PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES – RESTARTING THE WAITRO OFFICE CHINA

MAY 2020

As most WAITRO members know, the China Office of the WAITRO Secretariat is operated by the Jiangsu Industrial Technology Research Institute (JITRI), headquartered in Nanjing, China. As such, it was probably the first part of WAITRO to experience the disruption and isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. After the initial outbreak in Wuhan, the Lunar New Year holiday on Jan 25th was extended to minimize the virus spread, but From Feb 10th, both JITRI and the WAITRO China Office started working remotely. During this period, when China was the main epicenter of a virus that had yet to be named, the WAITRO China Office received letters and messages of solidarity from many WAITRO members. These were all greatly appreciated.

How to stay productive? For almost one month, JITRI staff worked from home under quarantine restrictions using a variety of well-known online resources such as email, Zoom, Webex Meetings and Wechat. A further recent addition is Tencent Meeting, a free cloud audio and video conferencing product launched late last year for up to three hundred people. Recently, much of the daily business of JITRI has migrated to “DingTalk” created by Alibaba Group. It also supports file transfer, video meetings, etc. and can be also monitor mobile office attendance, set up mailboxes, etc. For the fashion conscious, a “beautify” mode is even available to make video calls look better. Most of JITRI’s administrative functions have now moved to DingTalk.

Using these online tools, the WAITRO Secretariat, and JITRI as a research institute, have kept working quite seamlessly. For the longer term, JITRI has started processing more than 60 potential projects related to COVID-19. Several of its more than 50 Research Institutes, such as the Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Technology, the Institute of Medical Immunology and the Institute of Translational Medicine and Innovative Drugs, are already cooperating to discover new methods for detection, treatment and immunization. In the shorter term, JITRI has engaged with all its international cooperation partners, helping some of them to source personal protective equipment where needed and joining the XPRIZE Pandemic Alliance.[1] A special fund of 500,000RMB was dedicated to send emergency supplies to 20 partners in 9 countries. 

From March 9th, JITRI Headquarters re-opened, albeit with flexible working hours and still limited scope for business travel even to other Provinces, never mind overseas. To optimize staff safety, JITRI provided protective supplies such as masks and gloves, and all offices were thoroughly disinfected daily. Even now, everyone’s temperature is checked at least once a day on arrival. Lunch was initially taken at the office, with the JITRI administration helping with daily ordering and delivery of lunch. Face masks are now worn by everyone in public. Gradually, more facilities such as restaurants around headquarters are opening and at the time of writing most staff are now able to go out for lunch. Life is gradually returning. 

Quarantine and travel limitations imposed by the Covid-19 response are all challenging, but challenges drive adaptation. The President of JITRI, Prof. Liu Qing, reports that, even after the reopening of JITRI headquarters, he finds himself moving some meetings that previously would have involved in-person travel to an online format, just because it is so much more time-efficient. Similarly, we must now find ways to make WAITRO serve its members better. Travel restrictions have thrown a large wrench into the works of several planned activities this year and will likely result in delays to some events and in moving others into new formats. We are already looking into how we can use online resources to make these activities even better. Nevertheless, we in the Secretariat are keenly aware that the WAITRO membership is highly diverse and that not all member institutions may have the same access to reliable, high speed internet. This makes it particularly important to respond to our surveys, read the newsletter, and give feedback about what works and what does not, so that we can best bring you value.

Surprising levels of success using an online format for meetings, however, have already been achieved. One example was the American Physical Society (APS) meeting scheduled for April 2020 that had to be canceled at fairly short notice but was, at least partially, replaced by an online format. Usually, 1,600–1,800 people attend the April Meeting in person, but APS reports that 7,267 registered this time and the response from many of the virtual attendees was quite positive.[2] Of course, there is no comparison (yet) between the scale of an APS conference and a typical WAITRO meeting and the intangible social benefits of face-to-face meetings means that we will most certainly never consider eliminating them entirely but we have both an opportunity and an obligation to respond to the changing landscapes of social distancing and flight restrictions to enhance the value that WAITRO offers to its members. Please engage with us as we develop new programs, lend your active support wherever possible and, most important of all, stay safe!

Paul Burrows, Yao Xin, Duan Ran,

WAITRO Secretariat, China Office


[1] https://www.xprize.org/fight-covid19, accessed April 28th 2020.

[2] See for example https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01239-2, accessed April 28th 2020.