Coronavirus restrictions affect cross-border research

Academics and experts in Japan are worried about expected setbacks for international joint research projects stemming from the recent travel bans by the Japanese and other governments to contain the spread of coronavirus or COVID-19 from the worst-hit countries in Asia.

The Japanese government has declared a two-week quarantine period for visitors from affected areas in China, South Korea, Iran and Italy in a bid to contain the COVID-19 virus that has now affected almost 500 in Japan. Schools and universities are closed and no large public gatherings such as events and conferences can be held.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared the strict measures will continue at least until the end of March.

But the outbreak, which has already affected more than 120,000 worldwide and was this week declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, has also become an opportunity for research collaboration. A special Japanese government fund has been set up to study the virus together with research teams in other Asian countries.

Academics highlight in particular the threat to ongoing academic research between Japan and China and also with South Korea. In China, where the epicentre of the disease is located in Hubei province, there have been more than 80,754 cases and 3,136 deaths, as of 10 March. South Korea, the second most severely affected country, is grappling with a caseload of almost 8,000 infected and some 60 deaths.

“Coronavirus spreads fast, which is related to large community transmission. In addition, the symptoms are hard to discover early. There is an urgent need for more collaboration to contain its spread internationally,” said Professor Hitoshi Oshitani, virologist and expert in cross-border research on infectious diseases at Tohoku University.

Oshitani is currently involved in a testing drive in the Philippines where cases have risen to more than 50 as of 11 March, including one confirmed death. He explained that travel bans endorsed by different countries have increased caution among researchers, forcing him to recall a colleague stationed in Manila.

Travel ban effects on research

Japan’s travel ban has become a business nightmare, with tourism from China and South Korea important to the economy. The number of Chinese visitors dropped to fewer than 60,000 last month compared to more than 500,000 for the same period in February 2019.

The travel restrictions are now worrying academics, who point to a negative impact on ongoing research, including not being able to attend conferences vital for exchange of opinions and gathering information.

It is also affecting joint academic research – China tops the list in Asia with more than 4,000 official signed partnerships with Japanese universities. For example, Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (JAIST) said as of March 2020 it had 24 joint research projects with China, followed by South Korea with 14 joint projects.

“A lot of professors and academics in Japan cannot do their fieldwork in China or Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea,” says Futao Huang, professor of higher education at Hiroshima University, who frequently conducts work in China. “We are not allowed to go to mainland China now.”

“Almost all big events and many academic conferences have been postponed or cancelled in Japan. It’s a difficult time,” Huang adds.

Despite the blow to joint research caused by the travel ban, Oshitani explains that for research and academic exchanges, online and telephone communications have risen. The coronavirus threat “has turned the spotlight on strengthening the use of communication technology. Collaboration with technology companies can strengthen research in many ways,” he added.

Universities are also turning to teaching classes via online technology as the new academic year approaches in April.

New research initiative

But the virus has also led to a new research initiative. A first-time initiative stemming from the coronavirus situation was announced on 20 February by the ministry of education extending a grant-in-aid emergency fund of JPY50 million (US$474,000) for 10 researchers at six national universities, including Nagasaki University, the University of Tokyo, Kobe University, Tohoku University, Osaka University and Niigata University.

The grant will support a one-year project to be launched in April, focusing on basic research on the coronavirus.

Shigetoshi Fujimura, director in charge of the special research fund section at the ministry, explained that the fund, which in past years had officially been extended for disaster-related research, is being used for the first time for infectious diseases.

“The scientific research fund will support the collection and analysis of COVID-19 virus, aimed at contributing to infectious disease control in Japan,” he says.

The ministry statement says the focus will be on collecting information on and samples of coronavirus infection, epidemiological surveys, establishing isolation and culture methods for the virus and establishing antibody, antigen and gene detection technologies.

The project’s head Kouichi Morita, professor at the School of Tropical Medicine and Global Health at Nagasaki University, says the fund will be used for research with countries already collaborating with Japanese universities.

Within Asia, Japanese academics involved in joint research are based in Vietnam, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. The ongoing travel ban, while an impediment, is not a major risk for setting up the new coronavirus project as the joint centres are already in operation, Fujimura says.

Nagasaki University was at the forefront of research on the SARS virus – which originated in China’s southern Guangdong province in 2002 and infected more than 8,000, mainly in Asia. Academics at the university developed a vaccine patented in 2003.

While important, the new fund falls far short in supporting long-term research that is crucial given the alarming rise in the emergence of new viruses, Morita says.

“Against the backdrop of global warming, rising urbanisation across the world and generally the lack of knowledge on viruses, we must strive to be better prepared to face infectious diseases. There should be much more funding for research and development on this,” he says.

Nagasaki University’s Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology has been conducting research on vaccines against Japanese encephalitis in Vietnam since the 1990s. Japanese and Vietnamese universities have also been collaborating on research into mosquito-transmitted diseases.

Japanese biopharmaceutical firm AnGes Inc said on Thursday it would join hands with Osaka University to develop a coronavirus vaccine.