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Wuhan lab row threatens U.S.-China science cooperation


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 for seasonal flu strains.

Over the next 10 years, the fight against the disease changed. The United States has trained nearly 2,500 Chinese scientists and helped open dozens of laboratories around the country, a collaboration that has been instrumental in increasing the effectiveness of the seasonal flu vaccine from 10% to over 50%.

Now scientists fear this type of collaboration is threatened, jeopardized by mutual suspicions between the two governments, which have been exacerbated by the recent row over whether Covid-19 could come from a leak from laboratory in Wuhan.

Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, told the Financial Times: “We have been dealing with Chinese scientists for decades and decades in a very collaborative manner. It would be a shame for the Chinese, the United States and the whole world if this stopped. “

China and the United States have cooperated in research for decades, in what the Nature Index ranks as the most academically fertile scientific relationship in the world.

The number of joint research undertaken exploded in the 2000s, as 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 increased six-fold, according to research conducted 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 were previously 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 newborns whose mothers took folic acid for 28 days before and after conception. The United States Food and Drug Administration then began requiring food manufacturers to add folic acid to staple foods such as bread, flour, and rice, and as a result, the rate of birth defects. among newborns in the United States fell by about 1,300 per year.

Deborah Seligsohn, assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and former head of the State Department, 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 more disorganized. “

There have also been successes in scientific areas of research unrelated to health.

Since 2009, the countries have worked together on a project to convert Chinese nuclear reactors from using military-grade enriched uranium to much inferior fuel grades that cannot be stolen and used in ballistic missiles.

However, other pieces of research have been more controversial, with U.S. law enforcement often accusing the Chinese of using collaborative projects to steal sensitive U.S. technology.

Early last year, the United States accused Charles Lieber, chairman of Harvard University’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, of covering up the fact that he was also being paid $ 50,000 by the Wuhan University of Technology.

The arrest sparked protests from Lieber’s peers, who argued his lawsuits were unfair and discouraged scientific cooperation between the United States and other countries. But it was also part of a larger campaign by the Trump administration, known as the “China Initiative,” to eliminate American researchers who were helping pass scientific secrets to China.

Despite the Chinese Initiative, the collaboration has deepened in recent years, even after the start of the pandemic.

A report by Caroline Wagner, associate professor of public affairs at Ohio State University, found that the number of Chinese-American articles dealing specifically with coronaviruses actually increased in the first three months of 2020. The amount of Collaborative work declined later in the year, after Beijing ordered all research related to Covid to be reviewed by the government before publication.

Questions about what was happening at the Wuhan lab before the outbreak of Covid-19 threaten to have an even more lasting effect.

Many experts have criticized the United States for funding and helping to conduct risky research into the possible effect of bat coronaviruses on humans at the Wuhan lab – although this research was not necessarily the cause of the pandemic. And they were especially concerned when it was revealed that some of this work was done at biosafety level two, roughly equivalent to that of a U.S. dental office.

Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard, said: “This kind of work done at BSL-2 cannot happen. This should result in your work and papers being reimbursed. There have been some very egregious security practices that need to be stopped. “

However, some fear that even relatively secure areas of scientific collaboration are now at risk.

Denis Simon, executive director of the Center for Innovation Policy at Duke University, said: “University administrators are now blocking all kinds of projects because they are afraid of headlines that in any way suggest that their scientists are doing 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 the influenza research shows is that virus surveillance is incredibly important. Joint US-Chinese bat coronavirus research is going to be more important after this pandemic, not less. “

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