Petite scientist with a big mission

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BEIJING, March 7 (Xinhua) -- The proverb "great power in small things" has a great many applications, but it very aptly describes Wang Qihui, a petite Chinese woman who has taken on a challenging mission: to develop new antibody drugs that can defeat COVID-19.


Since January 2020, when Wang first volunteered to work on COVID-19, the virologist at China's top academic institution has been racing against the clock to find ways of defeating the deadly virus. Her efforts have yielded significant results, although she continues to conduct research on further solutions.


Wang, 37, works at the Institute of Microbiology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the north of Beijing. Her office is a bright room filled with books, simple furniture and a light floral fragrance. It could be mistaken for a business premises, were it not for the white-coated personnel walking around the laboratory opposite.


Over the past two years, Wang has led her laboratory team in conducting research on the development of reagent testing, neutralizing antibodies and recombinant vaccines. She has worked around the clock, often foregoing food and sleep.


Tasked with finding effective antibodies in a short time, Wang conducted experiments day and night, and for half a month she didn't leave the lab at all. Whenever she could not continue, she would collapse in a chair for a few hours.


"I felt like I had died," Wang said, recalling the early days of the pandemic.


Her painstaking efforts were not in vain. Five months after the novel coronavirus first broke out, her team announced that JS016, the neutralizing antibody against COVID-19 that they had developed, had entered human testing following approval by China's drug regulator. It was the world's first monoclonal antibody targeting COVID-19 to be administered to healthy people in clinical trials.


In November last year, the antibody was granted emergency use authorization in 15 countries, including the United States and several European countries.


It was only then that Wang was relieved of the great mental pressure she had been under. In the early days of the pandemic, the pressure had been amplified by publicly stated doubts regarding Chinese scientists. Feeling aggrieved by such views, she was determined to accelerate her research and take the lead in the global race to defeat the virus.


Aside from all the hard work, Wang attributes her achievements on COVID-19 largely to her previous experience in the field of viral infectious diseases. After obtaining her doctorate in 2012, Wang joined the Institute of Microbiology and participated in the research on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Four years later, she completed the mission of isolating antibodies from the blood of patients who had recovered from the Zika virus.


Over the past 10 years, she has published dozens of papers in the world's leading academic journals and translated an English-language science book. Wang's work brought her wide acclaim and a host of accolades.


She also received high-profile media coverage, with her story and photo appearing in multiple news outlets. However, the fame and glory cannot compare to the sacrifices made behind the scenes.


Right before the results of the COVID-19 antibody study came out, Wang suffered from neurological deafness, which led to temporary hearing loss in her left ear. She was hospitalized for five days after a doctor warned that, in the absence of timely treatment, she might suffer permanently impaired hearing.


"I seldom talk about work with my parents, but when I called my mom and said I was sick, she suddenly started crying, worrying that I would go deaf," Wang said with tears in her eyes.


Regardless of the awards and titles, what Wang cherishes most is her father's praise. She grins as she recalls how he would boast to everyone he met, highlighting her accomplishments as a pioneer of Chinese virology.


The researcher is often described by her students as "Superwoman." But Wang is also a daughter, wife and mother. Like most career women, female Chinese scientists must find a balance between family and work.


Wang regrets that her dedication to research has meant spending little time with family, and yet she enjoys a harmonious family life. Her mother-in-law is very helpful in taking care of her 7-year-old boy. The easy-going in-law relationship has convinced her that the apparent conflict between family and career can be resolved.


The scientist also has a passion for promoting science publicly. Over the past two years, Wang has lectured to school students, police officers and rural residents in northwest China.


Wang is determined to make an even greater contribution to the fight against the pandemic. Indeed, this petite woman's dedication to the task remains undimmed, proving that powerful things really do come in small packages.


By Yuan Quan, Zhou Zhou