‘The house was on fire.’ Top Chinese virologist on how China and U.S. have met the pandemic

‘The house was on fire.’ Top Chinese virologist on how China and U.S. have met the pandemic

Virologist Shao Yiming, chief expert on AIDS at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), sees the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of HIV. A stint at the global program on AIDS at the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1989 led him to help set up a network to track genetic variation in HIV, and the project grew into an international resource. He remembers well the conspiracy theories that for years swirled around the origin of the AIDS epidemic, with accusations hurled at everyone from top researchers to the U.S. military. As a vaccine researcher for more than 2 decades, he intimately understands the difficulty of transforming an idea into a product. And he has seen up close the high costs of misguided responses to HIV in China and other countries.

That background has given Shao a broad perspective when it comes to seeing the similarities—and differences—in how nations, including China and the United States, have responded to the current pandemic. He is unabashedly proud of China’s response to COVID-19 and rejects many criticisms by outsiders. But he also recognizes the real tensions that have emerged both within and between nations over information sharing, transparency, and response tactics—as well as the cultural differences that might be fueling them. “Each country has a different culture,” he recently told ScienceInsider by phone from his Beijing office. “The Chinese do not like face-to-face confrontation. In Western countries, you do everything frank.”