Nature, one of the world’s leading journals of biological sciences, urged scientists in an editorial this week to embrace the technical name favored by China’s government for the deadly disease that emerged from the Chinese city of Wuhan.
“We must all do everything we can to avoid and reduce stigma; not associate COVID-19 with particular groups of people or places; and emphasize that viruses do not discriminate — we are all at risk,” said the editorial in Nature magazine, headlined “Stop the coronavirus stigma now.”
The op-ed apologized for associating the Chinese disease with China:
When the World Health Organization (WHO) announced in February that the disease caused by the new coronavirus would be called COVID‑19, the name was quickly adopted by organizations involved in communicating public-health information. As well as naming the illness, the WHO was implicitly sending a reminder to those who had erroneously been associating the virus with Wuhan and with China in their news coverage— including Nature. That we did so was an error on our part, for which we take responsibility and apologize.
The global scientific community agrees that the virus is naturally occurring and likely originated in a bat or pangolin, an Asian anteater species. No evidence has surfaced that the virus appeared in humans anywhere before the first documented cases in Wuhan, China. The Chinese government initially shut down a “wet market” in the city, where wild animals are sold for consumption, but later claimed the virus was artificially engineered by the U.S. Army, without providing evidence.
The apology undermines the efforts by activists and U.S. politicians to prevent the emergence of another disease by imposing reforms on China’s ruling oligarchy. The oligarchy detained doctors who shared tips on communicable diseases online in the early days of the outbreak, and may be responsible for as many as 95 percent of coronavirus cases.
The Nature editorial hinted at economic losses for the publishing firm and universities if it were to stick with place-based names for the killer disease, such as “Wuhan virus” or “the Chinese SARS-2.”
“More than 700,000 Chinese undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. students studying at universities outside China,” the editorial said, adding:
The majority are in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Many have returned home while their institutions are closed owing to lockdowns, and many might not return. Students are hesitating to come back, in part because of fears of continuing racism, along with uncertainty over the future of their courses and not knowing when international travel will resume.
It would be tragic if stigma, fuelled by the coronavirus, led Asia’s young people to retreat from international campuses, curtailing their own education, reducing their own and others’ opportunities and leaving research worse off — just when the world is relying on it to find a way out.
Coronavirus stigma must stop — now.
Nature Research is part of Springer Nature. The main shareholders of Springer Nature are Holtzbrinck Publishing Group and BC Partners and details about corporate governance and board memberships can be found here.
In the United States, science managers are trying to preserve their supply of Chinese “student” scientists, many of whom serve as skilled, low-wage “post-doc” workers in government-funded laboratories.
The United States’ low-wage science sector is coming under increased pressure as science managers recognize the widespread theft and cheating by Chinese scientists. Also, the imported and underpaid Chinese workers have helped push many Americans away from the first few steps in science careers.
In response, U.S. managers are increasingly trying to recruit Indian and other foreign citizens as cheap laboratory workers, with mixed success. Meanwhile, Indian activists are cheering the return of Indian scientists to India.
The willingness of U.S. science managers to help train foreign scientists has helped those countries develop their technology sectors. For example, China and India have won a huge share of the market for producing pharmaceuticals from U.S. companies. This control has caused tensions during the current pandemic. President Donald Trump had to ask India’s president to approve the export of hydroxychloroquine pills on April 6 after the Indian government announced it would keep all of the medicines for its own population of almost 1.5 billion people.
“I called Prime Minister Modi of India this morning … and I said I’d appreciate it if they would release the amounts that we ordered,” Trump told reporters April 4.
Some U.S. science managers are trying to hire more Americans. “We have prospered because of [foreign labor]. But guess what? That’s not going to happen anymore,” warned Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist who is the president of the National Academy of Sciences. She said February 6:
[Foreign scientists] have great opportunities back in their own countries now because everyone’s copying us. There are great opportunities in China, growing opportunities everywhere else. We can’t count on that [importation policy] to make us great anymore.
We’re going to have to educate our own.
However, most U.S. science managers show little desire to change the current cheap labor policy.
“Science and technology in this country are dependent on immigration,” said Neal Lane, who ran the federal National Science Foundation from 1993 to 1998. “It really is what has made this country a leader in science and technology and innovation in the world.”
The US science sector depends on immigrant scientists, say science managers.
But the imported scientists are going home, so US science estb. must refocus to train & hire American grads, counters Marcia McNutt, the chief of National Academies of Sciences. https://t.co/FlfpdlXg65
— Neil Munro (@NeilMunroDC) February 8, 2020