On 3 December the UK government announced a roll out of Pfizer’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. The quest for the vaccine began on 11 January following collaborative research between Australian and Chinese scientists. Australia and China should be celebrating this achievement. Instead, our two countries are engaged in a school yard trade scrap. What went so wrong? And what’s the remedy?
On 27 October 2020, SMH journalist Kate Aubusson penned a brilliant article about Sydney University Professor Edward Holmes being made NSW Scientist of the Year and pocketing a modest $60,000 for his troubles. Aubusson records how Holmes, in one rebellious act jointly with a Chinese colleague on Saturday morning, 8 January 2020, hit the “upload” button. That was the moment the world had access to the RNA sequence of COVID-19. Their bold action, which has attracted death threats, enabled scientists around the globe to develop diagnostics and commence vaccine development.
Holmes didn’t do the sequencing — he simply interpreted what it all meant. The sequencing was done by his Chinese colleague Professor Yong-Zhen Zhang, at Fudan University in China. Zhang turned to Holmes to make sense of the sequencing using specialist IT analysis.
According to Aubusson, Zhang had received samples of the virus on 3 January and sequenced it within two days. Given that the first recorded patient with the novel viral pneumonia was on 1 December, 2019, this time lapse is not unusual. Despite being told by Chinese authorities not to publish the information, on that fateful Saturday, January 8 Zhang and Holmes jointly released the information as “open source” on the website virological.org. As explained by Charlie Campbell, “Holmes’ post sent shockwaves through the global scientific community”. The race for tests and vaccines commenced in earnest.
Some will say that sequencing a virus and interpreting the information are now routine. But the fact of the matter is, it was done through collaboration between China and Australia. Zhang went to Holmes, not to colleagues in the US, Europe or elsewhere. Holmes’ account of events is corroborated by Zhang in a detailed interview in Time magazine in August. And for the conspiracy theorists, there is an informative article about Jane Halton in The Australian, detailing how a group of world health experts, including the remarkable Halton, carried out a mock study in October 2019, just 10 weeks before the first case of COVID-19, in which they predicted exactly what was inevitable. Their fictional virus was called CAPS (Coronavirus Accelerated Pulmonary Syndrome). Halton described that sequence of events as “spooky”.
For some years Bill Gates had also predicted such a pandemic. Any suggestions that the virus is some laboratory artefact and, indeed worse, deliberately released — as postulated by Trump’s economic advisor Peter Navarro — are totally unfounded. Last week’s dump of confidential documents called “The Wuhan Files” from China relating to the early days of the pandemic, published by CNN, puts paid to any simple conspiracy theories. And while one might be critical of certain aspects of how the Chinese authorities handled the pandemic in its early days as their worst crime, one only has to look to the US, UK, Russia, Brazil or even Sweden for examples of monumental incompetence. To his credit, Prime Minister Scott Morrison did marshal the troops in a truly bipartisan manner to coral the virus in Australia, a feat warmly applauded by Dr Anthony Fauci.
However, it is beyond comprehension that Scott Morrison would call for a global enquiry into the origins of COVID-19 given what we know about the virus. Who is advising the PM? What motivated him to challenge our trading neighbour? It is hard to believe that his decision was canvassed in advance with mandarins in Foreign Affairs, especially Secretary Frances Adamson, who was our ambassador to China from 2011-2015. Morrison’s actions were unnecessary and unwinnable. As Stephen Dziedzic from the ABC said back on 20 May, Morrison’s stand was “political dynamite. Why hadn’t Australia got onto the phone before wading into such fraught territory?”.
Australia enjoys a long history of collaborative research with China, dating back to the 1970s when China was a developing nation and we had something to offer, especially in agriculture. The pendulum has now swung in the opposite direction, but still collaboration remains a synergistic enterprise!
Doug Waterhouse, my predecessor as chief of the CSIRO Division of Entomology, forged strong links with Chinese entomologists in the 1970s. When I became chief in 1981, we continued and expanded that tradition in a whole range of applied entomology. In some ways this reached a pinnacle when the Australian government supported the International Congress of Entomology (ICE), held in Beijing in 1992.
As secretary of the Council for ICEs, I worked closely with our ambassadors to China, David Sadleir and Mike Lightowler, and with the Chinese embassy in Canberra to assist the government of China and the Congress Organising Committee in running a successful and the largest scientific congress ever held in China to that date. The 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, with threatened boycotts from entomologists from the US and France and the understandably strong stance taken at the time by then-prime minister Bob Hawke, were all narrow paths we negotiated because of the professional help of government departments and agencies in Australia.
This might sound like ancient history, but last week we sent a book manuscript to the publisher, titled “The History of International Congresses of Entomology”. The chapter on the 1992 Beijing Congress was authored by a senior entomologist in China. We received an email from within days requesting we remove the following sentence that referred to the Chinese Organising Committee for the 1992 Beijing Congress: “The team enjoyed the support and collaboration of the Australian ambassador and his staff for the Congress success”. He was insistent the sentence be removed.
The facts of the matter are that Australia and China have enjoyed a long history of scientific collaboration, particularly in agriculture. Our two countries actually have bragging rights about how that collaboration set the scene for the global efforts on diagnostics and vaccines for COVID-19. Both Australia and China are being damaged economically and reputationally by the rapidly escalating altercation.
On Thursday, 3 December 2020, Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunology, Imperial College, spoke ecstatically on ABC Radio about the UK’s decision to commence mass immunisation with Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine today – Monday 7th; he also acknowledged the vaccine race began with Holmes’ January 10 posting of the COVID-19 RNA sequence. So, hats off to Zhang and Holmes and the enduring history of scientific collaboration between China and Australia.
Let’s encourage PM Morrison and President Xi to find what it takes to convert the squabble into a well-deserved celebration over a bottle of Australian wine.