Chinese scientist who first published COVID sequence organizes protest

It is seen as a sign of Beijing’s continued pressure on scientists conducting coronavirus research.

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SHANGHAI – The first scientist to publish a sequence of the COVID-19 virus in China staged a sit-in protest outside his laboratory after authorities closed his access to the facilities, a sign of Beijing’s continued pressure on scientists who They carry out research on the coronavirus.

Zhang Yongzhen wrote in an online post on Monday that he and his team had been suddenly notified that they were being evicted from their lab, the latest in a series of setbacks, demotions and layoffs since the virologist published the sequence in January. 2020 without state approval.

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When Zhang tried to go to the lab over the weekend, guards prevented him from entering. In protest, he sat outside on crushed cardboard in the drizzle, as photos of the scene posted online show. News of the protest spread widely on Chinese social media and Zhang told a colleague that he slept outside the lab, but it was unclear Tuesday whether he stayed there.

“I will not leave, I will not give up, I am seeking science and truth!” she wrote in a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo that was later deleted.

In an online statement, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center said Zhang’s laboratory was being renovated and closed for “safety reasons.” He added that he had provided Zhang’s team with alternative laboratory space.

But Zhang wrote online that his team was not offered an alternative until they were notified of their eviction, and that the lab offered did not meet safety standards to conduct their research, leaving his team in limbo.

Zhang’s latest difficulty reflects how China has tried to control information related to the virus: An Associated Press investigation found that the government froze major domestic and international efforts to track it from the early weeks of the outbreak. That pattern continues to this day, with laboratories closed, collaborations torn apart, foreign scientists expelled, and Chinese researchers banned from leaving the country.

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When reached by phone on Tuesday, Zhang said it was “inconvenient” for him to speak, saying there were other people listening. In an email sent Monday to his collaborator Edward Holmes seen by the AP, Zhang confirmed that he was sleeping outside his laboratory after guards prevented him from doing so. prevent him from entering.

An AP journalist was blocked by a guard at the entrance to the complex that houses Zhang’s laboratory. A staff member at the National Health Commission, China’s top health authority, said by phone that it was not the main department in charge and referred questions to the Shanghai government. The Shanghai government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zhang’s ordeal began when he and his team decoded the virus on Jan. 5, 2020, and wrote an internal advisory warning Chinese authorities about its potential for spread, but did not make the sequence public. The next day, China’s top health official ordered the temporary closure of Zhang’s laboratory, and Zhang came under pressure from Chinese authorities.

At the time, China had reported that several dozen people were being treated for a respiratory illness in the central city of Wuhan. Possible cases of the same illness had been reported in Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan involving recent travelers to the city.

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Foreign scientists soon learned that Zhang and other Chinese scientists had deciphered the virus and asked him to publish it. Zhang published his coronavirus sequence on January 11, 2020, despite the lack of permission from the government.

Sequencing a virus is key to the development of test kits, disease control measures and vaccines. The virus eventually spread to all corners of the world, triggering a pandemic that disrupted lives and commerce, caused widespread lockdowns, and killed millions of people.

Zhang later received awards in recognition of his work.

But Zhang’s publication of the sequence also prompted additional scrutiny of his lab, according to Holmes, Zhang’s collaborator and a virologist at the University of Sydney. Zhang was removed from a position at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and banned from collaborating with some of his former associates, crippling his research.

“Since he defied authorities by publishing the genome sequence of the virus that causes COVID-19, there has been a campaign against him,” Holmes said. “This process has destroyed him and I am surprised that he has been able to work.”

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