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and the military. So is China, which has a head start at a time the two countries are already engaged in a fight for dominance impacting everything from trade to the roll-out of 5G communications networks.
The stakes in finding a vaccine against the coronavirus couldn't be higher. In just a few months the disease has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives and shattered economies worldwide.
While many leaders are talking about global collaboration, history suggests that national interests will dominate — the government that can immunize its workforce first stands to gain not just economic advantage, but the validation of its technological prowess and international influence. If that government is in Beijing, the impact could be as dramatic as Yuri Gagarin's trip into orbit almost 60 years ago.
"When it's tense like it is now between the US and China, every single thing gets distorted by the geopolitics," said David Fidler, a specialist in cyber security and global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. Should Beijing produce the first vaccine, the US "will worry that China would weaponize the vaccine in geopolitical terms," he said.
Both the US and China have played down talk of competition, with Chinese officials in particular stressing the common nature of the threat from Covid-19. No vaccine has ever been made on the kinds of schedules being targeted, counted in months rather than years. Scientists familiar with the process warn it isn't certain that one can be developed at all, let alone by the end of the year. So the risk of disappointment is high.
In a recent town hall on Fox News, Trump said the US was working with both Britain and Australia on vaccine projects, and wasn't focused on who got there first. "I really don't care," he said. "If it's another country, I'll take my hat off to them. We have to come up with a vaccine."
Health Secretary Alex Azar said this week that the US expects to be able to start manufacturing the drugs itself, whoever makes the scientific breakthrough.
Still, in the first months of the pandemic, signs of geopolitical rivalry have been there for all to see, and trust lacking even among allies.
The state government in Berlin accused the US of "modern piracy," for allegedly snatching away shipments of Chinese protective gear earmarked for Germany, a claim denied by the US The Europeans are bringing in new rules to protect their pharmaceutical firms from foreign acquisitions. China has irritated western governments with highly publicized airlifts of medical aid to selected countries and suggestions its success in containing the virus is proof of a superior political system.
The US is signalling that its own efforts are focused on protecting the American people first. Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday described the US vaccine program as aiming "to develop a vaccine for the people of the United States." The administration is targeting 300 million doses — enough to inoculate most of the country — by January.
China's research process is for now more advanced, with a total of 508 volunteers joining a second phase trial for a potential vaccine that the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences is developing with a Tianjin-based company, CanSino Biologics. Results from the trial could be known as soon as this month.
Russia has at least four vaccine projects underway, including at Novosibirsk Vector, a laboratory that once worked on Soviet bio-weapons programs, according to Sergei Netesov, a former executive at the lab who now teaches at Novosibirsk State University. The goal, he says, is for Russia to make sure its own population has protection without being dependent on its rivals.
Others are in the mix, too, with the U.K. saying that if a promising Oxford University project is successful, Britons will be at the front to the line.
To be sure, France and Germany are leading the charge for a more cooperative approach, securing pledges of 7.4 billion euro ($8 billion) at a virtual Group of Twenty fund raiser on May 4. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, meanwhile, has said it will build manufacturing capacity to make as many seven vaccines available, even before they exist, an unprecedented effort to ensure wide and rapid availability.
"This pandemic is a global challenge and we will therefore also only be able to overcome it globally," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the G-20 video conference. "We are ready to go new ways."
But past experience isn't encouraging. During the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic, governments also issued joint declarations committing themselves to collaboration in the development and distribution of vaccines. Nevertheless, as soon as they were available, countries that could afford to bought up doses and hoarded them, to ensure their populations would get inoculated first.
The US snubbed Monday's G-20 vaccine initiative, objecting to the involvement of the World Health Organization, while officials in both Washington and Beijing have indulged in conspiracy theories and blame games to accuse the other of responsibility for the virus. Trump has blamed the WHO for failing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and halted US funding to the organization. China is emerging first from its lockdown to reboot its economy, while the US and Europe are still struggling to contain the virus and piling on vast sums of national debt to cushion the economic impact, risking long periods of slow growth ahead.
Even the G-20 leadership of Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron is in part designed to compensate for the failure of the European Union's collective response to the coronavirus so far, according to Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based think tank. Perceived German and EU failures to help Italy early in the crisis caused resentment and opened a diplomatic window for China and Russia, both of which sent high profile shipments of medical aid to Italy.
"Bill Gates said this is like a world war and we are all on the same side," says Lehne. "This is not so evident."
— With assistance by Jennifer Jacobs, Stepan Kravchenko, Jing Li, and Dong Lyu
Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times and the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times. He is based in London.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.