03/31/2021, 14.41
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Beijing’s COVID-19 gag order on its scientists

by Abduhaliq Bekri

State censorship frustrates the WHO inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. Chinese researchers told how to report the pandemic. The exchange of information with the outside is prohibited. Unauthorised research has been retracted. China’s scientific credibility takes another blow.


Beijing (AsiaNews) – The request by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to conduct another study in China into the origins of COVID-19 has put the international spotlight on the integrity of China's scientific research.

Presenting the final results of the WHO investigative mission in Wuhan, where the coronavirus appeared at the end of 2019, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called for more studies to rule out the possibility that the pandemic originated in a laboratory in the capital of Hubei province.

Tedros asked Beijing to share the requested information in a fuller and timely manner. This requires a greater interaction between WHO’s independent experts and Chinese scientists. The problem is that since the outbreak of the health emergency, China has put a gag order on its own researchers.

Chinese authorities have done the same with ordinary Chinese who pulled the alarm bell at the start of the crisis or tried to shed light on what had happened.

The list of people who ran afoul of the government includes Li Wenliang, a doctor who later died from COVID-19; Dr Ai Fen, who first went missing and then lost her job; blogger Zhang Zhan and other journalists jailed for their reporting from Wuhan; lawyer Xu Zhangrun who fell from grace for criticising Xi Jinping's handling of the pandemic; and human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, jailed on charges of subversion.

State censorship of the origins of COVID-19 is based on a circular dated 25 February 2020, which ended up in the hands of the Associated Press. It says that Chinese researchers were told that each new research project must be “endorsed and approved” by the National Health Commission.

The directive also prohibits scientists from passing “information on the COVID-19 epidemic”, as well as data, biological samples and pathogenic agents related to them to other institutions or individuals.

The government circular requires that the articles on the subject presented in scientific journals, or published as advances, without state authorisation, be quickly retracted and rewritten according to the new indications.

An egregious case involved an early ResearchGate study by Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao, two biologists at the South China University of Technology.

In their work, Botao and Lei wrote that two laboratories are located some 280 metres from the Huanan public (wet) market in Wuhan. Reviewing the history of the two structures, the authors suggested the that the coronavirus probably originated in one of them.

The article, reports Le Monde, disappeared from the web, as did the profiles of the two researchers on ResearchGate. The French daily cites a warning in the state circular that “anyone who violates the guidelines will be treated severely.”

The crackdown on independent coronavirus research in Chinese universities is another blow to the international credibility of China's scientific production.

According to a survey published yesterday in Nature, since January 2020, various scientific journals have retracted 370 articles from China, usually because of plagiarism, fake data or false information.

Recently, Chinese authorities have cleared some scientists from accusations of misconduct. Their investigation was launched after allegations of fraud came from the foreign scientific community.

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