China’s Government Censoring Research on the Origins of the Pandemic

China Begins Strict Control of Coronavirus Research

The Chinese government is showing more interest in what findings on the COVID-19 virus that researchers can publish, according to a report by Nature.

Coronavirus

Coronavirus

China now requires that coronavirus researchers first seek approval before publishing any findings. This move raises concerns over the effective management of the current pandemic.

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There have been reports of such a move by the government for weeks. Also, at least two local universities had posted online notices to that effect before taking them down.

Nature reports having seen the documents relating to this, along with some researchers.

The new policy calls for researchers studying the coronavirus to seek approval from their institution’s academic committee before publishing findings. They also need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE) or the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST).

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Under the directive, research into the origins of the virus would receive extra vetting by government officials before publication.

The move probably points to an effort by China to change the narrative of where the virus, first reported in Wuhan, came from. In March, the country’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian claimed the virus came from the U.S.

Government directive

Nature reports that it was able to obtain a document on the policy possibly prepared by the MOE. The document had a date of March 10 on it.

According to the directive, academic committees of universities are to forward research on coronavirus to the education ministry. The latter then transfers it to the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism, a task force of the State Council, for scrutiny.

The policy applies to research about the origin, transmission, treatments, or vaccines against the virus.

The education ministry issued another directive based on instructions at the meeting of the State Council’s task force on March 25. Dated April 7, the notice mainly emphasized requirements in the earlier one.

In addition to considering the “academic value” of a study, the directive urged academic committees to also consider whether the timing is right for any publication.

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The updated directive first appeared on the website of Fudan University’s School of Information Science and Technology. The school took down the notice hours later.

A similar notice appeared on the website of the Wuhan-based China University of Geosciences. It was removed as well, although CNN reports that a cached version was available.

According to the Nature report, some researchers did not yet have complete information about the new policy. They have not seen any notice from relevant authorities.

Mixed reactions and foreign concerns

Some scientists in China thought the policy could be helpful. They saw it as a way of combating poorly-executed research whose findings are usually circulated widely online.

Conservation biologist Alice Hughes, who is with the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, cited the example of a study whose authors implied the virus came from snakes. The researchers did not provide convincing evidence to back up their conclusion.

Some other researchers, especially foreign scientists, think this is a bad move that could hurt the world. They see it more as a reflection of the Chinese government’s interest in changing theories on the virus’s origin.

Researchers outside China are worried that the curbs on research could prevent the availability of information to properly manage the pandemic. The policy could lead to costly delays.

“Right now we desperately need all kinds of research relating to SARS-CoV-2, from basic studies to understand mechanisms of disease to vaccines and therapeutics,” virologist Ashley St. John told Nature. “We can’t afford any delays right now.”

References

China is tightening its grip on coronavirus research – Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01108-y)

Beijing tightens grip over coronavirus research amid US-China row on virus origin – CNN (https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/12/asia/china-coronavirus-research-restrictions-intl-hnk/index.html)

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