For their selfless actions in the past 12 months, there are many individuals who deserve recognition.
But Zhang Yongzhen is one person whose act of scientific kindness should be remembered. The scientist, who works at the Public Health Clinical Centre in Shanghai, was the first to decode the entire Sars-CoV-2 genome sequence. On Jan. 5, 2020, he did so and hoped to share it with scientists by uploading his work to the U.S. The National Biotechnology Information Center (NCBI). The professor knew that he was dealing with a lethal virus, but he didn’t realize how dangerous it was. More than 1.7 million people were killed by the pathogen, entire nations were crippled and a trail of economic devastation was left in its wake.
Worried that NCBI would take its time, through an Australian colleague, the scientist arranged for the sequence to be published worldwide. The genomic sequence of the virus was released on an open-access website on Jan. 11, when the first covine death was reported in Wuhan. The genetic code of Covid’s 28,000 characters allowed the Jenner Institute, Moderna and BioNTech of Oxford University to develop their vaccines within days. It took the remainder of the year to try it. In a matter of months, going from an unknown, dangerous new virus to an approved vaccine is a medical miracle. While it might seem obvious to instantly share data about a dangerous infectious disease, it too often goes against the grain of science.
It’s tougher to do what’s right than what you’re told in an oppressive regime like China’s. The unwelcome official attention was received by Prof. Zhang. Before sanity prevailed, his lab was momentarily closed.
Such episodes were used by Donald Trump to shift blame from his helpless response to the nation where the pathogen was first identified.
The evolution of Sars-CoV-2 has been more closely monitored in real time than any other virus in history. Genomic surveillance in the United Kingdom identified a highly transmissible Covid-19 variant in December.
Such surveillance, with appropriate privacy measures, is likely to occur worldwide.
Scientific collaboration will need to be encouraged.
By forging links across borders, scientists can provide a reliable early warning system for global health and ultimately reduce the risk that wayward politicians will impede progress.