ST Asians of the Year: Top scientist's decision to publish genome map made at some personal risk

Prof Zhang Yongzhen was included as one of Time's 100 most influential people of 2020.
Prof Zhang Yongzhen was included as one of Time's 100 most influential people of 2020.PHOTO: CHINACDC.CN

Professor Zhang Yongzhen broke ground when he published the first complete genome of Sars-CoV-2 in January, which allowed health authorities around the world to recognise the mysterious pathogen that would soon begin to cause mayhem beyond China's shores.

It was a choice he made at some personal risk, considering the political sensitivity of information surrounding the coronavirus at the time.

Prof Zhang, 55, who is at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre, has been lauded for his bravery and professionalism by the international media, and was included as one of Time's 100 most influential people of this year.

His decision to publish the genome map helped save countless lives by reducing the time it takes to get a diagnosis.

Prof Zhang told Time news magazine that he uploaded the sequence to the United States National Centre for Biotechnology Information on Jan 5 - the same day he and his team had completed the sequencing after working non-stop for about 40 hours.

But the centre can take "days or even weeks" to look at a submission, Time said.

So Prof Zhang decided instead to publish the results online on Jan 11, through Professor Edward Holmes, a colleague at the University of Sydney, because of the gravity of the situation.

After he obtained the genome, Prof Zhang noted that the virus that causes Covid-19 resembled the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus, which killed 774 people worldwide in 2003.

He told Time: "I had two suggestions (to top public health officials): that we should take some emergency public measures to protect against this disease; also, clinics should develop antiviral treatments."

He told a colleague that Sars-CoV-2 was certainly more dangerous than avian flu H5N1.

Prof Zhang, a top scientist, and his team have discovered more than 2,000 viruses in some 10 years, according to Shanghai Science and Technology News.

Prof Zhang, who was educated at the South China Agricultural University, Southern Medical University and Kunming Institute of Zoology, is well known for his hard work.

He did not go home to see his family thousands of miles away for the three years that he was doing his doctorate in Kunming, the Chinese news outlet said.

He also worked through weekends and public holidays, and forwent his annual leave.

He was back at work a week after undergoing an eight-hour surgery for thyroid adenoma in 2009.