Coronavirus Precautions Stifle Research
Coronavirus Precautions Stifle Research

Coronavirus Precautions Stifle Research

Organizers have cancelled conferences, COVID-19 quarantines have prevented some scientists in China from visiting their labs, and travel restrictions have left researchers stranded.

Emma Yasinski
Feb 26, 2020

ABOVE: A banner on a street in Shanghai reminds residents who are returning to the city to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days.
© ISTOCK.COM, SCQBJ-JZ

On January 23, in the midst of the Spring Festival in China, which gives rise to the largest annual human migration, government officials in China shut down travel in and out of Wuhan—a major transportation hub and the center of the emerging COVID-19 outbreak—with only a few hours’ notice. Over the next few days, several surrounding cities were quarantined as well.

Scientists are among the many stranded in China due to the strict measures enacted there and elsewhere. One US-based physicist, who asked to remain anonymous, says he’d traveled to Wuhan to visit family for the Lunar New Year. As of mid-February, he was still there, unsure of when he’d be able to go home and continue his research.

Since the outbreak began in December, 79,331 individuals have been infected and 2,618 have died. Almost all of the deaths (2,595) have been in China, but scientists have confirmed cases of the disease in 33 countries.

Many researchers in China are isolated in their homes, unable to visit their labs.

William Snyder, who studies linguistics at the University of Connecticut, was scheduled to attend a workshop in Wuhan this spring to meet graduate students and give a talk about his work, he tells The Scientist. He cancelled the trip in early January, as reports about COVID-19 became more “dire,” he says, and friends and family urged him to reconsider. By the time he made up his mind not to go, the scientist who had invited him had left Wuhan.

Now, he likely couldn’t go even if he wanted to as many commercial airlines have stopped flights from the US to China, and countries around the world have restricted travel to and from the county.

The US issued travel restrictions on January 31, preventing non-citizens who had recently visited China from entering the US. Those who are permitted to enter are funneled through certain major airports where they can be screened, and may either be quarantined or required to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. Australia followed suit on February 1, determining that travelers who have been to China would not be able to enter the country until February 14—a date that has since been extended to at least February 29. More than 50 other countries have enacted their own restrictions.

The quarantines and travel bans have been controversial, with the World Health Organization questioning their efficacy, though recent data suggest they may have allowed the world more time to prepare and helped reduce the disease’s spread.

One of the many effects of the restrictions is a stifled research environment, felt not only by scientists in China but also by those who collaborate with researchers there. Conference organizers have cancelled or postponed several events in Asia and Europe, including the Asia-Europe Sustainable Connectivity Scientific Conference and the Alzheimer’s Disease International Conference.

Many researchers in China are isolated in their homes, unable to visit their labs, according to a Nature poll, and several research labs and institutes are closed. Mu-ming Poo, a neuroscientist at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology in Shanghai, tells Science that experimental research there “is largely halted at present because students and research staff are not allowed to return to the laboratories.” Instead, he’s giving neuroscience lectures to his students online.

Some researchers may end up having to restart entire experiments, putting them months behind original plans. Jeffrey Erlich, a neuroscientist at New York University, Shanghai, trains animals to study how they complete complex tasks. He tells Science he’s negotiating ways to continue his work because if he has to stop, he’ll need to “order another batch of animals and start from scratch, and that would put me back another 6 to 9 months.” 

COVID-19 has continued to spread, and its effects on research may expand beyond projects in China—and, of course, science is just one aspect of life facing disruption. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but more really a question of when it will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters during a press briefing Tuesday morning about disease circulation in the US. She suggested that the US may need to close schools and workplaces, adding that “disruption to everyday life may be severe.”

Emma Yasinski is a Florida-based freelance reporter. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaYas24.