07 Apr 2020   |   International News

China was slammed for initial COVID-19 secrecy, but its scientists led the way in tackling the virus

Race to halt the epidemic has prompted intense collaboration among researchers and public health officials worldwide - leaving the blame game to governments

First cases of COVID-19 were reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. Photo: Bigstock

The accusation that the Chinese government delayed in letting the world know about the COVID-19 outbreak has become a political weapon in countries including the US, the UK and Canada.

But China’s scientists have won international praise for hitting several key milestones in understanding the novel, fast-moving virus.

Chinese leaders were seen as slow to react to the outbreak that began in the city of Wuhan, suppressing information and even punishing those who raised the alarm.

“There was an early cover up in Wuhan, perhaps a few days to a week, before the threat was accepted. We will never know if faster action in those first days could have averted the outbreak,” said Ian Jones, professor of biomedical sciences at Reading University.

Despite the initial slow reaction from the government, “There has been a very open dialogue [since] and many research findings from the Chinese experience are now appearing,” says Jones.

In January, a team led by Yong-Zhen Zhang, of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre & School of Public Health, published the initial viral genome on two open-access sites, drawing praise for the swiftest sequencing effort ever. Later that month, Chinese doctors and scientists reported the first description of the new disease in the Lancet medical journal.

“Under immense pressure, as the epidemic exploded around them, they took time to write up their findings in a foreign language and seek publication in a medical journal thousands of miles away. Their rapid and rigorous work was an urgent warning to the world. We owe those scientists enormous thanks,” said Richard Horton, Lancet editor.

At the University of Hong Kong, researchers are developing a COVID-19 vaccine, novel screening agents, diagnostic tests and models of infection to trace the source and help prevent future occurrences.

“[We] were among the first teams in the world to produce a detailed cluster report, epidemiology report, electron microscope images and mathematical model of the potential spread of the virus,” said Zhang Xiang, president and vice-chancellor of the university. “Most Hong Kong residents still remember the experience of living through SARS in 2003, several instances of avian influenza, MERS, and now COVID-19.”

Any disagreements over how countries have managed the epidemic has not trickled down into labs, says Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health in the University of Southampton. “Whilst there will always be the politics of mistrust, I think, broadly, we’re seeing reasonable cooperation between China and elsewhere,” he said.

“The Chinese have been leading the way in publishing open-access evidence on case management, genomics and numerous areas of public health and epidemiology, which has been vital in informing the response in more or less every country.”

More open

The research effort isn’t restricted to China – the race to halt the virus has set off intense collaboration among scientists and public health officials all over the world.

“The major journals have all rolled back their embargoes on pre-prints, posting findings, and discussing [these] with the media,” said Jeffrey Shaman, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University who has modelled how the virus will evolve. “Databases with all sorts of relevant information have appeared broadly. Things are more open and collectively directed than I’ve ever seen,” he said.

This collaboration will outlive the horrible experience, says Jeremy Lim, professor of global health at the National University of Singapore and co-founder of AMiLi, a microbiome repository.

“COVID-19 is an epochal event and life will not be the same,” Lim said. “The pandemic is showing that we need to depend on each other more for information, materials and expertise.” The virus has infected at least 1.3 million people and killed more than 70,000 worldwide, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Lim calls on countries to “pony up” the necessary funds to resource pandemic preparedness globally including more money for surveillance, early detection and therapies.

Others are calling for new structures entirely to help deal with future pandemics. “The extent and severity of coronavirus has horrendously overpassed SARS. It really gave an alarming shot to China’s biosafety and public health system,” said Feng Zhu, dean of school of international studies at Nanjing University.

There needs to be a worldwide early warning system, he said. “International cooperation and solidarity should [promote] such a system, which could effectively network virologists, epidemiologists, and physicians. This system could be part of the World Health Organisation, but should work under the mandate of UN National Security Council.”

The “harsh lesson” of COVID-19 is that “we are all connected,” said Zhang. “The virus will reach your doorstep sooner or later.”

Plenty of blame to go around

Outside the labs, the politics of coronavirus are heated, with anger about China's numbers swirling throughout the crisis.  

“I view anything coming from the government of China with a great deal of suspicion and scepticism,” Andrew Scheer, leader of Canada’s Conservatives, the official opposition party, said last week.

There are calls in the US Congress and the UK to hold China accountable for initially downplaying the outbreak. US president Donald Trump repeatedly went after Beijing, calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”

Rana Mitter, director of the University China Centre at Oxford University said, “Britain is angry with China in a way that would have seemed bizarre just two months ago.”

Criticism of China from other countries has been muted, however.

“The US administration has not seemed too concerned about alienating China, even though it might need its cooperation. You have not seen equivalent rhetoric out of the European Union,” said Peter Rashish, a senior fellow and director of the geo-economics programme at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Blaming China for the novel coronavirus distracts from the shortcomings of other countries’ responses, says Antoine Bondaz, research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

“Clearly, the worse the crisis will be in Europe, the more we will criticise China for lying on its figures. Yet, we also need to be honest and acknowledge we may have initially mismanaged the way we have handled the sanitary crisis. We need China today in that crisis and European governments cannot afford to be too critical in the short term,” he said.

There is deep anger in the US too over Trump’s early denial of the threat from COVID-19.  The US now has the world's highest number of confirmed cases with more than 366,000.

After the virus began to spread outside of China, “the science community sounded an alarm and most US public officials were slow to recognise the seriousness, and the president publicly minimised the risk,” said Rush Holt, former Democratic congressman and ex-CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “The role of informed scientists has been mixed - sometimes they receive public attention and sometimes they are drowned out by politicians making baseless wishful assertions,” Holt told Science|Business.

The Trump administration “has utterly failed to respond adequately to coronavirus,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University. “A lack of funding for scientific and medical research at all levels has led us to how we’ve responded to this crisis today.”

China rethink

Rashish says the pandemic will prompt a rethink over how the world does business with China. Already in Brussels, the (virtual) corridors are buzzing with terms like “technological sovereignty” and “resilience”.

“I think the US and EU are likely to think more about diversifying their economies, which might mean importing things from a wider range of factories around the world. It’s an open question whether they will trade and invest more with China,” Rashish said.

The crisis has exposed a heavy reliance on Chinese suppliers. Three hundred of the world’s top 500 companies have facilities in the high-tech manufacturing hub of Hubei, where the outbreak began. Almost three quarters of all anticoagulant drugs imported by Italy come from China; the same is true for nearly half of all antibiotics imported by Germany, Italy and France.

Coronavirus will reorganise global value chains, rather than undo them, writes Sven Biscop, an honorary fellow of the EU’s European Security and Defence College. “It will accelerate US and even EU action, which they were envisaging already, to reduce the interdependence with China.”

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up