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Shanghai lab that first sequenced coronavirus genome shut down

A Shanghai-based lab — Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center & School of Public Health — at Fudan University which was the first to sequence the whole genome of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and publicly share the data on January 11 was shut down on January 12 for “rectification”.

“The centre was not given any specific reasons why the laboratory was closed for rectification. [We have submitted] four reports [asking for permission] to reopen but we have not received any replies,” a source with the Shanghai lab told the South China Morning Post.

Isolating the virus

In the first week of January, Yong-Zhen Zhang’s team from the Shanghai lab in collaboration with handful of institutions isolated the virus from a 41-year-old worker in the seafood market in Wuhan. He was admitted to Wuhan Central Hospital on 26 December 2019 while experiencing a severe respiratory syndrome that included fever, dizziness and a cough.

The genome sequence was posted on an open-access site, virological.org on January 11 and also deposited on GenBank. In a brief note accompanying the genome sequence data, the consortium said that other researchers were “free to download, share, use, and analyse the data”.

First test kits

It was based on this genome sequence data that researchers developed the first test kits to diagnose the virus. On February 3, the collaboration led by Prof. Zhang’s published the findings in a paper in Nature.

According to the newspaper, China’s National Health Commission announced hours after the release by Prof. Zhang’s team that it would share the genome sequence with WHO.

According to the South China Morning Post, the Shanghai centre reported its discovery to the National Health Commission on January 5. The Centre also recommended “relevant prevention and control measures” be taken since the patient from whom the sample was collected had suffered very severe symptoms and the virus resembled the ones previously seen in bats.

The newspaper says that the researchers publicly shared the genome data on January 11 after they realised that the “authorities had taken no obvious action to warn the public about the coronavirus”.

Lack of transparency

Scientists and others worried about China’s lack of transparency after the outbreak started in December 8 were relieved when the genome data was shared. On January 11, Director of Wellcome Trust Jeremy Farrar tweeted saying: “Potentially really important moment in global public health – must be celebrated, everyone involved in Wuhan, in China & beyond acknowledged, thanked & get all the credit. Sharing of data good for public health, great for those who did the work. Just needs those incentives & trust.”

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