The costs of secrecy

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Science  28 Feb 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6481, pp. 959
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb4420

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“Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one.” These words from China's most famous artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, have never been more important. Ai Weiwei would probably agree that China's actions in the coronavirus crisis require the voice of the scientific community, and he wouldn't be surprised that getting folks to say something has been a challenge.

I didn't want to be the person to write this editorial. I felt that it would best come from someone inside China with a direct connection to the situation. Such a person could help dispel or reinforce the scraps of information coming from the intrepid journalists and the few courageous eyewitnesses. But over the past few weeks, I've been discouraged by the responses of such individuals who declined or didn't respond to an invitation to write a forthcoming editorial about China's secrecy on coronavirus. Some of these scientists and experts even expressed doubt that I'd find such a gutsy author at any organization in China to write such a piece.

Maybe I should have asked Ai Weiwei.

It's no wonder I had trouble. Although we don't know if the lack of information is the result of active suppression or just fear of punishment, Xu Zhangrun, a professor of law at Tsinghua University, was placed under house arrest and cut off from the internet for publishing an essay earlier this month that was critical of China's handling of the public health crisis. His essay called for an independent body to investigate the origin of the coronavirus, which shouldn't be a matter of controversy much less imprisonment.

Although China's actions have been more forthcoming than in the 2002–2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, it is only within the last few days that experts from the World Health Organization have been allowed into Wuhan, where the outbreak in China was first reported. And the courageous Li Wenliang, the Chinese physician who first sounded the alarm in December, was punished by authorities for his online comments before he then contracted the virus and died.

A public health crisis is not a good time for censorship. Like all other top journals, we are awash in papers on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it, SARS–coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). We were proud to cosign a letter led by the Wellcome Trust setting out the terms under which the Science family of journals would document the virus and the disease. Under these terms, we are strongly encouraging preprints, making all data and the published paper free immediately, and expediting review. Last week, we published—only 9 days after receiving it—the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which could be important in therapeutic design. The contrast between the mobilization of the scientific community and the political actions of China is striking.

We will never be able to better handle future public health crises without learning lessons from previous experiences. And if every experience is shrouded in secrecy, enforced by a repressive government, then we will never solve this problem. Yet, the COVID-19 crisis seems only to add to the legacies of obfuscation and repression left by Chernobyl, Fukushima, and SARS. Will Western governments do better? We don't know. The United States Department of State ignored recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by bringing home infected individuals from the coutries where they contracted the virus. And with the spread of the virus to Italy and South Korea, we'll see if any lessons have been learned.

The solution to all of this is unclear. The scientists working within repressive regimes deserve our support and admiration. And scientific collaboration with Chinese scientists has been crucial in understanding the outbreak and the biology of the virus. Preventing a pandemic is impossible without international collaboration. This week, Harvard University and the Guangzhou Institute announced that they will work together to investigate SARS-CoV-2, which is progress.

The only thing we can do at this point is mobilize the voices that can speak out to ask for greater transparency and collaboration. But it will take more than just an examination of China alone, or even this outbreak alone, to shape the future. To avoid the tragic costs of silence, we must keep pushing for more transparency and truth on all fronts.

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