Scientist who gave world the Covid sequence is locked out of his lab by Chinese

Prof Zhang Yongzhen stages a protest outside his lab - the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center
Prof Zhang Yongzhen stages a protest outside his lab - the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center - X

The Chinese scientist who defied Beijing to publish the first coronavirus sequence has staged a sit-in-protest outside his laboratory after authorities suddenly evicted him.

Prof Zhang Yongzhen took to the steps outside the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center on Sunday, in a rare sign of public dissent in China.

It is the latest of a series of setbacks, demotions and attempts to ostracise Prof Zhang, who experts say has been “treated cruelly for years” for releasing the Sars-Cov-2 sequence without government permission in January 2020.

The move allowed health officials worldwide to test for the virus and kick-started the race to develop vaccines and drugs within weeks.

But the Chinese government – which denies the pandemic’s origins, natural or otherwise, are within its borders – was furious and Prof Zhang has been under immense pressure and scrutiny ever since.

Last weekend, he was barred from entering his laboratory in Shanghai. Photos of him sleeping rough in the rain outside the front door as a protest while being overlooked by security guards have been shared widely on Chinese social media.

Prof Zhang Yongzhen slept the night outside the centre in Shanghai after he begged authorities to let him continue his work
Prof Zhang Yongzhen slept the night outside the centre in Shanghai after he begged authorities to let him continue his work - X

The Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center insisted that Prof Zhang’s lab had been closed for “safety reasons”, with alternative space provided while renovations were underway.

But according to an online statement from Prof Zhang, seen by the Associated Press but since deleted, the scientist was only offered another laboratory space after the eviction and it does not meet the safety standards required for his research.

“I won’t leave, I won’t quit, I am pursuing science and the truth!” he wrote in the now-deleted post on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. “The Public Health Center are refusing to let me and my students go inside the laboratory office to take shelter.”

Prof Stuart Neil, a virologist at King’s College London involved in work tracing Covid’s origins, told The Telegraph that it was “depressing to see this continual harassment and punishment of Zhang Yongzhen”.

“He did a very brave thing by releasing the virus sequence despite the Chinese authorities wanting to control information about the initial outbreak. If he hadn’t forced [China’s] hand, how long would they have delayed releasing the sequence? Two to three weeks after the release of this sequence the first mRNA vaccine constructs were already in production for preclinical testing.

“I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that without Zhang’s bravery there would have been a real delay in the roll-out of the first vaccine. And for it he has been treated cruelly for years, Prof Neil said.

Prof Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, added that Prof Zhang’s work during the pandemic had been “essential”, and stressed that “fighting pandemics relies heavily on open sharing of data”.

Chinese government ‘tightly controls narrative’

But Prof Zhang’s treatment reflects a broader crackdown on coronavirus research by the Chinese state.

Scientists working with collaborators in China, who asked not to be named amid concerns for their colleagues, told The Telegraph that international collaborations have become far more difficult since the pandemic.

Dr. Ingrid d’Hooghe, a senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael China Centre in the Netherlands, said the case is a reminder that it “remains impossible to do independent research into the origin of the virus” because of how tightly the Chinese government controls the narrative.

”[It] sends a signal to scientists in China that they will be punished if they do something without having received permission by the authorities... [and] signals that international collaboration will remain under tight control of the government and carries risks for Chinese scientists,” she told the Telegraph. “[It] reflects the overall further deterioration of academic freedom in China in recent years.”

Prof David Robertson of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Virus Research, added: “Making that first SARS-CoV-2 genome available was really really important, and Zhang Yongzhen should be celebrated for this, not forced out of his scientific role.”