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Chinese virologist who sequenced SARS-CoV-2, excluded from own laboratory, later admitted ‘provisionally’

Earlier this week, 59-year-old Zhang, who defied China’s gag order in January 2020 by becoming the first to reveal the SARS-CoV-2 genome to a global database, slept overnight at the entrance to his laboratory.

He claimed that authorities forcibly closed his workplace.

This is despite appearing in Nature’s 10 among those who helped shape science in 2020, and two years later receiving the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Award, with a $1 million scholarship awarded by the UAE. Zhang has been hailed as a “hero” since his genome revelation helped design vaccines and diagnostic tools for COVID-19.

According to his posts on Chinese social media platform Weibo (now deleted), Zhang and his team had been served with an eviction notice from their laboratory, and guards denied him entry this weekend.

Later, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center (SPHCC) said the building that housed Zhang’s laboratory was undergoing renovation work.

“For the team of researchers Zhang Yongzhen who conduct scientific research activities in the region, the hospital has provided additional office and experimental places in the scientific research building,” the SPHCC said in a statement. quoted by Chinese media.

Adding: “Our institute always respects scientific researchers and supports scientific researchers and students in carrying out normal research work.”

On Wednesday, Zhang said in an online post that he and his team were allowed to return to the laboratory and continue their research for the time being.

“The Chinese government should promote him as a role model instead of making life difficult for him,” Austrian virologist Florian Krammer said in a post on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Chase Nelson, a scientist at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) University of South Carolina-Columbia, criticized the Chinese government’s “embezzlement and persecution” of its own scientists.

“(This has) destroyed credibility and fueled an endless conspiracy worldwide as everyone sees that people in China cannot speak freely,” Nelson wrote in a post on X, also Thursday.

In December 2020, Zhang Zhan, a former Chinese lawyer who reported on the early stages of the COVID-19, was sentenced to four years in prison for allegedly spreading false information.


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‘Wants to force Zhang to leave’

Experts and scientists around the world have expressed their support for Zhang in light of the recent incident.

Edward Holmes, the Australian virologist at the University of Sydney who was there with Zhang the first scientists to share the SARS-CoV-2 genome with the world also spoke out. “It’s unfathomable to me that a scientist of that caliber would be sleeping outside his laboratory,” Holmes said Nature on May 1.

Meanwhile, Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, raised questions about why Chinese officials were “eager to oust Zhang.”

In a recent piece for Think Global Health titled “A Virus Hunter’s Struggle for Respect in Post-COVID China,” Yanzhong explains that while Chinese authorities took “credit” for Zhang’s decision To share his findings of the COVID-19 genome with the world in 2020, some health officials were reportedly “dissatisfied” with Zhang’s decision, feeling it had “disrupted their plans.”

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)


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