NEWS Coronavirus epidemic snarls science worldwide

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Coro­n­avirus epi­demic snarls sci­ence worldwide

Robert F. Service

Like most uni­ver­si­ties in China, the cam­pus of Huazhong Uni­ver­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy in Wuhan is deserted.


The coro­n­avirus epi­demic now rac­ing across China is forc­ing Jef­frey Erlich, a Cana­dian neu­ro­sci­en­tist at New York Uni­ver­sity Shang­hai, to weigh his sci­ence against con­cern for his staff. Erlich per­forms ani­mal exper­i­ments at a neigh­bor­ing uni­ver­sity; as part of efforts to con­trol the ill­ness, known as COVID-​​19, offi­cials there have asked him to halt the stud­ies and use as few staff as pos­si­ble to take care of his ani­mals. But he is train­ing mice and other species on very com­plex tasks; the inter­rup­tion could set him back 6 to 9 months. “It’s really hard bal­anc­ing the research pro­duc­tiv­ity of the lab and the safety and com­fort of my staff,” he says. “When you’ve invested years of work into exper­i­ments, where do you draw the line about what’s con­sid­ered essential?”

Erlich is just one of thou­sands of sci­en­tists in China whose work is suf­fer­ing. Uni­ver­si­ties across the coun­try have been closed since the Lunar New Year, 25 Jan­u­ary. Access to labs is restricted, and projects have been moth­balled, field­work inter­rupted, and travel severely cur­tailed. Sci­en­tists else­where in the world are feel­ing the impact as well, as col­lab­o­ra­tions with China are on pause and many sci­en­tific meet­ings, some as far away as June, have been can­celed or postponed.

The dam­age to research pales com­pared with the human suf­fer­ing wrought by the virus. As Sci­ence went to press, the total num­ber of cases had risen to 73,332, almost 99% of them in China, and 1873 deaths had been counted; the specter of a pan­demic is still very real. Still, for indi­vid­ual researchers the losses can be serious—and stress­ful. “Basi­cally, every­thing has com­pletely stopped,” says John Speak­man, who runs an ani­mal behav­ior lab at the Chi­nese Acad­emy of Sci­ences (CAS) in Bei­jing. “The dis­rup­tion is enor­mous. The stress on the staff is really high.” But Speak­man says he under­stands why the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment closed uni­ver­si­ties and insti­tutes. “It’s annoy­ing, but I com­pletely sup­port what they have done,” he says.

Dis­rup­tions are par­tic­u­larly acute in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province, the epi­cen­ter of the out­break, which are almost com­pletely cut off from the out­side world. “I’m work­ing more now than ever before the epi­demic,” says Sara Platto, a pro­fes­sor of ani­mal behav­ior at Jiang­han Uni­ver­sity in Wuhan. But she faces major obsta­cles: Fac­ulty and stu­dents liv­ing on cam­pus are con­fined to their apart­ments, and Platto, who lives off-​​campus, can ven­ture out­side only once every 3 days. She is work­ing with col­leagues in Bei­jing who are study­ing the rela­tion­ship of the novel virus to another coro­n­avirus iso­lated from a pan­golin. But a paper she is writ­ing has been delayed because her notes are in her office and she can’t get back on campus.

The sit­u­a­tion is not much bet­ter in other cities. “Unfor­tu­nately, the virus is very annoy­ing with regards to work,” says Jing­mai O’Connor, a pale­on­tol­o­gist at CAS’s Insti­tute for Ver­te­brate Pale­on­tol­ogy in Bei­jing. “There is no one work­ing the col­lec­tion, no one to sign paper­work so things can’t get done, over­seas travel is can­celed. … No sam­ples can be ana­lyzed, all we can do is work on pre­ex­ist­ing data on our com­put­ers,” O’Connor says. “It sucks!”

Some researchers in China have switched from lab work to writ­ing papers and grant appli­ca­tions. The National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion of China has post­poned grant appli­ca­tion dead­lines by sev­eral weeks, giv­ing researchers time to catch up. Online classes, which many uni­ver­si­ties and insti­tutes have ramped up to keep stu­dents on sched­ule, are also keep­ing sci­en­tists busy. Poo Mum­ing, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at CAS’s Cen­ter for Excel­lence in Brain Sci­ence and Intel­li­gence Tech­nol­ogy, says he is teach­ing daily 2-​​hour neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy lec­tures: “Sur­pris­ingly, there are thou­sands of peo­ple tun­ing in each day.”

China’s lock­down is felt even half a world away. Daniel Kam­men, a renew­able energy researcher at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, says it is imped­ing his lab’s efforts to help set up green trans­porta­tion projects, includ­ing the roll­out of elec­tric taxis, through­out China.

But labs work­ing on the fight against COVID-​​19 are in over­drive. At Tsinghua Uni­ver­sity in Bei­jing, Zhang Linqi has switched from HIV to the novel coro­n­avirus; his lab mem­bers even decided to forgo the Lunar New Year cel­e­bra­tions last month. “[We] decided we would cel­e­brate it by con­duct­ing research,” Zhang says. The team syn­the­sized and char­ac­ter­ized the “spike” on the coronavirus’s sur­face, a pro­tein that helps it enter human cells; Zhang’s lab has joined indus­trial part­ners to develop a vac­cine tar­get­ing the spike. Count­less infec­tious dis­ease labs in the rest of the world have put their reg­u­lar work on hold as well. “The main effect has been the need to triage work, to push other projects to the back burner while we help our Chi­nese col­leagues ana­lyze the vast amount of new COVID-​​19 data,” says Christo­pher Dye of the Uni­ver­sity of Oxford.

The spread of the virus has upended plans for numer­ous sci­en­tific con­fer­ences. So far, more than a dozen have been can­celed or postponed—not just in China but else­where in Asia and Europe as well. Among the casu­al­ties are the Inter­na­tional Soci­ety for Stem Cell Research’s inter­na­tional sym­po­sium, which was sched­uled for March in Shang­hai, and the 2nd Sin­ga­pore ECS Sym­po­sium on Energy Mate­ri­als in early April. Orga­niz­ers of the Inter­na­tional Con­gress on Infec­tious Dis­eases, planned for 20–24 Feb­ru­ary in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, post­poned their meet­ing, say­ing the pri­or­ity for its reg­is­trants is to fight the coro­n­avirus out­break in their home countries.

Con­cern is also ris­ing that the epi­demic could dis­rupt the global med­i­cine sup­ply. China and India pro­duce an esti­mated 80% of all active phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ingre­di­ents, the raw mate­ri­als for antibi­otics and drugs for can­cer, heart dis­ease, and dia­betes. With many Chi­nese fac­to­ries shut­tered, stock­piles could run short. “This is a very acute issue now,” says Michael Oster­holm, the head the Cen­ter for Infec­tious Dis­ease Research and Pol­icy at the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota, Min­neapo­lis, which stud­ies drug availability.

But Mar­iân­gela Simão, assis­tant direc­tor gen­eral for access to med­i­cines and health prod­ucts at the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion, says the agency sees no “imme­di­ate risk” of COVID-​​19 affect­ing sup­plies of essen­tial med­i­cines. Simão’s team is in daily con­tact with inter­na­tional phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal asso­ci­a­tions, which track ship­ping dis­rup­tions from their mem­ber com­pa­nies. Many com­pa­nies stock­piled 2 to 4 months of their prod­ucts prior to the Lunar New Year cel­e­bra­tions, she says. And while Hubei is home to some phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies, far more are in Shang­hai and other parts of China that are less affected. But the pic­ture could change if the virus isn’t brought under con­trol, Simão notes. “It will all depend on how the sit­u­a­tions evolve with the outbreak.”

* With report­ing by Den­nis Normile, Gretchen Vogel, Jon Cohen, and free­lance jour­nal­ist Rebecca Kan­thor in Shanghai.

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