In normal times, there is always an element of national competition to the development of drugs. In the months before the coronavirus began breaking out in Wuhan, the F.B.I. began an effort to root out scientists they believed were stealing biomedical research from the United States, mostly focused on scientists of Chinese descent, including naturalized American citizens, on behalf of China. There were 180 cases under investigation last year.
But the fear is that the urgency to come up with a usable vaccine will inflame nationalistic tendencies.
China has made clear it is looking for a national champion — an equivalent to the role that Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications giant, plays in the race to build 5G networks around the world. If the Huawei pattern holds, China could make deals to increase its influence over poorer or less developed countries, which might otherwise might not get affordable access to a vaccine.
There are already signs that China is using the moment for geopolitical advantage, delivering help to countries that once would have looked to Europe or the United States. Its decision to ship diagnostic kits to the Philippines, an ally of the United States, and to help Serbia was a leading indicator of what may come with drugs and vaccines, when they are available.
Speaking in a teleconference on Thursday, executives from the five biggest pharmaceutical companies said they were working to increase the industry’s manufacturing abilities by sharing available capacity to ramp up production once a successful vaccine or antiviral is identified. They argued for multiple testing programs to increase the chances of success, and then for immediate licensing to allow a quick scaling up of production.
Once a vaccine is approved, “we’ll need to vaccinate billions of people around the world, so we are looking at alternatives to where and how we produce,” Mr. Loew said.
But it is governments that get to decide how a vaccine is approved, and where it can be sold.
“If countries say, ‘Gee, let’s try to lock up a supply so we can protect our populations,’ then it can be a challenge to get the vaccine to the places where it can make the most difference epidemiologically,” said Seth Berkley, the chief executive of GAVI, a nonprofit organization that supplies vaccines to developing countries.