What are we learning from the current coronavirus darkness? Science, innovation, governance and solidary are helping us forward

“This is the time for facts, not fear; for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO The novel coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, causing serious...

“This is the time for facts, not fear; for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.”

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO

The novel coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, causing serious respiratory illness, turned the Chinese New Year celebration into an emergency battlefield in hospitals, and silence mixed with fear in streets and homes, first in Wuhan and then all over China. In the midst of darkness, China is moving forward, supported by grass-root initiatives, scientific collaboration and business community engagement, both in China and beyond. 

The current status – the number of infected is still increasing

The number of infected has been increasing rapidly in the past two weeks. On 30 January, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency, which requires efficient and coordinated responses, in China and internationally. [1]

2019-nCoV Global Cases by Johns Hopkins CSSE – China update, 5 Feb 2020.
Source: https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6

Following the on-going emergency management while still living and working in Beijing, what do our working days look like? Business-as-usual, as an ambition. And, we are trying to learn, on the ground. To share our monitoring and insights from the on-going coronavirus darkness, let us start with the statement by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO: “This is the time for facts, not fear; for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma”. 

Top-down emergency responses and grass-root engagement – China model for mobilization and action 

The coronavirus outbreak has doubtlessly become the absolute top priority for the Chinese leadership. At the CPC Central Committee Meeting on 25 January, President Xi Jinping ensured that the central government “has attached great importance to the issue and led efforts from all sectors to push the prevention and control work into full swing.”  While stressing the most crucial tasks of prompt and resolute actions in containing the spread of the epidemic, the meeting also put a particular emphasis on the fact that “this outbreak is a major test of China’s governance system and capacity”. [2] Indeed, the ongoing emergency response and management is a “whole-of-government” operation. Under the leadership of the State Council, led by the premier Li Keqiang and with the coordination of China’s National Health Commission, a large number of Ministries are taking supporting measures, not least in the field of science and technology (S&T). For instance, the vice Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping was appointed as the leader of the State Council’s S&T Task Force on Integrated Protection and Control Mechanism for the Novel Coronavirus Epidemic. In close consultation and cooperation with other Ministries and government agenciesthe Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) is carrying out intensive work to mobilise and organise research and innovation capacities at the national, regional and local levels, to contribute to the emergency response and to meet the urgent needs for S&T support.        

While significant criticism has been voiced on the initial slow and ineffective response and management by the Wuhan municipality government in China’s official and social media, it is premature to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of the on-going complex and large-scale emergency response as a whole. But since the past two weeks, it has surely been a China model for mobilisation and action – with scale, speed, and willpower. 

Large-scale grass-root initiatives and actions are taking place 

To prevent and control virus transmission, large-scale grass-root initiatives for local health control and information campaigns are taking place all over China. It is particularly useful and important, as many infected cases occurred in connection to unnecessary visits to hospitals. In this process, China’s platform tech giants are playing an active role in providing information and basic medical consultation, using their huge outreach capacity.          

The extended holidays and home quarantines are putting huge pressure on, for instance, schools, grocery retail supply chains and basic community services.  This makes local support and voluntary initiatives, from both the business sector and the civil society, extremely important in making daily life and working days as “normal” as possible. 

Finally, given the limited medical resources and personnel in Wuhan and in nearby regions, a huge mobilisation has been organised. For instance, more than 8000 medical personnel have been reallocated across the country to support Wuhan over the past days.[3]

Infrastructure build-up – China scale and China speed

Since the lockdown was implemented on 23 January, Wuhan and the nearby cities have been suffering from isolation, fear and practical difficulties, not to mention the misery caused by illness. The China speed of building up new and advanced medical infrastructure does indeed bring hope, strength and confidence to people in Wuhan and beyond, i.e. the completion of the Huoshenshan Hospital with 1000 beds for highly contagious pneumonia patientsin less than 10 days. The second one, the Leishenshan Hospital, will be even larger with 1300 beds, which is due to open today, 5 February.

Ericsson, the leading communication equipment supplier from Sweden, in close cooperation with Wuhan Mobile and Wuhan Unicom made its contribution with Sweden Speed: 4 base stations for the new hospital was installed and up-and-running by a team of 18 Ericsson technicians in 2 days! 

Together with Ericsson, other Swedish companies, such as Autoliv, AstraZeneca, Blueair, Mölnlycke Health Care and IKEA have all contributed to the emergency response with their innovative products and solutions in Wuhan and other cities in China.

Science-supported public health management and global efforts – Two Chinese academicians and SARS-veterans take lead

Academician Zhong Nanshan and Academician Li Lanjuan, China’s leading experts in infectious diseases have become front figures in this battle against coronavirus. Academician Zhong of Chinese Academy of Engineering, discovered the SARS coronavirus in 2003 and successfully led the emergency management in the fight against SARS. Academician Li, also of Chinese Academy of Engineering has been leading China’s State Key Laboratory for Diagnosis and Treatment of Infectious Diseases. She led the disease prevention and control efforts against both SARS in 2003 and the avian flu in 2013.  Today, at the age of 83 and 72, both are taking lead to fight against the new virus on the ground in Wuhan. Both are symbols for professionalism, trustworthiness and hope for survival and recovery. 

Left: Academician Li Lanjuan, Right: Academician Zhong Nanshan.

The swift responses and global research efforts 

The first genome sequence of the virus was made public in early January by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. More virus strains from various people are now available for diagnostic tests and for studying the pathogen’s spread and evolution. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was the first lab to launch an analysis on live virus samples. Since then, more samples are also available outside China and researchers are working around the clock to develop tests, drugs and vaccines as well as to study the virus in depth in labs around the world in the USA, Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong and other countries. These complementary research efforts could significantly accelerate the process of understanding the new virus and developing treatments and drugs. In Sweden, a research team at the Department of Laboratory Medicine of Karolinska Institute (KI) is also making intensive effort, departing from their results and experience from developing prototype vaccine against Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF).[4] Based on the extensive experience and good practice of the close cooperation between the scientific community and the public healthcare system, Swedish researchers have gained deep knowledge and strong capacity in basic virus research over the past decades. Both the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet)[5] and the Wallenberg Foundation[6] have invested heavily in advanced research platforms for effective development of new drugs, including infectious medicine. Facing the coronavirus outbreak, the Swedish researchers and research foundations are highly engaged and committed to make their contribution to the global health challenges.[7]   

Nevertheless, it will take, at least one year before new vaccines can be available for treatment on humans, according to the most optimistic estimates by leading experts.[8] Based on previous and on-going research on treatments for SARS, some Chinese research institutes, for instance, China’s National Engineering Research Center, are trying to find therapies and treatments that could work against the coronavirus.  Chinese authorities are also testing whether existing HIV drugs can treat the new virus.

As of 30 January, at least 54 English-language papers on the coronavirus have been published, covering pathogens, transmission routes and susceptible groups.[9] These publications and the intensive ongoing research explore key questions for supporting the battle against the virus on the ground, such as how the virus spreads, not least the possibility of virus spreading from infected people without symptoms; where the virus came from and how it can mutate during the transmission process. 

Figure: Scientific publications on coronavirus
Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00166-6

Big data and digital technologies enabling new private-public partnerships for research

Enabled by China’s strengths in big data and digital technologies as well as by the huge computing capacity of the Chinese tech giants, such as Alibaba and Baidu, a new type of “private-public partnership” is emerging to support emergency management and research efforts.[10]  For instance:

  • Alibaba Cloud, who has been working on genomics research since 2015, established a new partnership with the Global Health Drug Discovery Institute (GHDDI) at Tsinghua University to develop an AI-supported open-sourced data platform to track and study coronavirus.
  • Alibaba Cloud has also been providing computing power and data analytics to the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), one of the world’s largest genomics research institutes. BGI has just received approval to sell two virus detection kits and a sequencing system for the coronavirus. 
  • Baidu, who has also been working on genomics research in the past years, is now offering its LinearFold algorithm to coronavirus researchers for free along with AI computing capacity. According to Baidu, its algorithm can significantly speed up the prediction of mutation processes of coronaviruses, which are faster than, e.g. DNA virus mutation. 

A joint declaration from the global research community

Transparent and timely data-sharing is a crucial success factor in the on-going emergency responses. As of 4 Feb, 57 research institutes, pharmaceutical companies, philanthropic foundations, scientific publishers, public research funding agencies, government agencies, incl. 2 Chinese organisations, Chinese Academy of Sciences and  Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, have signed a joint statement, initiated by the health charity Wellcome Trust. All the signatories make a clear statement and commitment to work together to ensure that research findings and data relevant to the new coronavirus are shared rapidly and openly.[11]

A few reflections on the way forward

There are no signs that the outbreak of coronavirus is slowing down as the number of confirmed cases is still increasing day-by-day. We do not know yet when the peak and the turning point will come and must rely on the emerging consensus, or the guiding principle, of “being prepared for the worst-case scenario, making the best action plans and carrying out the longest fight against the virus”. Meanwhile, we do know that useful insights and important long-term considerations are already emerging from the on-going emergency responses: 

  • With a very, very high price, the risks of trade and consumption of exotic wildlife and animal health are (finally) in the spotlight. This virus outbreak (and other health risks and threats) is systemic and environment-related in nature. The battle against public health threats is not a one-off single shot. Instead, it is a science-based and continuous prevention and preparation effort. It is a long-term and integrated system transformation, particularly in the rapid and complex urban development. 
  • In an increasingly globalised world, a “tragedy of the commons” of public health is not an option as it would be too costly, in terms of trust, confidence and value-loss – for humanity and nature. It requires openness, solidarity and joint efforts by governments and the international community. The fast and excellent data-sharing practice between China and the international research community this time is a good showcase, which will, and should, inspire and enable more joint research and innovation efforts when dealing with issues related to global challenges and global governance.
  • When it comes to research capacity and focus, one reflection emerging from the research community, both in China and internationally, is that more and long-term efforts should have been made on coronavirus research after the outbreak of the SARS virus. China and the world could then have been better prepared for new coronavirus outbreaks. However, given the rapid development of big data and genome sequencing as well as digital and communication technologies, the research capacity to study new mutations and develop new drugs and vaccines is being greatly enhanced now and in the near future. 
  • As a strategic aspect of the long-term sustainability of societal, ecological and economic development, biosafety, both nationwide and globally, will be an emerging priority of capacity development for public health governance as well as research and innovation. In this aspect, China literately lacks research capacity and infrastructure for high-level (Level 4) biosafety precautions, despite having the second largest R&D expenditure in the world. 

Last, but not least, let us express our most sincere thanks for all the emails, WeChat-messages and phone calls from our colleagues, friends and partners in Sweden and other places outside China! As you can see, we are fine and we are trying hard to learn from this very unfortunate and special situation… 

Nannan Lundin, Lennart Nilsson, Linnea Yang and Jessica Zhang

PS: With the teamwork of the Office for Science and Innovation and the Economic Section at the Embassy of Sweden in Beijing, we will continue to jointly follow the strategic development trends and the contribution of the Swedish business community in China, in this extraordinary moment and special situation.  

[1] World Health Organization

[2] CCTV (in Chinese)

[3] Baidu

[4] Svenska Dagbladet

[5] Swedish Research Council

[6] Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation

[7] Dagens Nyheter

[8] CNBC

[9] nature

[10] South China Morning Post

[11] Wellcome