Red Star

Chen Wei

The major-general behind a Chinese coronavirus vaccine


In the jingoistic action flick Wolf Warrior II, China is portrayed as the world’s saviour at almost every turn. There is also a Dr Chen, who finds a vaccine to counter an infectious disease ravaging Africa. That subplot is meant to pay tribute to Chen Wei, the military virologist who developed an effective Ebola vaccine in real life, and who now looks set to launch a Chinese Covid-19 vaccine – possibly the first.

Who is she?

Born in 1966 in Lanxi in Zhejiang province, Chen was a bright student. After completing her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at Zhejiang University, she was recommended for admission to Tsinghua, probably the top university in China for science subjects, for a postgraduate programme. In 1990 when she was 24, a mentor arranged for Chen to do some work at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences. The research atmosphere there inspired her to further her studies at the Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology, under the People’s Liberation Army, the following year. Upon obtaining her doctorate in genetic engineering in 1998, Chen then became a faculty member at the army’s medical school, taking up a series of senior roles in the years that followed.

Biowarfare expert

Much of Chen’s research focus is biological hazard prevention and control. In 2004 when almost nobody in China had heard of Ebola – a zoonotic plague that claimed over 10,000 lives in Africa a decade later – she had already identified it as an area of work. That prepared her to come up with a recombinant Ebola vaccine Ad5-EBOV, which showed promising results in Sierra Leone and was given to Chinese medical professionals dispatched to areas of Ebola outbreak in Africa from late 2017.

Her other achievements include formulating a spray that was said to protect thousands of medical workers from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, as well as another new vaccine countering anthrax, a bacterium with a history as a chemical weapon since 1914.

“I feel obliged to find a bio-shield for the country and people,” said Chen, when she was tasked with preparing for potential terrorist attacks with chemical or biological weapons during the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.

Why is she in the news?

Chen has recently been conferred with the country’s highest state honour of “the People’s Hero”, alongside other medical experts including Zhong Nanshan and Zhang Boli. The award was bestowed in recognition of her contribution to the fight against Covid-19. In January the 54 year-old travelled to Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic, and helped to develop a test kit using automated nucleic acid extraction technology. In April an experimental Covid-19 vaccine co-developed by Chen and CanSino Biologics, dubbed Ad5-nCoV, was the first in the world to go into Phase II clinical trials. Using a non-replicating cold virus (to introduce genetic material from the novel coronavirus into the human body) the adenovirus vector vaccine is said to have induced T-cell response in 89% of the test subjects 28 days after a single shot.

Last week the vaccine candidate was granted a patent, the country’s first, while readying for its Phase III trials in Saudi Arabia.

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