Dr. Alice C. Hughes is one of many scientists whose research on bats has been stifled by the Chinese Government. The Associate Professor at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Hong Kong, recalls how research into the origins of Covid was encouraged at first. But that changed abruptly early in 2021. She analyses major flaws in a recent study published by Nature to elaborate on this state intervention in academia.
Hughes argues that if we want to be better prepared for the next pandemic, it is time to stop focusing on finding ‘animal zero’, and direct efforts towards understanding the process of viruses spilling over into human populations.
She has written about this in the Spectator.
As Covid spread through China, scientific institutes were initially encouraged or requested to develop task forces to chase down the origins of Covid. Even researchers who had never worked on bats – which at the time were believed to be the most likely origin of the virus – were suddenly going into the field to find a wild source. At the same time these institutes were placed under intense scrutiny. Any publication had to be vetted and approved prior to submission if it mentioned the possible origins of SARS-CoV-2, and scientists were virtually forbidden to talk to journalists, even about their published work.
Then the political climate began to shift once again, and the Chinese Government began to make research into Covid’s origins more difficult. By early 2021 the ability to conduct field research on bats became more and more challenging, and within provinces such as Yunnan, where the most similar viruses to SARS-CoV-2 had been found in bats, scientists were told that bat research was no longer permissible by the middle of the year. This included me and my research team. Whilst we had conducted our bat work unhindered in Yunnan since 2013, and like so many scientists were encouraged to take more samples in 2020, by 2021 we were the subject of intense scrutiny, sometimes involving police checks, interviews and monitoring even before our sampling became impossible. …
In early 2022 China finally acknowledged that it had taken swabs from the Huanan wet market, when it published a preprint (a study which has not been peer-reviewed) by George Gao of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control, along with several other academics. The underlying data it was based on was not publicly released.
This preprint is the basis of a peer-reviewed study in Nature which was published this month by China’s CDC, on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. How this paper came to be published in Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals, when it contains so many apparent errors and obfuscations though, is not clear.
The Nature publication is based on swabs from the Huanan wet market, the cages, and other samples taken directly from animals. Unlike the cage swabs, it’s impossible to know where these animal samples came from and how they relate to the market. Several stray animals around the wet market were tested at the end of March, after the virus had already peaked and waned in Wuhan. The value of the animal data, three months after the market was closed, is very limited. …
Perhaps rather than continuing to try and find ‘animal zero’, it is finally time to refocus our efforts on understanding why viruses like Covid spill over into human populations, to better understand what conditions may increase this risk. Because Covid will not be the last pandemic we witness, and we are yet to learn the lessons needed to prevent making the same mistakes again.
Worth reading in full.