Chinese agency world’s biggest funder of coronavirus research, Oxford study finds

Stephen Chen

The largest funder of coronavirus research in the world is a Chinese government agency, according to an Oxford study. The National Natural Science Foundation of China, affiliated with the State Council, had provided financial support to 124 studies on the virus published in top international journals as of May 16.

That was more than the combined number of similar studies backed by the US Department of Health and National Institutes of Health (NIH) – the second and third biggest funders, according to University of Oxford researcher Petar Radanliev and colleagues.

But Europe, which has reported the most Covid-19 cases and deaths so far, had provided relatively little funding for virus research, they said.

“There are only six data records from the EU funds,” said Radanliev and collaborators in a non-peer reviewed paper posted on preprint website arXiv.org on Tuesday.

The researchers also found that China was fast to act in the race to study the new virus strain, which has killed over 328,000 people worldwide.

Thousands of research papers, some by volunteer scientists, have been posted online since the first coronavirus cases were reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. But the most critical studies – on treatments and vaccine development – are impossible without enough funding.

In the study, the Oxford team looked at more than 3,000 peer-reviewed papers from the Web of Science Core Collection, a database maintained by Clarivate Analytics of research from only the top journals across various scientific disciplines.

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Seven of the 10 most prolific institutes that also owned the research were from China. The Huazhong University of Science and Technology and Wuhan University, both in Wuhan, were at the top of the list. Harvard Medical School, the only American institute in the top 10, ranked third. Other Chinese institutes included the University of Hong Kong, Zhejiang University, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Fudan University.

This was unusual – Chinese were not typically at the forefront of such research, according to the study. It said research on viruses and related diseases had always been dominated by Western institutes such as the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Harvard, Oxford and Johns Hopkins since 1900.

This could suggest that “the world was slow in responding with scientific research on Covid-19”, the Oxford researchers said.

They said the study results could also prompt questions such as whether the “Chinese knew something that the rest of the world didn’t”, or if “the world didn’t take Covid-19 seriously” at first, but noted that this was speculation. China has been under mounting international pressure over its handling of the pandemic, particularly in the early stage of the outbreak.

“What we can confirm with certainty is that the Chinese research institutes acted much faster than the rest of the world, including the leading research organisations on pandemics and epidemics,” it said.

Since the virus was first detected in Wuhan, Chinese scientists had a head start. But the situation is changing, according to the study. It said as of Saturday, US researchers had published 700 coronavirus-related papers in top journals, versus 658 from China.

There was also change in the funding line-up. The US Department of Health and NIH have traditionally been the biggest funders of such research, each backing more than twice as many projects as those funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

While the total research budget for Covid-19 was unclear for either China or the US, Beijing recently pledged US$2 billion to aid the global fight against the virus, while Washington has threatened to reduce or cut off funding to the World Health Organisation.

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Radanliev said the study gave rise to some important questions. “Have the leading organisations on pandemic and epidemic management reacted at the appropriate speed? … Or was it that our global alert mechanisms failed to act? Did we ignore the warning signs?” the Oxford researchers asked.

Liang Zheng, deputy director of the China Institute for Science and Technology Policy at Tsinghua University, said the study’s findings were no surprise given Beijing’s huge investment in science and technology.

The Chinese government and companies spent more than 2 trillion yuan (US$281.6 billion) on research and development last year – more than three times that in 2010, Wang Zhigang, the science and technology minister said earlier. Those funds went to state-of-the-art research facilities as well as the researchers: scientists, technicians and engineers.

“A fast response is only possible with long term preparation,” Liang said.

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