China Still Seeks to Censor International Journals and Databases on Covid

(p. A1) Early in 2020, on the same day that a frightening new illness officially got the name Covid-19, a team of scientists from the United States and China released critical data showing how quickly the virus was spreading, and who was dying.

The study was cited in health warnings around the world and appeared to be a model of international collaboration in a moment of crisis.

Within days, though, the researchers quietly withdrew the paper, which was replaced online by a message telling scientists not to cite it. A few observers took note of the peculiar move, but the whole episode quickly faded amid the frenzy of the coronavirus pandemic.

What is now clear is that the study was not removed because of faulty research. Instead, it was withdrawn at the direction of Chinese health officials amid a crackdown on science. That effort kicked up a cloud of dust around the dates of early Covid cases, like those reported in the study.

“It was so hard to get any information out of China,” said one of the authors, Ira Longini, of the University of Florida, who described the back story of the removal publicly for the first time in a recent interview. “There was so much covered up, and so much hidden.”

That the Chinese government muzzled scientists, hindered international investigations and censored online discussion of the pandemic is well documented. But Beijing’s stranglehold on information goes far deeper than even many pandemic researchers are aware of. Its censorship campaign has targeted international journals and scientific databases, shaking the foundations of shared scientific knowledge, a New York Times investigation found.

Under pressure from their government, Chinese scientists have withheld data, withdrawn genetic sequences from public databases and altered crucial details in journal submissions. Western journal editors enabled those efforts by agreeing to those edits or withdrawing papers for murky reasons, a review by The Times of over a dozen retracted papers found.

Groups including the World Health Organization have given credence to muddled data and inaccurate timelines.

For the full story, see:

Mara Hvistendahl and Benjamin Mueller. “China Censors Are Thwarting Covid Science.” The New York Times (Monday, April 24, 2023): A1 & A9.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 23, 2023, and has the title “Chinese Censorship Is Quietly Rewriting the Covid-19 Story.”)

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