In the 1960s, the World Health Organization thought that a lab discovery I made might be relevant to one of the then most neglected infectious diseases: leprosy. So, I was sent to India to help with a group trying to do something about that devastating and stigmatizing disease. Needless to say, my discovery failed to extinguish leprosy from the planet, but my visit to India revealed the enormous need in low and middle-income countries for knowledge in biomedical science. As a teacher, I was privileged to give the first course in immunology in India and to teach students in many other countries. I also learned a key truth: infectious diseases do not respect national boundaries.

In 2003, SARS arose in China and had begun to spread around the world. After recognizing its failure to control the disease, the Ministry of Health asked a Fellow studying at my school to write a white paper advising how the government should address the disease. As the then dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, I, together with a junior colleague who’s Dean of the School of Public Health at Peking University, was invited to Beijing to advise the Ministry leaders on what went wrong and what needed to be done to be better prepared for the next epidemic. 

Back then, it was a widespread view that the government had tried to cover up the outbreak from the beginning. The Ministry argued to us that it was simply unable to get adequate information on the outbreak from hospitals. To address future outbreaks, we pointed out three major problems: that the China CDC was weak; that communication within public health and government agencies was chaotic, and the ability of public health officials to provide truthful communications about the risk to the public was poor.

On the last day of 2019, the Chinese National Health Commission announced that there was an emergent infectious disease outbreak in Wuhan causing 27 cases of severe pneumonia. This time, there was a sophisticated public health communication system in China, but it was tragically bypassed by Wuhan officials. In contrast to its previous failures with SARS, however, the Chinese health community had much stronger expertise in the science of epidemiology and infectious diseases. Within 10 days, the agent causing the outbreak was identified as an RNA coronavirus and its genome sequence was posted on an international database making it available to scientists all over the world. 

In the last week of January, two papers were published from China in premier medical journals that revealed the nature of COVID-19. One in The Lancet provided the first case description, which informed physicians anywhere how to recognize the disease. One of its authors, the head of the China CDC, had received his D.Phil. at Oxford and a fellowship in virology at Harvard. In the same week, a paper was published in the New England Journal of Medicine that provided preliminary estimates of the disease’s critical epidemiological characteristics. This allowed scientists everywhere to model the course of the epidemic. One of that paper’s authors, the Dean of the Hong Kong University School of Medicine, is a former student and Fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Science, too, should not respect national boundaries. It took courage for Chinese scientists to reveal to the world the nature and potential magnitude of another epidemic arising in China. This coronavirus pandemic has engaged scientists all over the work to bring their disciplinary skills at every possible level to address the problem. Global communication of data and ideas in science, much of which is still based on data from China, has never occurred more rapidly. 

The currency of science is not money but values: including integrity, creativity and impact. Despite working in different political systems engaged in global rivalries and trade wars, there are scientists in China, the U.S. and other countries around the world committed to providing the best scientific evidence they can. Scientists working in Africa to combat HIV, Lassa, Ebola, and in India to confront leprosy and tuberculosis, have provided key lessons in the fight against COVID-19. The western countries have learned much from the research of scientists in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This sharing is reciprocol – U.S. and European universities have trained many of those scientists, and they have amplified that knowledge in turn through training of their students in their countries.

One of the ancient Confucian values is reciprocity. We live in a time of increasing international tensions and constraints on support for international students. But I believe there are few better investments we can make than training future generations of scientists everywhere. It’s the international sharing of scientific knowledge and values that will ultimately defeat this disease. And we should realize that collaboration and cooperation among scientists will rebound to the benefit of people in this country and all over the world.

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