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Chinese scientist behind COVID discovery fights eviction

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China’s Dr. Zhang Yongzhen, credited with publishing the first sequence of the COVID-19 virus, staged a sit-in protest after being locked out of his lab. 

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

Denied entry by guards, Dr. Zhang staged a protest outside his locked lab. Images circulating online show him braving the rain, seated on flattened cardboard. News of his stand ignited Chinese social media. 

“I won’t leave, I won’t quit, I am pursuing science and the truth!” he wrote in a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo that was later deleted.

Watch: Scientist who published Covid sequence evicted from lab

The Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center released an online statement claiming Dr. Zhang’s lab closure was due to “safety reasons” and renovations. They added they provided an alternative workspace. 

However, Dr Zhang countered, stating his team only received the alternative offer after their eviction and that the space didn’t meet the necessary safety standards, leaving his research in limbo.

Zhang’s suffering started when he and his team decoded the virus on Jan 5, 2020, and wrote an internal notice warning Chinese authorities of its potential to spread — but did not make the sequence public. 

The next day, Zhang’s lab was ordered momentarily shut by China’s top health official, and Zhang came under pressure from Chinese authorities.

News of Dr Zhang’s protest coincided with reports of a respiratory illness in Wuhan, central China. Several dozen people were already receiving treatment, and possible cases, linked to recent travel from Wuhan, had emerged in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Foreign scientists soon learned that Zhang and other Chinese scientists had deciphered the virus and called on China to release the sequence. Zhang published it on Jan. 11, 2020, despite a lack of government permission.

The virus eventually spread to every corner of the world, triggering a pandemic that disrupted lives and commerce, prompted widespread lockdowns and killed millions of people.

Zhang was later awarded prizes in recognition of his work. But Zhang was removed from a post at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and barred from collaborating with some of his former partners.

(With inputs from agencies)

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