Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Monday, June 09, 2003

Chinese Scientists Defeated by SARS: China Youth Daily

"We have to admit that scientists here have been defeated by SARS," Yang Huanming said recently to President Hu Jintao when Hu came to inspect their work. He also repeated this when he was appointed head of the Beijing Genomics Institute under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).


"We have to admit that scientists here have been defeated by SARS," Yang Huanming said recently to President Hu Jintao when Hu came to inspect their work. He also repeated this when he was appointed head of the Beijing Genomics Institute under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

On May 1, US Science magazine published two pieces of research on the genome sequence of the SARS virus. One was composed by scientists from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention with the help of scientists from the Netherlands and Germany. The other paper was composed by the Genome Research Center of the BC Cancer Agency located in British Columbia, Canada.

Some overseas Chinese scientists subsequently pointed out: "The publication of the two papers which have been appraised by their counterparts announces the conclusion of the SARS virus genome sequence. Chinese scientists were defeated."

It will be a source of distress in Yang's mind for some time to come.

As head of the Beijing Genomics Institute, newly set up by the CAS, and general coordinator of the "human genome plan" in China, Yang knows clearly that China could have been the first to finish the genome sequence on the SARS virus. This was not only because the first SARS patient was found in China and Chinese scientists should have had the chance to get hold of first hand material earlier, but also because the "human genome plan" research center is no way inferior to their international counterparts either in terms of scale or technological leverage.

Yang's partner, and deputy head of Beijing Genomics Institute, Wang Jian, also bitterly resents this. He had been working in the research center in Canada which first announced that SARS was a new variety of coronavirus. "That center is much smaller than ours in scale. As for the technology, I was in charge of the technical work there. However, we are lagging behind them now," said Wang.

Although the Beijing Genomic Institute worked out the gene sequence map of four varieties of coronavirus within 36 hours of receiving the virus samples sent by the Academy of Military Medical Sciences on April 15, Dr. David Heymann, executive director of Communicable Diseases at the World Health Organization (WHO) announced in Geneva that same day that only one variety of coronavirus had been formally confirmed as the pathogen causing atypical pneumonia or SARS. Scientists then named it the "SARS virus". "From the discovery of the pathogen of SARS to the testing and diagnosis of the virus and to the theory of its elaboration, China has achieved no first," said a senior expert engaged in medical sciences in a key medical science university.

Yang and his colleagues have appealed.

It was recorded on earlier internal material that Yang Huanming and Yang Ruifu from the Microbiology and Epidemiology Institute of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences had suggested: the slow development of the identification of the SARS pathogen in China has revealed the inadequacy of using traditional methods to identify new diseases. More efforts need to be integrated and new technology and methods need to be adopted in line with current technology. Fast identification and diagnosis systems should be established on pathogens of unexpected and fiercely infectious diseases in order to achieve early control of an epidemic. Genome technology is likely to help in this regard.

They have also put this into action.

"We have been hoping to make a contribution since we knew about it," recalled Yang, "We have been looking for original samples of the pathogen since before February this year. We couldn't get them until the Academy of Military Medical Sciences offered them to us. This was the difficulty we had. We may have had the lead if we had got the samples earlier."

Doctor Wang Jian had been to Guangdong many times in search of virus samples and returned empty handed. According to relevant regulations, only the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention is the legal holder of virus samples. It is difficult for other departments to intervene. In addition, few autopsies on SARS patients had been conducted in Guangdong at that time. Few virus samples were available. At the beginning of April, they had no alternative but to secretly "steal" some samples from one research institute in Beijing according to personal relations. However, it was very difficult to get the samples. We had to go there after 10 pm and before 7 am. We had to wear hats and masks for disguise when we met. Wang Jian joked, "It made us feel we were conducting spying activities."

Wang Jian said, "My experience is that cooperation between scientists should be interdisciplinary, interdepartmental and exceedingly sincere without too much care on ranking."

Chen Hao, ex-vice-director of the Policy Research Bureau of the CAS, who has been engaged in the research of science and technology policy for a long time, suggests that it has something to do with the traditional habit of "waiting for tasks" in state-run scientific research organizations. Many scientific institutes and researchers keep their eyes wide open on middle and long-term scientific research plans of the state. They all wish to find projects and funding from there.

However, for other projects which are badly needed in the market, especially for emergency situations like SARS, and projects where initiative is needed, few of the institutes and researchers were willing to take until President Hu Jintao gave the order. Another obvious disadvantage is the division of departments. Each administers its affairs regardless of the overall interest. Take the research on medical science for example where the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the military, and universities all have their own teams which possess part of the materials. The different systems are comparatively closely connected but lack communication and cooperation. In the case of SARS, this delayed the timetable for finding the SARS pathogen.

China Youth Daily news and translated by China.org.cn)

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