COVID-19 research checks could deter global collaboration
The Chinese Academy of Sciences issued the notice last week on rules related to publication of COVID-19 research citing instructions handed down on 25 March from the State Council, roughly equivalent to the cabinet.
In particular, papers related to virus tracing will be subject to additional scrutiny. Such research must be notified and sent to the authorities and can only be submitted for publication once approval is received.
Other papers on COVID-19 “should be reviewed by the academic committee of the universities” to determine academic value, according to the directive originally posted on several Chinese universities’ sites including prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai, but since removed. It was also posted on the website of China University of Geosciences, Wuhan.
The directive also reflects official concern about the rush into research without proper standards, which could lead to charges of research misconduct, outlining that research must conform to ethical and security standards related to the handling of biological materials.
“The publication of papers must adhere to the bottom line of biosecurity and matters involving the management of human genetic resources must be strictly approved in accordance with regulations. The release of the results of the vaccine should be in line with the schedule and cannot be exaggerated,” the directive said.
Increased scrutiny appears to be the latest effort by the Chinese government to control the narrative on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic amid a bruising war of words between China and the United States over its geographic origins, academics said.
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to the pathogen as the “Chinese virus”, while other US politicians have suggested it was “created” in a Chinese laboratory. For China’s part, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested the coronavirus might have been carried into the country by US soldiers.
China’s Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai said in an interview on American television last month that speculating about the origin of the virus was “harmful”.
Impact on research collaboration
But such vetting and controls over what can and cannot be published could also have an impact on important research collaborations with Western universities.
Eric Abetz, Liberal senator for Tasmania, Australia, said in a statement issued on Tuesday that imposing restrictions on academics publishing information on the origins of the coronavirus “is a dangerous move that not only threatens the world’s ability to fight the coronavirus but requires a deep re-examination of our academic collaboration with China”.
He said: “It is particularly insidious to eliminate the facts surrounding the origins of the virus as this will impact the world scientific and medical community’s ability to research and gather the information that can help stop the spread and mitigate the damage of the virus.
“It will generally raise doubts on any future medical or scientific information emanating from China and in particular any medical or scientific information on the coronavirus.”
Abetz said Australia’s relations with China would have to be reassessed, “including how our universities and research institutions undertake collaborative research or study”.
Ingrid d’Hooghe, lecturer on China at Leiden University, the Netherlands said: “This is adding to growing worries on the European side about research collaboration with China. This is really very problematic, very serious, very worrying.”
She told University World News: “It has become known now that the Chinese are indeed checking and monitoring the research and that researchers need to get the go-ahead before they publish and that probably information that is not desirable for the Chinese side will be removed or people will not get the permission to publish.”
For researchers in Europe involved in collaborations, “there are real worries about whether China will really share and publish the data,” she said.
European researchers have recently expressed concerns over China’s insistence that all data collected within the country be turned over to the Chinese authorities.
Such vetting could also undermine written commitments.
A joint statement issued on 12 March between UK Research and Innovation and the National Natural Science Foundation of China commits the two funders to ensuring research findings and data relevant to the coronavirus outbreak are “shared rapidly and openly to inform the public health response, reassure the public, and enable rational evidence-based decisions to be made in the fight against the epidemic”.
The statement was part of an announcement by the two funders to “mobilise, coordinate and align funding” to address urgent priorities for research, including diagnostics, disease prevention and containment, and predictions of how the disease will spread.
International research collaboration and information sharing has been vital to understand the spread of the virus and the groups most affected. A research race is currently under way on a possible vaccine against COVID-19 while research into diagnostic tests and COVID-19 antibody tests are also dependent on global research sharing.
The Coronavirus Research Index, launched by Finbold.com, a UK-based data provider has identified nearly 300 ongoing research projects in 39 countries and regions with confirmed cases of the virus.
It reported last week that China has 60 ongoing studies, followed by 49 in the United States, 26 in France and 25 in Italy, while Canada, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom have around a dozen each.
Chinese officials have been contacting many European universities in the past few weeks asking for information on research underway on COVID-19, sometimes seeking to collaborate “but more to keep tabs on who is doing what research on the coronavirus”, one academic in Germany said.
Controlling the narrative
Academics note that China had been very willing to share data during the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan but has since tried to control the narrative within China and outside.
In January a laboratory at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center was ordered to shut down for a period of ‘rectification’ after it published the genome sequence of COVID-19 on open platforms – the data was important for researchers to develop targeted tests for the virus.
It was unclear whether the closure was related to the publishing of the sequencing data before the authorities had approved it, according to reports by economic news site Caixin.
The Shanghai team sequenced the genome on 5 January, days before the official announcement via the officially designated Wuhan Institute of Virology. The temporary closure slowed important initial research into the virus, according to Chinese academics.
Separately Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, sequenced the COVID-19 genome very early on, but Wang Yanyi, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, emailed staff and officials banning them from disclosing any information on the disease.
Wang said China’s National Health Commission “unequivocally requires that any tests, clinical data, test results, conclusions related to the epidemic shall not be posted on social media platforms, nor shall [it] be disclosed to any media outlets including government official media, nor shall [it] be disclosed to partner institutions”.
Scientists at Galveston National Laboratory in the United States, a high security biocontainment lab in Texas, said Shi has always been very open and collaborative in the past.
Gao Yu, a Chinese journalist for Caixin, who was allowed to leave Wuhan last week after 76 days of lockdown, said he spoke to Shi during his time in the city. “We learned later her [Shi’s] institute finished gene-sequencing and related tests as early as 2 January but was muzzled,” Gao said.
The public version at that time – which was clearly proved to be wrong – was that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the disease.
The authorities also suppressed Li Wenliang, a Wuhan physician who was summoned by the Wuhan police on 3 January and reprimanded for “spreading rumours” over a message he sent to his medical school and alumni warning of the emergence of a SARS-like coronavirus.
He later contracted the virus from a patient and died on 6 February, sparking a public opinion backlash in China of people calling for free speech, to the extent that Communist Party officials were forced to exonerate Li after an ‘inquiry’ and issued public statements that he did not disrupt public order as the police said but had bravely fought against the virus.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, established after China experienced the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-03, which killed over 775 people and infected more than 8,000, mainly in Asia, specialises in the research of viral pathogens, in particular the viruses carried by bats, as was the case with the SARS epidemic, thought to have infected humans through another animal intermediary.
While the exact origin of the COVID-19 pandemic is still unclear, one of the leading hypotheses is that it began following an interaction between a human and an animal at the wet market in Wuhan. Scientists have said the virus may have originated in bats and then passed through an intermediary animal before infecting the first human.
However, China’s state media has constantly highlighted other findings by Chinese scientists suggesting the virus did not originate from the wet market. Official media has continuously pointed to ‘research’ that the virus could have started outside Wuhan, outside China and even in the United States.
An academic in Guangzhou told University World News on condition of anonymity that the authorities had stepped up controls against scientists and researchers who they now regard as ‘unreliable’ in the fight to control the narrative about the coronavirus. “The origins of the virus have now become highly political, highly sensitive,” he said.