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A man passes by the deserted campus of Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan. Most other universities in China are closed as well.

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‘The disruption is enormous.’ Coronavirus epidemic snarls science worldwide

Normal daily life has come to a virtual standstill in large parts of China as a result of the epidemic of COVID-19—and so has science. Universities across the country remain closed; access to labs is restricted, projects have been mothballed, fieldwork interrupted, and travel severely curtailed. But scientists elsewhere in the world are noticing an impact as well, as collaborations with China are on pause and scientific meetings for the next 5 months have been canceled or postponed.

The damage to science pales compared with the human suffering; the total number of cases has risen to 71,429, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported today, almost 99% of them in China, and there have been 1775 deaths. 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) that has effectively been shut since the Lunar New Year on 25 January. “The disruption is enormous. The stress on the staff is really high.” But Speakman says he understands why the Chinese government took the measures. “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, that are almost completely blocked off from the outside world. Sara Platto, a professor of animal behavior at Jianghan University, says faculty and students living on campus are confined to their apartments. Living off-campus, Platto can venture outside, but only once every 3 days. “I’m working more now than ever before the epidemic,” she says. Platto is a scientific consultant for colleagues in Beijing who are carrying out genetic analyses to determine the relationship of the virus that causes COVID-19—which was officially named SARS-CoV-2 last week—to another coronavirus isolated from a pangolin. She says she’s taking part in 13 chat groups aimed at keeping the research moving forward. But a paper she is writing has been delayed because she left her notes in her office before the epidemic and now can’t get back on campus.

Impacts on science are being felt far beyond Wuhan. Throughout China, some 760 million people are under some sort of a residential lockdown, according to an analysis published by The New York Times yesterday. Experimental research “is largely halted at present because students and research staff are not allowed to return to the laboratories,” says Poo Mu-ming, a neuroscientist at CAS’s Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology.

Jeffrey Erlich, a Canadian neuroscientist at New York University, Shanghai, says he’s been asked to stop all animal experiments and restrict personnel to animal husbandry only. For him, that would mean the loss of many studies with mice and other animal species that get trained on complex tasks. “If I have to stop training those animals because I’m not allowed to have staff maintain them, then I’d have to order another batch of animals and start from scratch, and that would put me back another 6 to 9 months,” he says.

Erlich says he is in negotiations about ways to continue the work but feels conflicted about it. “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? I said to the person who is still working, ‘If at any point you feel uncomfortable, please stop.’”

Deadlines extended

“Yes, unfortunately, the virus is very annoying with regards to work,” agrees Jingmai O’Connor, a paleontologist at CAS’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology. “There is no one working the collection, no one to sign paperwork so things can’t get done, overseas travel is canceled, and CAS is not accepting applications for the next year. No samples can be analyzed, all we can do is work on preexisting data on our computers,” O’Connor says. “It sucks!”

Some Chinese researchers are switching focus to writing up their research and doing grant funding paperwork. The National Science Foundation of China has postponed application deadlines for grants by several weeks, giving researchers time to make up for delays. (Applications have gone completely online to avoid the need for official stamps.) Meanwhile, many universities and institutes have ramped up online classes to keep students on schedule. Poo 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 throughout China. “The coronavirus outbreak has slowed our field development programs, including [electric] taxi rollouts in Chinese cities, because of logistical crackdowns,” he says.

The crisis has put some labs in overdrive, however. Zhang Linqi, an HIV researcher at Tsinghua University is now focusing on the novel coronavirus. “My lab quickly changed gears,” Zhang says. His lab members even decided to forgo the celebrations for the Lunar New Year last month: “[We] decided we would celebrate it by conducting research,” Zhang says. They synthesized and characterized the “spike” on the coronavirus’s surface, a protein that helps it enter human cells. The findings point toward several vaccine strategies that the team is now exploring with industrial partners, Zhang says.

Many researchers in the rest of the world have jumped on the new virus as well. Christopher Dye, an infectious disease expert at the University of Oxford, says his lab has idled much of its normal research. “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,” Dye says.

Fears over the spread of the virus have also upended plans for numerous scientific conferences. So far, more than a dozen have announced cancellations or postponements—not just in China, but elsewhere in Asia and Europe as well. Among the casualties: the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s International Symposium, scheduled for 13–15 March in Shanghai; the second Singapore ECS Symposium on Energy Materials, slated for 1–5 April; and the Materials Beyond meeting on 18–19 June in Shanghai.

At last weekend’s annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science, 31 registrants from China were unable to attend because of travel restrictions. Even organizers of the International Congress on Infectious Diseases, slated to begin on Thursday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, postponed their meeting, saying the priority for its registrants is to fight the coronavirus outbreak in their home countries. Meanwhile, the 36th International Geological Congress, scheduled for New Delhi in early March, has angered some participants by banning all attendees with a Chinese passport—even if they haven’t been in China for years. Meeting organizers say the 480 Chinese registrants can join by Skype.

Drug stockpiles may run out

Concern is also rising that the availability of medicines could soon face disruptions worldwide. An estimated 80% of all active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs)—the raw materials for drugs—are produced in China and India, according to recent testimony by Rosemarie Gibson, author of China Rx, before the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission in Washington, D.C. They include the compounds used to treat everything from bacterial infections and cancer to heart disease and diabetes. With many factories in China still shuttered, stockpiles of many medicines could soon run short.

“This is a very acute issue now,” says Michael Osterholm, who heads the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Osterholm notes there are 153 medicines people need immediate access to in life-threatening situations. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, overreliance on a small group of suppliers caused shortages of dozens of medicines every day, Osterholm says: “These supply chains are very thin.”

But Mariângela Simão, assistant director-general for access to medicines and health products at WHO, says she and her colleagues are not yet seeing signs that COVID-19 has affected supplies of essential medicines. Simão’s team is in daily contact with international pharmaceutical associations that are tracking shipping disruptions from their member companies. “The information we have so far is there is no immediate risk regarding APIs,” Simão says.

Part of the reason, she adds, is that many companies stockpiled 2 to 4 months of their products prior to the Lunar New Year celebrations, when many factories close. And although Hubei is home to some pharmaceutical companies, far more are in Shanghai and other parts of China that are less affected. That said, Simão notes, disruptions could still occur if the virus isn’t brought under control. “It will all depend on how the situations evolve with the outbreak.”

That sense of uncertainty about what’s in store is perhaps the most widespread concern in China and across the globe. Says Wengshen Wei, a geneticist at Peking University: “We don’t know when the outbreak will be over and when we could have all lab members come back to resume our projects.”

Scientific meetings that have been canceled or postponed

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Asia have canceled all meetings planned for Suzhou, China “through at least the end of June.”

19th International Congress on Infectious Diseases, 20–23 February, Kuala Lumpur. Postponed until 10–13 September.

Second meeting of the open-ended working group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, 24–29 February. Moved from Kunming, China, to Rome.

36th International Geological Congress, New Delhi, 2–8 March. Ban on attendees with a Chinese passport.

Metamorphosis: Science, Information, Planet and Democracy, 12–13 March, Lisbon, Portugal. Canceled.

Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine, 13–15 March, Shanghai. Postponed indefinitely.

Second Singapore ECS Symposium on Energy Materials, 1–5 April, Singapore. Postponed indefinitely.

Materials Beyond, 18–19 June, Shanghai. Postponed until October. 

Gordon Research Conference on Electrochemical Interfaces, 28 June-3 July, Hong Kong. Canceled.

 With reporting by Dennis Normile, Gretchen Vogel, Jon Cohen, Rebecca Kanthor, and Sanjay Kumar.