Saturday, May 18, 2024

Chinese scientist who first published COVID sequence stages protest after being locked out of lab

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SHANGHAI (AP) — The first scientist to publish a sequence of the COVID-19 virus in China staged a sit-in protest outside his lab after authorities locked him out of the facility — a sign of Beijing’s continuing pressure on scientists conducting research on the coronavirus.

Zhang Yongzhen wrote in an online post Monday 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.

When Zhang tried to go to the lab over the weekend, guards barred him from entering.

In protest, he sat outside on flattened cardboard in drizzling rain, pictures from the scene posted online show. News of the protest spread widely on Chinese social media and Zhang told a colleague he slept outside the lab — but it was not clear Tuesday if he remained there.

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

In an online statement, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center said that Zhang’s lab was being renovated and was closed for “safety reasons.” It added that it had provided Zhang’s team an alternative laboratory space.

But Zhang wrote online that his team wasn’t offered an alternative until after they were notified of their eviction, and that the lab offered didn’t meet safety standards for conducting their research, leaving his team in limbo.

Zhang’s latest difficulty reflects how China has sought to control information related to the virus: An Associated Press investigation found that the government froze meaningful domestic and international efforts to trace it from the first weeks of the outbreak.

That pattern continues to this day, with labs closed, collaborations shattered, foreign scientists forced out and Chinese researchers barred from leaving the country.

When reached by phone on Tuesday, Zhang said it was “inconvenient” for him to speak, saying there were other people listening in. In an email Monday to collaborator Edward Holmes seen by AP, Zhang confirmed he was sleeping outside his lab after guards barred him from entering.

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