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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Chinese scientist who shared COVID sequence protests lab closure



Zhang Yongzhen, a scientist who released the full sequence of the coronavirus on Jan. 11, 2020, in defiance of government orders, in Shanghai, Dec. 6, 2020. (Keith Bradsher/The New York Times)

By Keith Bradsher


A well-known Chinese scientist who defied a Chinese government gag order by being the first to disclose the genome of the COVID virus to a global database four years ago, held a rare protest this week in Shanghai after being locked out of his lab.


The scientist, Zhang Yongzhen, had run a laboratory in Shanghai since 2018, but found over the weekend that the facility had been sealed off with one of his colleagues locked inside, according to a Chinese news outlet. Zhang’s key card had been canceled and the elevators had been turned off.


On Sunday evening, he began sleeping outdoors on flattened cardboard in front of locked blue doors at the sidewalk entrance to the lab, photos posted online by students showed. At least five security guards could be seen in one of the photos.


Another news outlet, the online website of a state media agency in Shandong province, reported Monday about Zhang’s sit-in, and quoted him as saying then that, “I am still waiting for the problem to be solved, but no one has come to solve it.”


The accounts of Zhang’s ordeal drew a public outcry on Chinese social media, with people posting thousands of comments on the report from Shandong province media. Many of them criticized the Shanghai government and its public health center, which owns the lab, for locking the prominent scientist out.


Early Wednesday morning, Zhang wrote in a post on his social media account that his team had been allowed to resume research in the lab. He thanked his students and people who had voiced support for him online, and said that discussions were underway to resolve an ongoing dispute over payment for past work and his continued employment.


It was not immediately clear if Zhang’s dispute with the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center is official retaliation for his role in revealing the COVID virus’s genome to the world in early January 2020. At the time, the Chinese government was silencing doctors and others who sought to raise red flags about the mysterious virus that had been detected in the central city of Wuhan. Scientists were under pressure not to publish information about it without permission.


Other Chinese scientists had also sequenced the virus then, but the Chinese government banned researchers on Jan. 3, 2020, from releasing details of a new pneumonia that had begun to circulate in Wuhan. Zhang obtained the virus in lung fluid from a patient at Wuhan Central Hospital the same day, and soon uploaded its genome to a database hosted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.


Days passed without the information going online, as the database administrators had a policy of reviewing new genomes before publishing them. So Zhang gave permission to an Australian virologist, Edward C. Holmes, to post it on Jan. 10 to a forum for virologists, where it quickly drew international attention.


Authorities quickly closed Zhang’s laboratory after he disclosed the genome of the virus but subsequently allowed it to reopen.


The Shanghai government had no immediate comment Wednesday about Zhang’s access to his lab. Southern Weekend, a state-controlled Chinese news outlet, quoted an official at the Shanghai public health center as saying Monday evening that the center’s contract with Zhang had been terminated in October 2022.


According to one description posted by a group of people who identified themselves as members of his research team, Zhang contended he and his team were still owed more than $1 million by the Shanghai public health center under a previous contract. The account also described Zhang as having objected to plans by the authorities for the laboratory and its many pathogen samples to be relocated quickly to another building with a laboratory that had not been certified to the same level of biological security.


Some accounts of his protest outside the lab had also disappeared from the internet by Wednesday morning, apparently deleted by government censors.

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