The outbreak of a new coronavirus is wreaking havoc worldwide. In China, the epicentre of the epidemic, the virus has infected tens of thousands of people and killed more than 2,100. Unprecedented measures meant to contain the spread have brought millions of daily lives to a halt, and the effects have touched economies and global supply chains.
The restrictions have also brought unique challenges to scientists. Some have suspended their usual research to study the coronavirus. Others have had their work or personal lives disrupted by lab closures, travel restrictions or problems sourcing equipment and reagents from suppliers in China.
In a Nature reader poll, more than 600 of you told us that the coronavirus had affected you, your colleagues and your research. These are some of your stories.
‘People are dying’
I was born in Wuhan, China, but I now live in Canada. I learnt about most of what was happening through reading the news, similar to everyone else. It really hit me that these are real, normal, innocent people who are dying when my grandmother started crying as she told me her best friend had passed away after getting COVID-19, within ten days of the first symptoms showing. There were not enough hospital beds, and her son wasn’t able to get her admitted in time.
The outbreak might have changed my career trajectory. I am currently doing field work in the Bahamas and am trying to answer fundamental questions in ecology and evolution. But one chapter of my PhD thesis involves developing a method to identify endangered animals in steeped alcohol — such as tiger-bone wine — a form of traditional Chinese medicine. I am now hoping to expand the scope to incorporate viral metagenomics to look for associations between host animals and viruses in illegally trafficked wildlife products; research has suggested that the new coronavirus could have emerged from a wild animal. I have become interested in human-health aspects of wildlife conservation, and I hope to contribute to this field in my postdoc position by using the molecular-ecology methods I have been trained in to help to prevent future catastrophes related to illegal wildlife trafficking.
Charles C. Y. Xu, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
Amphibian breeders thwarted
I started my lab in China a few months ago, but I was abroad when the number of transmissions surged. The university recommended that I avoid going back until further notice. My students are isolated at home and are unable to start their projects — despite the lab’s focus on amphibians and the fact that their breeding season will boom over the next few weeks.
Amaël Borzée, Nanjing Forestry University, China
‘It’s impossible to get a visa’
I am from Indonesia, but am now pursuing a PhD at a research institute in China. Before the outbreak happened, I applied for a visa to attend an overseas conference that I won a bursary for. But it’s impossible to get a visa now owing to office closures, so I won’t be able to get to the conference. Many research institutes and universities in China are closed.
In my city, we are on lockdown inside our homes, and my productivity has hit rock bottom. People don’t feel like working; every day, we check the news to follow the number of cases and deaths, and get updates on the situation. It simply isn’t possible to concentrate on work.
‘Food is three times the price’
No one in our community is allowed to go out, and we must buy food at three times the normal price. People who dare to venture out without permission have been arrested, and face the risk of forced isolation.
I am a student in a PhD programme in genetics. I went to visit my family in China on 23 December, before the outbreak started, and planned to return to the United States on 6 February. When the United States introduced a new regulation, effective from 2 February, banning non-US citizens who had been to China in the previous 14 days from entering the country, I had to adjust my travel plans and return to Iowa early to avoid delaying my thesis-defence date. I purchased the last available plane ticket to arrive in the United States at exactly 5 p.m. on 2 February. If I had arrived half an hour later, I could have been denied entry to the country, and wouldn’t have been able to complete my PhD programme. I have heard that some colleagues were not so lucky, and were refused entry before being sent back to China.
Kerui Huang, Iowa State University in Ames
‘My girlfriend can’t go back’
My girlfriend is from China and visited me during the Lunar New Year, but she now can’t go back because of the outbreak. There are rumours that new research positions in other countries are not hiring candidates from the affected region. That doesn’t seem fair at all, and recent graduates are suffering from it.
Anonymous, South Korea
Prejudice on campus
I work at a medical university in Poznan, Poland, and we have students from Asia who typically wear a face mask between October and March to guard against air pollution and seasonal flu. Over the past few weeks, I have observed panicked reactions to Asian students in the city: on the street, on the bus and also, sadly, at my university — for example, people deliberately stepping away from them or opening doors with a tissue. This is despite there being no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Poland, and authorities taking care to release information about it on a daily basis.
Piotr Rzymski, Poznan University of Medical Sciences, Poland
Lab supplies disrupted
My lab’s research aims to apply new gene-based therapies for eye diseases that cause blindness. Australia has no centre or facility for commercial DNA synthesis, so gene synthesis for our work is outsourced to a Chinese company, which (appropriately) has diverted resources to help to fight COVID-19. Production delays have stalled our work, and this situation highlights that Australia is vulnerable to disruption of the global supply chain, which could affect its ability to continue contributing to the synthetic-biology revolution.
Alex Hewitt, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia
I work at a medical-device company researching methods for cleaning and disinfecting such devices. The cost of P2 respirators (face masks) in Australia has increased tenfold or more during the ongoing outbreak. These masks are crucial when we are working with polymer and silica dusts.
Joshua Storm Caley, Sydney, Australia
Lab chemicals, such as growth factors and antibodies, have become difficult to import, with deliveries delayed or halted owing to the COVID-19 outbreak. These problems have been ongoing for about a month, and there are no signs of improvement.
Arijit Bhattacharjee, Indian Institute of Techology Kanpur, India
‘I want to be ready’
I have stalled other research activities in order to read and gather all the available information on the coronavirus. I want to be ready in case health authorities in Portugal decide to ask me to join a task force. I am also preparing a lecture about the outbreak for graduate students on my Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases course.
Manuel Gomes, University of Lisbon, Portugal
I’m an international student in the United States, and I can’t get back to continue my research because of the outbreak. I’m trying to make my way back to the United States via a third country, as I know many international students are trying to do. My mentor, programme director and staff at the university’s International Student and Scholar Services have been really helpful. I just hope the outbreak will end soon.
Xin Wang, Wake Forest University, North Carolina
‘We’ve dropped everything’
I’m an undergraduate working in a mathematical modelling lab, and we’ve dropped everything to work on COVID.