Chinese scientist first to publish COVID sequence allowed back into lab after lockout

The first scientist to publish a sequence of the COVID-19 virus said he was allowed back into his lab after spending days locked outside in protest. Zhang Yongzhen wrote in an online post on Wednesday just past midnight that the medical center hosting his lab had “tentatively agreed” to allow him and his team to return and continue their research for the time being. “Now, team members can enter and leave the laboratory freely,” Zhang wrote in a post on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. He added that he is negotiating a plan to relocate the lab in a way that doesn’t disrupt his team’s work with the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, which hosts Zhang’s lab. Zhang and his team were suddenly told they had to leave their lab for renovations on Thursday, setting off the dispute, he said in an earlier post that was later deleted. On Sunday, Zhang began sitting in protest outside his lab after finding he was locked out, a sign of continuing pressure on Chinese scientists conducting research on the virus. Zhang sat outside on flattened cardboard in drizzling rain, and members of his team unfurled a banner that read “Resume normal scientific research work,” pictures posted online show. News of the protest spread widely on Chinese social media, putting pressure on local authorities. In an online statement Monday, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center said that Zhang’s lab was closed for “safety reasons” while being renovated. It added that it had provided Zhang’s team an alternative laboratory space. But Zhang responded the same day his team wasn’t offered an alternative until after they were notified of their eviction, and the lab offered didn’t meet safety standards for conducting their research. Zhang’s dispute with his host institution was the latest in a series of setbacks, demotions and ousters since the virologist published the sequence in January 2020 without state approval. Still, Zhang retains support from some in the government. Though some of Zhang’s online posts were deleted, his sit-in protest was reported widely in China’s state-controlled media, indicating divisions within the Chinese government on how to deal with Zhang and his team. “Thank you to my online followers and people from all walks of life for your concern and strong support over the past few days!” Zhang wrote in his post Wednesday.