This Chinese virologist shared crucial data about covid-19. Then his investigation hit roadblocks.

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(CNN) — In early 2020, as science searched for answers to a mysterious viral outbreak in central China, a leading Chinese virologist stepped forward to share critical data with the world.

Zhang Yongzhen’s revelation of the genome of the virus that causes Covid-19 was a crucial step in the race to combat the pandemic, helping researchers around the world identify the pathogen and create vaccines to counter it.

The scientific community praised his integrity, but in the years since, people who know Zhang say he has faced a series of unprecedented obstacles in his career in China; with yet another barrier placed in front of her investigation over the past week.

This Sunday and Monday, Zhang, 59, slept through the night in protest outside his lab at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center after administrators abruptly closed the facility for renovations, according to accounts posted on his Weibo page. on social networks.

A message posted on his page early Wednesday said a “provisional agreement” had been reached for Zhang’s team to resume their scientific work at the lab, some of which is related to tracing the origins of Covid. -19.

According to a colleague who has been in contact with the Chinese scientist in recent years, this ordeal is nothing more than the latest obstacle to Zhang’s research since 2020.

An account by Zhang’s research students published online also laid out a litany of challenges the scientist faced since formally transferring his official employment to the Shanghai center in 2020, when his 19-year tenure at the center also ended. Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Her account, posted on Zhang’s Weibo page and seen by CNN, has since been deleted. It alleges that the Shanghai center, affiliated with the city’s Fudan , did not formally recognize Zhang’s employment, leaving him without social security or medical benefits, and that it prematurely terminated a five-year cooperation agreement with the scientist.

“That a top scientist in his field, a person who has made contributions to the country and humanity, has reached this point is truly sad and chilling,” the message said.

In a statement issued Monday, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center said it had closed some laboratories for renovation for safety reasons and said it had provided additional offices and laboratory spaces for Zhang and his team.

The “institute always respects… and supports scientific researchers and students in carrying out their normal research work,” the statement said.

Images posted on social media this week appeared to show Zhang wrapped in blankets and sleeping at the door of the lab building as security guards hovered over him.

Reached briefly by phone on Monday, Zhang told CNN that the center’s explanation that the lab needed renovation and that the move had been widely notified was “nonsense.”

More than a dozen student investigations had been affected by the lab closure, he said, adding that it was “inconvenient” to say more at the time.

In his post on Wednesday, Zhang said his team would “discuss (with the center) the future laboratory relocation plan, ensuring normal life and scientific research work for students during the transition period,” and would work to resolve issues related to its own agreements with the center. CNN could not independently confirm her message.

Zhang’s students claimed that the two days the center had given them to transfer their scientific work were insufficient. His lab had been renovated in 2020 and a second lab had not been used since the pandemic, they added.

Neither Zhang nor the online publication detailing the circumstances leading up to his protest linked the lab closure to his sharing the coronavirus genome sequence in 2020.

Multiple calls from CNN to the public relations department of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center went unanswered on Tuesday.

A security guard outside a Wuhan wet market linked to some of the first known cases of Covid-19. (Credit: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

A “broken machine”

Zhang became the first scientist to share the Covid-19 genomic sequence on January 11, 2020, as the World Health Organization waited for China to https://twitter.com/WHO/status/1216108498188230657 following its announcement nearly two weeks before a viral outbreak in the central city of Wuhan.

He was internationally acclaimed for his work and named by Nature as one of 10 people who helped shape science in 2020.

In an interview with the magazine that same year, Zhang reflected on his global recognition.

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“They say January 11 was a turning point to understand that this is serious. It was a turning point for China. It was a turning point for the world,” he said.

However, in China, Zhang had to confront the problems that arose in the aftermath, according to his former collaborator Edward Holmes, a professor at the University of Sydney who published the genome with Zhang’s permission on an international website. data exchange.

Following the release of the data, limitations were placed on Zhang’s lab, preventing it from isolating the Covid virus, according to Holmes.

It is unclear whether this move was independent of a Chinese government “rectification” order received by Zhang’s team that, according to reports at the time, caused the lab to temporarily close a day after the sequence was published. Zhang told Nature in 2020 that the order was limited to requiring his laboratory to update its biosafety protocols after moving equipment during construction work.

Zhang, a scientist at the China CDC since 2001, was also forced to leave the agency in September 2020, according to a person familiar with the situation.

CNN contacted China’s National Health Commission, which oversees the CDC, for comment.

These changes for Zhang came at a time when China, already known for its top-down control of academia, tightened oversight of scientific information related to the virus. This included imposing restrictions by April 2020 on the publication of academic research into the origins of the new coronavirus.

Beijing has repeatedly defended its scientific transparency and sharing of data related to the outbreak.

“The idea that (Zhang) would do something anti-Chinese is ridiculous given his (national) pride. But it is clear that the government wanted a certain message to be conveyed, a certain narrative to be spread about the outbreak in Wuhan (…) , by publishing the virus sequence he broke that instruction, and everything follows from that,” Holmes told CNN on Monday.

“In the old days, before Covid… it was like a machine and now the machine is broken. It has been slowly crushed by this.”

Professor Zhang Yongzhen receives a GigaScience Data Sharing Outstanding Contribution Award, from a group affiliated with Oxford University Press and Chinese genomics giant BGI in October 2020. (Credit: Courtesy Wikipedia)

No regrets

In the months after he shared the Covid-19 sequence, Zhang’s employment was transferred to the Shanghai Public Health Center, where he had held a five-year cooperation agreement and a part-time professorship since 2018. It is unclear whether This move was already underway before January 2020.

Since then, he has continued to publish in journals such as Cell and Nature Microbiology on the presence of viruses in animals and nature in China and has received at least two international awards.

The most recent of his international publications, in March, analyzed coronavirus variants in Shanghai in the early months of the Covid-19 outbreak, and Zhang’s team continues to work on research related to the virus and its emergence.

The ongoing research includes a National Natural Science Foundation of China project at the lab, the post said.

In a Weibo post published on January 11 to mark the fourth anniversary of his Covid revelation, Zhang appeared to allude to the challenges he has faced in the years since.

“Four years ago this morning, on behalf of the research team, we insisted on putting life first and made the right decision,” Zhang wrote.

“Despite going through continuous ups and downs, experiencing the heat and cold of human emotions and the harshness of the world, we have no regrets.”

But the last few years have taken their toll on Zhang, according to Holmes.

“He’s not the same in terms of productivity, he’s completely different, he’s not the same person at all. It’s been extraordinary to see and extraordinary that it’s come to this,” he said.

Holmes, who had limited email contact with Zhang during his protest this week, said the Chinese virologist had told him that he had recently failed in his attempt to file a lawsuit against the Shanghai center over the management of his contract.

“(This whole thing) has been going on for a long time… but I didn’t realize how bad it had gone,” Holmes said.

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