Containing the coronavirus outbreak offers an opportunity for U.S. and Chinese researchers to repair a relationship that has frayed since they joined forces to halt SARS in 2003.
Since that initial “honeymoon stage” from 2004 to 2009, relations between the two countries deteriorated over the past few years amid allegations that Chinese scientists have stolen medical breakthroughs from the U.S., Jennifer Huang Bouey, the chairwoman in Chinese policy studies for the think tank RAND Corp., said.
As recently as Jan. 28, the chairman of Harvard University’s chemistry department along with two Chinese nationals were charged with aiding the People’s Republic of China. It’s one of several high-profile instances of Chinese scientists being accused of stealing scientific ideas from the U.S.
“Because both governments are discouraging their researchers to work with researchers in the other country,” Bouey said, there will be an increase in Chinese scientists leaning on other nations. That means the U.S. won’t always be “the first ones being invited to work with the Chinese public health system or with Chinese researchers,” she said.
How the U.S. reacts to threats in light of previous allegations against Chinese scientists could influence future collaborations among researchers, Heather H. Pierce, senior director and regulatory counsel for the Association of American Medical Colleges, said.
“What this raises is what we really have at stake when we are trying to balance protecting our valuable data and the need to share valuable data really quickly and rapidly, especially in times of crisis,” she said.
Both Nations Leery
The death toll for the latest respiratory virus that emerged out of Wuhan, China, has risen to at least 170, with more than 8,000 cases of the illness identified globally over the past month. The number of U.S. cases remains low at six, but government officials have griped that frosty relations with China have slowed the process of getting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the ground at Wuhan.
“The U.S. has been concerned about the Chinese influence and theft of U.S. technologies and scientific knowledge, and this has been one of the most important issues in the deterioration of bilateral relations,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the China program at the Stimson Center, which is a nonprofit, policy research center based in Washington. “This concern and China’s poor record will hinder the confidence by the U.S. side to collaborate wholeheartedly.”
Getting CDC responders on the ground is critical to combat a major public health issue, and access to more samples of the virus from China will lead to more targeted vaccines and therapeutics because of a more robust scientific base, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said one day before China extended that invitation.
The Chinese government quickly uploaded the genome of the virus, which allowed U.S scientists to develop a potential vaccine and screening test in a matter weeks, but scientists need samples of the actual virus to develop therapeutics.
Swee Kheng Khor, a physician who specializes in global health at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, said the current outbreak is an opportunity to restore trust and familiarity.
“Threats of foreign influence in science could theoretically impact US-China relationships in medical research, but this [novel coronavirus] outbreak appears to have created a small scientific front, although this nascent collaboration must be accelerated because this outbreak is a war between species, not between countries,” Khor said in an email.
Opportunities for Cooperation
A 2017 Chinese law on foreign non-governmental organizations made it harder for academic institutions and hospitals to work in China. With U.S. agencies like the National Science Foundation closing their Beijing offices, Chinese scientists are more frequently working with academia in Europe and other nations, rather than the U.S. first, Bouey said. For example, the coronavirus genome was published by a group in Shanghai that is allied with a university in Australia.
China’s desire for a cure for the latest coronavirus coupled with a desire by the U.S. to contain the outbreak presents an opportunity for cooperation, Sun said.
“Yet the trust level on both sides are extremely low,” she said. “U.S. is afraid of Chinese theft, and China is afraid of U.S. collecting information that could threaten the regime security.”