Columbia researchers have received a $2.1 million grant to identify drugs that prevent the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The Jack Ma Foundation, a philanthropy group founded by the richest man in China, awarded the grant amid the spreading infection and a 2 percent fatality rate, which has sparked fears of a pandemic.
The public announcement was made days after the beginning of a federal investigation targeting American universities that have failed to report foreign donations. Columbia was not explicitly named among the universities but Cornell University, Yale University, and the University of Pennsylvania are among those alleged to have concealed $3.6 billion in donations. Columbia receives notably fewer rates of foreign donations than the schools named in the investigation.
The research effort is led by renowned HIV/AIDS researcher David D. Ho, professor of medicine at Columbia and director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center. The specific teams were chosen because of their past success in treating HIV and hepatitis C.
Ho said that the 2019-nCoV will likely join SARS and MERS as the deadliest instances of coronavirus over the past two decades. Building on knowledge of past antiviral cures, Ho said that the Columbia teams expect to move at least one protease inhibitor, one polymerase inhibitor, and one monoclonal antibody into clinical trials within a year. If successful, the developed drug would likely protect against infection and stop the growth of the virus in infected patients.
“[W]e believe [the four approaches] will lead to the development of a broad spectrum antiviral drug or antibody that could be effective against a wide range of current and future coronaviruses,” Ho said in a press release.
While there are over 78,800 documented cases in Asia, hospitals in China have reported a shortage of testing kits, medical supplies, and hospital transportation, which has affected the ability to tally the incidents. Chinese officials reported that a procedural reporting change resulted in a 14,000 increase overnight to the count of infected people in Hubei province.
In the United States, 34 people have been diagnosed with the disease, and none of the cases have resulted in a fatality. China, however, has experienced 99 percent of all deaths worldwide.
This funding has been obtained in a time when the U.S. government is launching a China Initiative to combat “chinese economic espionage” in research, aiming to protect the academic freedom of American institutions. China has increased its spending, becoming the largest contributor to global sciences, according to a count of published research papers.
Ho expressed his disapproval in the targeting of China; in an interview with a separate media outlet, he said, “If you want to implement policies, you should implement them for all, not just the Chinese scientists.”
Derek Adams, a partner with Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell LLP in Washington, D.C. and a former federal prosecutor who specialized in civil fraud, said that the “genuine concern” that China is attempting to interfere in federal funding also endangers academic research. According to Adams, disclosure of foreign investment should only be used to determine if there is any scientific research, and recipients of these grants should not face a stigma that will prevent their receiving of federal funds.
“There is a lot of concern I have of [stifled] academic research,” Adams said about the anxieties from academics. “I hope that it doesn’t stifle academic research. “They shouldn’t have a less of a chance to receive funding because of other grants they might have. The perception and affiliation could potentially harm your potential to receive other funds.”
A U.S. Senate report released in February claims that nearly 70 percent of Chinese-granted awards are not documented. The Committee of 100, a non-profit Chinese-American organization, found that the number of people of Asian heritage charged with espionage has tripled from 2009 to 2017 and that they have received sentencing that is twice as harsh as those received by other ethnicities.
Tim Byrnes, an assistant professor of physics at NYU Shanghai, received the Thousand Talents program grant for his quantum mechanics research in 2016 and was immediately required as a faculty member to report the award to NYU grant managers. He said that the public affirmation that he received following his award contrasts current attitudes toward Chinese funding.
“Now, in the last couple of years, many researchers wouldn’t actually take the grant because it jeopardizes their possibility of receiving other funds. I received it before it was controversial, and it was even reported in the media,” Byrnes said.
Byrnes added that the grant was notable as he said it offers six times more than what other competitive grants would. He also pointed to a number of opportunities that he has received with his own dual association with the East China Normal University, which allows him to fund the experiential facilities in addition to those provided by NYU. He said he has not been obligated to provide reports to the Chinese government regarding his research, and he has not had further contact that he said could infringe upon his academic freedom.
Byrnes noted that the scrutiny toward China has not affected other countries, including his home of Australia which has funding sources used to attract foreign talent. Citing the growing prominence of China as a global leader, Byrnes said that the role of the country should further encourage scientists to invest in a cure that will have major ramifications.
“It seems to be the same story where everything that comes from China is immediately viewed as suspicion,” Byrnes said. “It’s on everyone’s radar more than they have been five years ago. People are worried that there is a new force.”