Scientific spirit needed amid major crisis
Global Times


Chinese medical team members meet with Iranian medical experts in Tehran, Iran, March 7. (Photo: Xinhua)

The US has become the first country to reach the mark of 1-million infections amid the COVID-19 pandemic due to a disdain for science as its leaders ignore advice from professionals and let conspiracies control their political agenda, some prominent scientists who have been striving to seek facts and truth over the past three months told the Global Times, claiming that they are shocked and regretful for this outcome. 

When looking at why the US, a powerful country which is highly advanced in the fields of science and technology, has seen growing deaths from the  pandemic that surpassed casualties from World War I and the Vietnam War, some said it might be the continual suppression of scientists, spiraling online rumors and conspiracies that have accelerated the downfall of public trust in science when the world needs it most to fight this war that threatens innocent lives. 

Regrettably, during the past few months, the public witnessed how politicians have played with different conspiracies to achieve their own political goals, ignored warnings and suggestions from professionals, marginalized those who are in the right position to speak out on the matter and who are always adhering to factual evidence. Consequences: Some drank disinfectant after following US President Donald Trump's unprofessional advice to prevent the virus, some burned 5G towers in the UK due to conspiracies linking the technology to COVID-19, which has all become part of the anti-intellectualism that creates disdain for science and endangers the public.

However, more people are urged to show respect to prominent medical professionals and scientists, who have been working hard to find out the truth about this new virus with no extra time to respond or even take a look into how ridiculous the coronavirus disinformation campaign is. Politicians, who understand little about the virus, are urged to stop wasting time on "blame games" and throwing around conspiracy theories to scapegoat China for the global pandemic when some American hawks like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and GOP lawmakers have made noises that overshadow authoritative voices.

Let professionals do their job to save the world from this unprecedented crisis - a shared call from scientific communities in both countries. 

Conspiracy vs science

When looking into how the US hit the 1-million infection threshold, severely weighing on the global pandemic fight, scientists from both China and overseas shared growing concerns about whether authorities can possibly let scientists take the lead on life-threatening pandemics being a matter directly linked to a way out of this crisis. 

When Trump was asked by reporters about the 1-million case milestone on Tuesday, he replied that some good experts said this would never affect the US but they got it wrong. This is seen as typical of Trump's habit of blaming others for his own poor judgment, CNN said. 

Faced with growing finger-pointing game staged by politicians with ill intentions like Trump and Pompeo and the loudest China critics, such as the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Washington Times, some scientists, and authoritative scientific journals including Nature, The Lancet, and New England Journal of Medicine, who are still persevering in carrying out research into the newly emerged virus, decided to reject these baseless accusation and let true science shed light on the virus and override ridiculous conspiracy theories. 

Lu Jiahai, vice dean at the Public Health School of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, told the Global Times on Tuesday that conspiracy theories blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic in the West showed that even in a modernized world with highly developed science and technology, politicizing scientific issues still work, and as a scientist, "I cannot understand such silly acts."

During the past few months, a series of conspiracies and false narratives flourished, including some people believing scientists created the coronavirus, GOP lawmakers insisting the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, some blaming US billionaire Bill Gates for knowing the virus ahead of time and pocketing profits from developing vaccines, some being misled by Trump who suggesting UV light or disinfectant could kill the infection. 

Yang Zhanqiu, deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, told the Global Times on Tuesday that some rumors such as the virus escaping from a lab and misleading treatment advices are among some of the most worrisome false narratives. 

Various US media have also been fueling this disinformation campaign. The Washington Times was among the first media outlets in January to say that the virus may have originated from a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and was used by China as part of a "biowarfare program." In quick succession, US politicians used it as ammunition to attack China and divert public attention from their own failures. 

Pompeo previously stated in a Fox News Channel interview that "we know this virus originated in Wuhan, China," and that the Institute of Virology is only a handful of miles away from the wet market.

"But Pompeo and many other foreign media outlets had it all wrong, because the real lab is on the outskirts of Wuhan, which is 50 kilometers away from the wet market," Yang told  the Global Times on Tuesday, noting that Western politicians are making baseless accusations without getting their facts straight. Their actions reflected their eagerness to make China the scapegoat of the pandemic. 

Peter Forster, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, who is engaged in researching into the early spread of the novel coronavirus among humans, said he is at the beginning of several large research projects, encompassing not only medicine and biology but also social sciences and economics. 

"For my part, I believe we need to understand how the virus has genetically developed during the past few months to find out its strengths and weaknesses, to assist in finding treatments and vaccines," he told the Global Times via email on Monday. 

Forster also said he has been keeping in touch with Chinese scientists whose results independently support their conclusions, and who are taking what he considers the logical next steps in their research.

The team of scientists has mapped some of the original spread of the new coronavirus through its mutations, which creates different viral lineages. "In my view, anyone searching for the detailed origins of the virus needs to search more broadly in China and East Asia," he said. 

On politicians debating the origins and floating conspiracies on whether the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, including US politicians constantly blaming China for causing the pandemic, Forster said he has not followed the political discussions in China or in the US in any detail. "We do not have time for this now."

Both Chinese and foreign experts, who have been racing against time to gain a deeper understanding of this new virus, shared Forster's view: Don't waste time on pointless debates; don't politicize a scientific topic and just focus on the right thing to do: Save more lives and defend solidarity in this global combat. 

Call for global solidarity 

Despite hostility from US politicians who have been constantly waging a disinformation campaign against China, US scientists, such as the world's leading "virus hunter" W. Ian Lipkin, have been sticking to the facts and insisting on scientific integrity when it comes to research and cooperation with China, especially when Chinese scientists, ever since the outbreak began on the front line, have been cooperating diligently and effectively to identify the pathogen behind the deadly disease, and tried to develop a vaccine for the virus.

When asked by CNN on Tuesday about whether China has been open with information on the virus, Lipkin, internationally recognized as an authority on the use of molecular methods for pathogen discovery, and who has been working with Lu Jiahai, answered that based on his 17 years of cooperation with Chinese scientists, he trusted them "and they trust me, that's why we continue working together."

In February 27, scientists from eight countries, including Charles Calisher from Colorado State University in the US and Peter Daszak, president of the New York-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, signed a public letter via The Lancet to show solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China who are fighting against the COVID-19 outbreak.

The letter also strongly condemned the conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin, saying that scientists from several countries have overwhelmingly concluded that this novel coronavirus originated from the wild, as have so many other emerging pathogens.

The joint statement from scientists published in Lancet in March condemned conspiracy theories on the origin of novel coronavirus, calling on support for scientists, public health professionals, medics in Wuhan and across China, saying that the scientific community speaks as one voice. 

We work very closely with Chinese scientists. We have had incredible transparency with labs in China for the last 15 years, since SARS, said Daszak. 

"We collaborate on what are dangerous viruses and gather credible information that helps public health around the world. That is all under threat right now," Daszak noted,

Chinese scientists and their families have been abused on social media and threatened with violence. They are saying, said Daszak, "we are not going to talk, because every time we speak we get criticized or threatened".

Scientists and professionals around the globe hold to the principle of always treating the virus with a scientific attitude, as it is not targeting any specific ethnic group or country, which is in stark contrast to those politicians who are believed to have little understanding of the virus or its magnitude and implications. 

"Scientists from different countries need to stay away from political debates and cooperate to make joint efforts on exploring the unknowns for our civilization. I have always advocated international cooperation between scientists on research into COVID-19," Lu told the Global Times. 

More Chinese people consider those medics and scientists who led the fight as real-life superheroes.