China is opening up after 3 years — what does it mean for research?

China is opening up after 3 years — what does it mean for research?

Travel to and from China is increasing after quarantines for travellers were lifted this month.Credit: Andy Wong/AP/Shutterstock

Palaeoanthropologist Clément Zanolli has been waiting more than three years to see ancient teeth, unearthed in China, that could belong to a previously undescribed ape. Zanolli, from the University of Bordeaux, France, had to cancel his travel plans when China shut its borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. But with the government lifting its onerous quarantine requirements for incoming travellers this month, Zanolli is one of many researchers planning their return to China for conferences, face-to-face meetings and fieldwork.

It’s “fantastic that the borders are finally open”, says Alice Hughes, a conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong, who hopes to travel to the Chinese mainland around April. This is long overdue, she says.

China’s strict ‘zero-COVID’ policy to quash the spread of the disease was among the longest and harshest worldwide. For almost three years, citizens endured mandatory testing, whole-city lockdowns and lengthy quarantines. The restrictions meant that researchers in China were largely confined to their campuses because regional and international travel was time-consuming, unpredictable and often expensive. Meanwhile, most researchers abroad were locked out of China.

But the policy’s end in December has led to a surge in infections across the country. This has left some researchers cautious about travelling to China. Although they hope outbreaks will slow down soon.

Meet and greet

Many researchers in China are planning to attend conferences abroad later this year now that quarantines for returning travellers have been lifted. Jingbo Cui, an economist who studies environmental issues at Duke Kunshan University, China, wants to attend meetings in the United States and the United Kingdom to help rebuild his international reputation. “Our research needs exposure.” And geneticist Shuhua Xu, at Fudan University in Shanghai, hopes to use a grant he received before the pandemic for an academic exchange with researchers at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Researchers outside China are also making plans to visit their Chinese colleagues. Virologist Linfa Wang’s top priority is to meet with lab groups in Beijing and Guangzhou that will focus on preparing for pandemics. “We can now plan with a bit more certainty,” says Wang, at Duke–National University of Singapore Medical School.

“Many people are eager to re-engage with China and the scientists here,” says Thomas Stidham, a palaeontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing. Researchers in China have made big fossil discoveries over the past three years and palaeontologists are probably eager to get a first-hand look, says Stidham.

International collaborations dwindled during the pandemic, but a return to in-person meetings should help revive them, says Caroline Wagner, a science-policy researcher at the Ohio State University in Columbus.

Flights into and out of China are expected to increase from their pandemic levels, which will boost research connections, says Li Tang, a science- and innovation-policy researcher at Fudan University. However, flights are expensive at the moment and limited flight connections might make people reluctant to travel to and from China in the immediate future.

Persistent barriers

For some researchers, the excitement of China opening up is tempered by geopolitical tensions. The United States, Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia have increased their focus on national security and competitiveness, which might deter researchers in those regions from collaborating with their Chinese peers, says James Wilsdon, a science-policy researcher at University College London.

And in recent weeks, some countries, such as South Korea, the United States and Australia, have introduced testing requirements and other restrictions on travellers entering their borders from China because of the huge wave of COVID-19 infections there. China, in turn, has said it will not be issuing visas for travellers from some of those countries.

The pandemic has also politicized specific areas of research, including the origins of SARS-CoV-2, making scientific engagement difficult. Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, who publically shared2 the SARS-CoV-2 genome in January 2020 with his long-time Chinese collaborator, virologist Zhang Yongzhen, has no plans to visit China any time soon because he fears his work there could be censored. “That makes me feel very uneasy,” says Holmes.

“Chinese society has been under COVID isolations for much longer, with much tighter censorship,” says Joy Zhang, a sociologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. “I suspect I will have a small ‘culture shock’ when I visit China next time.”

Still, researchers in China are relieved that domestic travel will now be easier. Aaron Irving, an infectious-diseases researcher at Zhejiang University in Haining, China, hopes to visit caves to trap bats coming out of hibernation to study, among other things, the bacteria and viruses they harbour, after having to cancel two trips owing to COVID-19 outbreaks. “All of us were glad that the restrictions were lifted because it makes day-to-day life much easier.”

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