Dr Shi Zhengli

It is an extremely sad state of affairs when an individual can become a lightning rod for a great deal of anxious feeling and outright fear of many. That can become extreme when it is a catastrophe that humanity confronts.

I am not going to repeat here the things that have been said about Dr Shi Zhengli that I have observed by searching her name on the internet. All I will say is that she felt so compelled to respond that she said on Chinese social media that she swore on her life that they were totally false. In the Anglophone press there have been further fallacious statements made which are utterly vile.

I am extremely proud to say that I am a personal friend and former colleague of Dr Shi Zhengli the scientist who leads the virology team in Wuhan who first identified the causative agent of COVID-19. If you look at my list of publications you will note that Zhengli very kindly included me in the list of authors on a paper that was published a short while after I retired.

Fifteen years ago Zhengli and her team made the key discovery that SARS originally came from bats and she has worked tirelessly to improve humanity’s understanding of these important viruses. It is in large part the work of Zhengli and her team on which the global scientific community is trying to build to produce an effective response to this natural disaster.

Zhengli and her team deserve our deep appreciation.

I am not going to pretend that we are best friends because in truth we lost contact when I retired as a research scientist in 2004 when I was 34 due to lack of opportunities to continue my career in Australia. The reality is that I lost contact with all of my friends with whom I worked – that was one of the greatest aspects of the grief that coalesced with other stressors to cause me to have a breakdown – that in my premature retirement I lost my community because I would no longer be collaborating on research and attending the same conferences and symposia.

In my Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak update of 12 February I said the following of Zhengli:

I first met Dr Shi Zhengli over 22 years ago when I visited the laboratory where she was studying for her PhD with the brilliant and legendary aquatic invertebrate virologist, Jean-Robert (JR) Bonami, in Montpellier in southern France.

I had finished my PhD 18 months earlier, and I was visiting JR in the hope that I might be able to organise to do a postdoc with him in France. It took 2 years but I finally won a fellowship from the CNRS (the French equivalent of the CSIRO) to spend a year in JR’s laboratory learning from him and his team.

Indeed Bonami was brilliant. The techniques that he had developed were simplicity in themselves – just like brilliant Italian food – simple, good quality products used to perfection! – but you had to learn it directly to get them under your belt. 

In between time I visited Zhengli briefly in 2000 at her laboratory in Wuhan.

Zhengli had finished her PhD research when I spent a year in Montpellier in 2001, but she visited periodically through the year and for a while we lived in a flat next to her. And Zhengli was amongst the multicultural group of foreign postdocs, from China, India and Sicily, whose friendship was so important to us during this period.

I admired Zhengli deeply for her extremely strong work ethic and her commitment to her research and career. Like all of the PhD students and postdocs I knew from developing and lesser-developed countries, she made very real personal sacrifices to develop her skills to benefit her country, for certain, and for the whole of humanity.

Zhengli was more than a colleague, though; she was a friend. Zhengli has an enormous heart and is a wonderful mother and a very authentic and caring friend. That was vital for a period in my life when they were rare.

Living in France, without being able to speak the language, was incredibly isolating for my wife and I. As a mixed couple we felt comfortable because we saw many African-French mixed couples and families. However, even though French colleagues were very keen to make full use of my English writing skills to help them publish their work in high ranking journals, they would not talk to me at all at other times and in group settings I sat alone feeling very much in the dark. I tried to learn French, but I just could not pick it up quick enough while working full time on my research to have any sort of social interaction with my French colleagues.

Virtually all of the foreign students and postdocs I knew were miserable, some bordering on clinical depression.

When Zhengli was there, I had a friend with whom I could talk. And I soon knew that she was a special person.

Zhengli in the middle with JR Bonami on her right in 1998 on JR’s boat in La Grande Motte © Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020

I cannot help but believe that this scapegoating is a form of human arrogance. Many just cannot accept that we humans are nothing special on this beautiful planet – we are just another species and can be impacted by all of the same natural threats that other species confront.

At present, in this time of social distancing, I am grateful that I have a backyard with fruit trees, our chickens, and wild life that is plentiful there to the close observer. One afternoon I walked past my banana trees lining the back fence and saw nothing out of the ordinary, but then as I began walking back up towards the house for some reason I turned and noticed that I had just walked past a family of Tawny Frogmouths (with similarities to owls) on the fence camouflaged by the dried out banana fronds. For me I took it as a lesson of perspectives – that when one looks at things from multiple perspectives the interpretation can be completely different and surprising.

Tawny Frogmouth sitting on my back fence. © Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020

Walking in my yard provides the perspective that it is only humanity that is confronting this particular crisis, unlike the other crisis which we ourselves are causing for the planet. The plants and wildlife in my yard looking and behaving normally reminds me of that.

I had similar reflections when I lived in Europe. I vividly recall travelling on trains observing the amazingly beautiful wild poppies scattered across fields and realising that they still bloomed even through world wars when those fields might have been the sites of horrific pain and torture humans were inflecting on each other, while all of the other species carried on as normal. I personally believe that is why the poppy held such a strong place in the psyche of those who participated in those conflicts, and now in their commemoration.

This crisis was a catalyst to me reconnecting with an old friend, and I am glad that I have and have learned about her life over the intervening years. We exchanged family photos and it was wonderful to see Zhengli’s friendly face beaming in a selfie with her son towering over her.

Zhengli and her team have worked tirelessly for months now. My gratitude to them knows no bounds. I am also extremely grateful for all of the scientific community working around the clock to come up with solutions so that humanity suffers less from this particular natural disaster, along with all of the other essential workers doing their parts.

I am for a united humanity!

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020

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