China is opening up after 3 years — what does it mean for research?

People with masks move luggage at an airport.

Travel to and from China is increasing after the travel ban was lifted this month.Credit: Andy Wong/AP/Shutterstock

Paleoanthropologist Clement Zanoli waited more than three years to see ancient teeth, uncovered in China, that could belong to a previously undescribed ape. Zanoli, of the University of Bordeaux, France, had to cancel his travel plans when China closed its borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. But with the government lifting its onerous quarantine requirements for incoming travelers this month, Zanoli is one of many researchers planning to return to China For conferences, face-to-face meetings and field work.

It’s “fantastic that the borders are finally open,” says Alice Hughes, a conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong, who hopes to travel to mainland China around April. It’s been a long time, she says.

China’s strict ‘zero-COVID’ policy to eliminate the spread of the disease has been among the longest and most difficult in the world. For almost three years, citizens suffered from mandatory tests, city-wide lockdowns and prolonged lockdowns. The restrictions meant that researchers in China were largely confined to their campuses because regional and international travel was time-consuming, unpredictable and often expensive. Meanwhile, most overseas researchers have been locked out of China.

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But the end of the policy in December led to an increase in infections across the country. This has left some researchers cautious about traveling to China. Although they hope the outbreaks will slow down soon.

meet and greet

Many researchers in China plan to attend conferences abroad later this year, now that closures on return travelers have been lifted. Jingbo Cui, an economist who studies environmental issues at Duke Kunshan University, China, wants to attend meetings in the United States and Britain to help restore his international reputation. “Our research Needs exposure.” And geneticist Shuhua Xu, of Fudan University in Shanghai, hopes to use a grant he received before the pandemic for an academic exchange with researchers at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Researchers from outside China are also planning to visit their Chinese counterparts. Virologist Linfa Wang’s top priority is to meet with lab groups in Beijing and Guangzhou that will focus on pandemic preparations. “Now we can plan with a little more certainty,” says Wang, of Singapore’s Duke-National University School of Medicine.

“Many people are eager to reconnect with China and the scientists here,” says Thomas Stidham, a paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing. Researchers in China have made major fossil discoveries in the past three years and paleontologists are apparently eager to get a first-hand look, Stidham says.

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International collaborations have dwindled during the pandemic, but a return to in-person meetings should help revive them, says Caroline Wagner, a science policy researcher at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Flights to and from China are expected to rise from their epidemic levels, which will boost research ties, says Li Tang, a science and innovation policy researcher at Fudan University. However, flights are currently expensive and limited flight connections may make people hesitant to travel to and from China in the immediate future.

Persistent barriers

For some scholars, the excitement of China’s opening is tempered by geopolitical tensions. The United States, Europe, Britain and Australia have increased their focus on national security and competitiveness, which may discourage researchers in those regions from collaborating with their Chinese counterparts, says James Wilson, a science policy researcher at University College London.

And in recent weeks, several countries, such as South Korea, the United States and Australia, have introduced screening requirements and other restrictions on travelers entering their borders from China because of the huge surge of COVID-19 infections there. China, in turn, said it would not issue visas to travelers from some of those countries.

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The pandemic has also politicized specific areas of research, including the origins of SARS-CoV-2, making scientific engagement difficult. Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, who shared publicly2 The genome of SARS-CoV-2 in January 2020 with his long-time Chinese partner, virologist Zhang Yongzhen, does not intend to visit China soon because he fears that his work there may be censored. “It makes me feel very uncomfortable,” says Holmes.

“Chinese society has been under COVID quarantine for much longer, with much tighter censorship,” says Joy Zhang, a sociologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. “I suspect I will have a little ‘culture shock’ when I visit China next time.”

Still, researchers in China are relieved that domestic travel will be easier. Aaron Irving, an infectious disease researcher at Zhejiang University in Haining, China, hopes to visit the caves to capture bats coming out of hibernation to study, among other things, the bacteria and viruses they harbor, after having to cancel two trips due to the coronavirus. -19 outbreaks. “We were all happy that the restrictions were lifted because it makes day-to-day life much easier.”


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