Scientist from Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS) Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology
Zhi Yang grew up in Shanghai and graduated at the top of her class from Hunan University in 1972. Ms. Yang joined the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences after earning her PhD in microbiology in 1977.
. When did you first begin working on discovering the cause of the new flu?
It was mid-February when we began working to trace the pathogen causing the atypical flu. We isolated several coronaviruses that we believe to be the source of the infection by late February. However, one of the most well-known doctors in China, Dr. Hong Tao, had by this time already advance a theory that the illness was linked to a strain of Chlamydia bacterium. Because Dr. Tao is very famous in China and because we had so few samples on which to base our theory, we thought it best to conduct further research before reporting our findings to the Ministry of Health or WHO.
. Were you aware of the simultaneous efforts by the WHO to locate the atypical flu’s cause?
We were aware they were working on the same problem, but did not work in direct collaboration with them. After the disease spread outside China, WHO-linked virology labs obtained samples from patients in Hong Kong, Hanoi, Singapore, and Toronto. I’ve heard they held daily teleconferences between the labs to disseminate any findings as soon as possible. In mid-March, three labs independently isolated one of the coronaviruses we had discovered a few weeks before. Their studies confirmed our conclusions, and gave us the confidence to report our own findings.
. What was the reaction of the Chinese government when you published your findings?
Initially, they were not pleased. We reported our findings to the Ministry of Health in early April and went to journalists with our research soon after. The government formally rebuked us for going public and publicly stuck to Dr. Tao’s Chlamydia theory. He had done a lot of important work in China and had a superb reputation among the medical community, so they didn’t want to challenge his theory. Not long after, on April 12th I believe, the Ministry set up a team to control publicity about research on SARS. I have nothing but respect for Dr. Tao and the Ministry, but the weight of the evidence from the WHO and our team’s research validated our coronavirus theory to a much greater extent than was initially admitted.
. How did the government’s response change as time went on?
Once the weight of the evidence became more and more apparent, the government warmed to our research. President Hu even visited our lab and praised our efforts in locating the source of the SARS virus. As the SARS threat grew and the disease spread outside China, the government’s position shifted dramatically.