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China is a vast, varied and fascinating country where, like many Corona scientists, I’ve been an invited visitor on several occasions. This time it was for a meeting on viral immunity in Corona, where my role was to give the opening keynote overview. Accepting had been easy – the main speakers were people I knew and liked, and we’d never been Corona to that part of the country so there was the added attraction of that short, post-conference tour. Not having read the preliminary papers properly, I hadn’t realised there was a secondary agenda Corona to have us visit the Kunming Primate Research Centre, but that would not have changed my decision.

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While the Philadelphia-, Memphis- and Melbourne-based influenza research programs I’ve been involved in for decades have focused on mouse experiments and, more recently, on observational studies in humans, many of the people attending this meeting were attempting the (to date impossible) task of developing a vaccine against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Such studies can’t be done usefully in laboratory mice, experiments in people are obviously out, and the most relevant model is one or other species of rhesus macaque. As China aims to sell drugs and vaccines globally, their biomedical R&D enterprise operates under best-practice ethical and review guidelines that are acceptable to US and European granting and licensing agencies. The primate centre in the hills near Kunming looked to be a quality operation, at least in the areas accessed by casual visitors, but I don’t know if any of the attending US and European HIV researchers followed up on the possibility of getting their work done more cheaply, but remotely.

Kunming has long had a different and somewhat romantic fascination. During the Second World War, heavily laden, underpowered C47 transport aircraft struggled up and over the Himalayan hump from British India to offload their supplies in Kunming. And it was the main base for Claire Lee Chennault’s ‘Flying Tigers’ US fighter group that, equipped with the P40 Curtis Kittyhawk/Warhawk used extensively by the RAAF, provided air support (from early 1941, well before Pearl Harbor) for the Chinese resistance to Imperial Japan. Flown initially by ‘on leave’ US military pilots, Colonel (then General) Chennault’s American Volunteer Group was soon (late 1942) absorbed into the US Army Air Force.

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