Scholars urge cooperation and transparency as coronavirus spreads

Sharing of information improves after Chinese president Xi Jinping warns officials against withholding data

January 27, 2020
Source: iStock

Global scientists have emphasised the need for greater cooperation and transparency as they rush to study the rapidly spreading Wuhan coronavirus.

At the start of this week the number of people killed in China by the virus, which causes a type of pneumonia, had risen to 81. Almost 3,000 people were confirmed ill.

Stephen Morgan, executive director of the Nottingham China Health Institute at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, said that “quality information and estimates based on the rapidly unfolding situation of epidemics [are] essential to inform government and health agencies in their response”.

“Some countries are more open than others. That has implications for quality science and quality evidence-based information to inform action,” he said. “Open governments would welcome all the inputs they could get. In Britain, the US and elsewhere, Western governments would immediately seek input from the leading experts, some of whom could well disagree with each other and with the government’s own specialist.

“At the end of the day what we need is the best evidence available on an epidemic outbreak for informed decision making.”

While there were reports of “whistleblowers” being detained or questioned earlier this month, information about the spread of the coronavirus has become more available in the past week, after President Xi Jinping warned officials against withholding data.

Two studies published in The Lancet on 24 January, led by scientists from Capital Medical University in Beijing and the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital, offered the first clinical data on the spread of the virus.

In a sign of how quickly the disease was moving, Gabriel Leung, the University of Hong Kong medical dean who launched a report on the disease on 21 January, announced one day later that the results were “no longer valid, given that the reported number of exported cases has essentially doubled from 24 hours ago”.

Imperial College London, which published an initial estimate of the outbreak on 17 January, followed up with a 22 January report that estimated that 4,000 cases in Wuhan had onset symptoms by 18 January.

Meanwhile, the University of Queensland has been commissioned to fast-track a vaccine

“Academics do have a duty to the community of which they are a part,” Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, told Times Higher Education. “In cases of public health where the general population can be exposed to a serious new health hazard, those academics working in the field have a responsibility to speak truth to power or speak out if necessary.”

Xue Lan, dean of Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University, told Chinese state media that “if [the government] continues to provide updated information, people will generally change behaviours. A critical part is how to establish trust in communication channels, so people rely on the information you provide.”

“The lesson from Sars is: Don’t be afraid of telling the public that you don’t know everything,” Professor Xue said, referring to the 2003 epidemic. 

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