Trump drags US universities into virus battle with China

Accusations that China is stealing virus research could harm US vaccine efforts and overseas enrolments, experts warn

May 18, 2020
US President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House on February 26, 2020
Source: Getty
Virus and villains: Donald Trump has claimed that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab. His administration has warned universities to be alert for Chinese espionage

The Trump administration is pulling US universities into its coronavirus-driven excoriation of China, warning of Chinese attempts to steal research findings that could help the country reap the political reward of being first to find a vaccine.

US university leaders have long agreed that Chinese espionage represents a threat. But they have warned the administration and its congressional allies that the methods and tone they adopt in addressing the threat could harm the far greater contributions of Chinese nationals to the overall US scientific enterprise − in terms of international collaboration on vital coronavirus research and potential damage to Chinese enrolments at US universities.

In an escalating series of moves, the Trump administration has accused a Chinese virology lab of negligence in creating the outbreak, cut off the research funding it had been receiving, expanded investigations into US academics working with the lab and told all US universities to guard against virus-related espionage.

Chinese spy activity against academic, governmental and industry targets has been long-standing, said John Demers, the assistant US attorney general for national security. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, Mr Demers said in a written response to questions from Times Higher Education, that activity has expanded to include the hunt for vaccines and treatments.

“While its commercial value is of importance,” Mr Demers said of Covid science, “the geopolitical significance of being the first to develop a treatment or vaccine means the Chinese will try to use every tool − both cyber intrusions and insiders − to get it.”

A top White House adviser, in an interview with ABC News over the weekend, put China’s alleged theft motives even more bluntly. “They’d use that vaccine to profiteer and hold the world hostage,” said Peter Navarro, a professor emeritus of economics and public policy at the University of California at Irvine, now serving as director of the White House’s Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy.

US scientists recognise that they face spying threats from China and other countries and have been happy to work with the FBI to confront them, said Tobin Smith, the vice-president for policy at the Association for American Universities.

But, he said: “Politicians, in their attempts to find blame for the current pandemic, need to be very careful not to do harm to the very scientists and universities that are on the front lines of trying to find cures and treatments.”

The potential consequences of an overreaction are especially serious now, said Christopher Cramer, the vice-president for research at the University of Minnesota, given the expected loss of international students that US colleges already face this autumn because of virus-related limits on travel and in-person classes.

The Trump administration has long emphasised China as a strategic threat and has seized on the apparent origins of Covid-19 in the economically prosperous central Chinese city of Wuhan as grounds to amplify that concern.

Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, have said, without offering evidence, that China allowed the virus to escape from a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that it knowingly kept the matter secret while it stocked up on medical supplies to deal with the outbreak and that it should somehow be held accountable.

Among the US responses so far, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has cut off some $370,000 (£300,000) in grant money for coronavirus work that had been directed to the Wuhan institute. The administration and some of its Republican allies in Congress have also demanded that the University of Texas explain its research ties to the Wuhan lab.

In addition, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have begun circulating to universities the requests outlined by Mr Demers that they pay particular attention to recent attempts to steal research relevant to Covid-19.

The general concern appears valid, said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who studies international data sharing in science.

The international community is certainly not sharing data sufficiently, impeding work on vaccines and therapeutics, Professor Gostin said. But failures to share research findings do not justify theft, and stolen scientific data are not likely to accelerate the development of a cure, he added.

“Far from it,” Professor Gostin said, warning that a culture of academic spying subverts university processes and potentially leads to other abuses, including domestic surveillance and interference in elections. At the same time, Professor Gostin added, US government efforts to demonise the Chinese are also harmful.

Mr Smith, whose group represents many of the top research universities in the US and Canada, said his members have not yet received enough details from the FBI to fully assess the nature of the government’s concern about Chinese interest in coronavirus research.

He said US universities were gaining trust in their ability to work with the FBI on espionage matters. But the universities would be concerned, Mr Smith said, if administration actions such as cutting NIH grant money to the Wuhan lab prove to be inspired primarily by politics.

The NIH, the leading provider of basic research funding to US universities, has already found itself under heavy political pressure during the coronavirus outbreak.

Anthony Fauci, the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases − the NIH’s second-largest centre by budget size − has endured mounting criticism from Mr Trump and his political allies over his understanding of the virus and proper responses to it.

And Michael Lauer, the top NIH official in charge of research grant awards, was left to field Republican complaints about the funding for the Wuhan lab. Published email records show Dr Lauer urgently pressing researchers at universities and beyond for details about the work, which was intended to help prevent such pandemics.

The US Education Department has also joined in. It has accused numerous universities of failing to report financial ties with overseas partners, as is required under a little-noticed federal law, and it has led the calls for the University of Texas to disclose details of its work with the Wuhan institute.

Mr Smith suggested that universities reserve judgement about such actions while awaiting more details on the reasons behind them. But he added: “Attacking the universities, scientists and healthcare researchers who are on the front lines of finding solutions to the pandemic, merely in an effort to score political points concerning who can be tougher in cracking down on China, will not be helpful to finding a vaccine and new treatments.”

Even a high-ranking Pentagon strategist has been urging policymakers to focus on building up US scientific capacity rather than worrying about China’s efforts to improve its own.

The official, Michael A. Brown, director of the Defense Innovation Unit, co-authored a study last month for the Brookings Institution that warned that the US was not in a good position to battle China in a “superpower marathon” for economic and technological primacy.

Describing the report at a Brookings forum, Mr Brown said the “proven strategy” for competing with a powerful adversary centres on robust investment in basic research. “You’re never going to win, in a technology race, with defence,” he said.

While such national considerations may be long term, the consequences of the pandemic’s exacerbating US-China tensions appear more immediate for US colleges and universities.

US institutions are subsidised by some 1 million international students, who often pay tuition fees that are many times greater than regular public college rates. Most of them − about 370,000 − come from China, with sciences overwhelmingly their subjects of choice.

Among other potential implications of antagonising China, Professor Cramer said, US research institutions could lose many of the students from China and other nations who make up significant portions of their laboratory workforces.

In many postgraduate programmes in science and engineering, he said, “there are an insufficient number of domestic applicants to adequately staff the research projects funded by federal sponsors”.

The trouble goes well beyond the labs. Pandemic-imposed campus shutdowns already had US college administrators pleading with the Trump administration to ease visa-related hurdles to international students.

One group, the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, representing the heads of some 450 institutions, said this month that it was anticipating a 25 per cent decline in international student enrolment in the autumn.

That would cost US universities $10 billion or more, while threatening US jobs and scientific capacity, “including research related to responding to and preventing health pandemics”, the presidents and chancellors warned.

A study published this month by Brown University found that visa-related barriers disproportionately discourage the highest-performing foreign students from coming to the US.

Another study, released in December by Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, focused on technologies critical to artificial intelligence. It found that the US, while historically good at convincing international students in science fields to remain in the country after their studies, is now watching immigration-related obstacles eat away at that advantage.

And at the same time the Trump administration accuses China of stealing information that could help with a cure for Covid-19, it has been pulling back from official avenues for sharing. In addition to cutting NIH money for the Wuhan lab, the administration has threatened to end US funding for the World Health Organisation and has abstained from its efforts to coordinate a global Covid-19 research effort.

Mr Demers did not respond to a request for examples of actual thefts from academic settings. Instead, he said, China’s attempted thefts from academic and corporate labs reflected its understanding that Covid-19 was the “holy grail right now” in the field of biomedical research.

“These actions underscore how China has chosen not to work together to combat this disease,” he said. “This is sad.”


Print headline: Universities dragged into Trump’s virus battle with China

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Reader's comments (2)

As long as the CCP has it's Thousand Talents program and Confucius Institutes exerting control over Universities and Chinese nationals there will be problems. We've had Ambassadorial 'visit's' used as cover for Chinese espionage in the past, with female 'secretaries' getting 'lost' only to be found inspecting research equipment, some of us know enough manderin to understand their discussion was scientific not esthetic. One spinout was burgled for their trade secrets shortly afterwards, no doubt guided by the in-house embedded party official... Trump may not be anyones favourite, but on this he's not too far from the mark, the CCP is a huge threat and playing their 'game' to keep Chinese students coming with their money is at best short sighted, soon only the CCP's trusted Fuerdai will be the only ones coming, just enough to keep reporting back and studying the latest developments in things such as computer security.
The increasing politicisation of the pandemic is a matter of concern, never mind people suffering a recurrance of a 'Reds under the bed' mentality regarding China. The hot air from self-interested politicians is already obscuring scientific evidence, and it's becoming harder to hear and act upon scientific/medican advice with the clamour from politicians who attempt to usurp or second-guess that advice and peddle 'recommendations' of their own. As for a vaccine, whilst it's nice to be the one who produces the first one (and probably there's a Nobel Prize for Medicine lurking in the wings...), who gives a monkeys as long as a reliable one hits the streets before long?