A row of Wuhan laboratories threatens US-China cooperation in science


In 2004, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed an agreement with the Chinese National Influenza Center to help China improve its analysis of seasonal influenza strains.

Over the next 10 years, the fight against the disease was transformed. The United States has trained nearly 2,500 Chinese scientists and helped open dozens of laboratories in the country, a collaboration that has proven instrumental in pushing effectiveness of seasonal influenza vaccine from 10 percent to more than 50 percent.

Now scientists are concerned that this type of collaboration is threatened, threatened by mutual suspicions between the two governments, which have been exacerbated by the recent row on whether Covid-19 could have come from a loss of laboratories in Wuhan.

Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, told the Financial Times: “We have been working with Chinese scientists for decades and decades in a very collaborative way. It would be a shame for the Chinese, the United States, and the world. that he would stop. “

China and the United States have been cooperating on research for decades, in what the Nature Index is the most fertile scientific report in the world.

The amount of joint research that has been undertaken exploded in the 2000s, when China opened up and invested more in its scientific research capabilities.

Between 2005 and 2017, the number of articles written by American and Chinese researchers in high-quality journals jumped six times, according to research led by Cong Cao at the University of Nottingham Business School in China. The same research found that the number of scientists in the United States who had been in China nearly doubled from 2010 to 2017.

Some of the jointly produced works have changed the world.

From 1993 to 1995, the CDC led a research project in China that found lower levels of birth defects in children who were born than mothers who took folic acid for 28 days before and after conception. . The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has therefore begun to demand that food producers add folic acid to basic products such as bread, flour and rice, and consequently, the percentage of food defects. birth in children born in the United States abandoned about 1,300 a year.

Deborah Seligsohn, assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and a former State Department official, said: “This research would not have been possible in the United States, where everyone goes to a private doctor and the data is so much the more disorganized. ”

There have also been successes in scientific research fields that have nothing to do with health.

Since 2009, countries have been working together on a project to convert Chinese nuclear reactors from the use of high-quality enriched uranium into much lower fuels that cannot be stolen and used in ballistic missiles.

Other elements of research have been even more controversial, with U.S. law enforcement agencies often accusing the Chinese of using collaborative projects to steal sensitive American technology.

Earlier last year, the United States accused Charles Lieber, the chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, covers the fact that he was also paid $ 50,000 by Wuhan University of Technology.

The arrest sparked protests from Lieber’s peers, who argued that his persecution was unfair and discouraged scientific cooperation between the United States and other countries. But it was also part of a broader push by the Trump administration, known as the “China Initiative,” aimed at rid researchers in the United States who were helping to transmit scientific secrets to China.

Despite the China initiative, collaboration has deepened in recent years, even after the pandemic hit.

A report by Caroline Wagner, an associate professor of public affairs at Ohio State University, found that the number of U.S.-China newspapers specifically targeting coronaviruses has increased in the first three months of 2020. amount of collaborative work falls later in the year, later Beijing has ordered it that all research relating to Covid be reviewed by the government prior to publication.

Questions about what happened in the Wuhan lab before the Covid-19 explosion threatened to have an even longer effect.

Many experts have criticized the fact that the United States funded and helped conduct risky research on the possible effect of beating coronaviruses on humans in the Wuhan laboratory – although this research was not necessarily the cause of the pandemic. And they were particularly concerned when it was revealed that part of this work had been carried out at level two biosafety, roughly equivalent to the office of an American dentist.

Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard, said: “This kind of work done at BSL-2 cannot be allowed to happen. It should turn out that your work is disseminated and your documents. There have been some very flagrant security practices that need to be stopped. ”

Some are concerned, though, that even relatively safe areas of scientific collaboration are now in danger.

Denis Simon, executive director of the Center for Innovation Policy at Duke University, said: “University administrators now block all sorts of projects because they are afraid of the titles they suggest anyway. that their scientists are engaging in something illegal. ”

Others warn that by focusing so much on the disputed origins of the coronavirus pandemic, the United States could jeopardize the kind of work that could help prevent the next one.

Seligsohn of the University of Villanova said: “What influenza research shows is that virus surveillance is incredibly important. Joint US-China research on bat coronaviruses will be more important after this pandemic.” no less. “

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