The none-too-subtle reference was not lost on Chinese audiences.
Now, in 2020, as a deadly coronavirus that causes the disease known as covid-19 spreads across the world, Dr. Chen is back in the limelight.
It’s the real Dr. Chen: Chen Wei, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army and the virologist who leads the Institute of Bioengineering at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences.
State media this month have run photos of Chen, in fatigues and a surgical mask, standing in front of a Communist Party flag and receiving an injection in her left arm. The substance was, according to the reports, one that China hopes will become the first vaccine against the coronavirus. Seven other military officers reportedly received the jab.
“The virus is ruthless, but we believe in miracles,” Chen told local media. “The epidemic is a military situation, and the epidemic area is the battlefield.”
Chen was authorized to start a clinical trial for her vaccine on Monday, state broadcaster CCTV reported last week — on the day that a clinical trial began at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, funded by the National Institutes of Health.
The quest for a vaccine is not only about public health, but also about the fight between China and the United States for supremacy in trade and technology, the military and the media — and now, a virus.
Chinese leaders are spurring their scientists to become the first to develop a breakthrough against the coronavirus, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected more than 329,000 people worldwide.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping said a “whole-nation” scientific and technological effort was needed to counter the outbreak.
“We should build a new type of ‘whole-nation system’ to make breakthroughs in critical and core technologies,” Xi said in an article published last week in the Communist Party magazine Qiushi Journal. Major scientific achievements, he said, were “a vital component of the national strategic system.”
China wants to rewrite its role in the coronavirus story from source to savior, to show — as Chen herself said — that it is living up to its “responsibilities as a great power and its contribution to humankind.”
But it also wants to show China’s scientific prowess at a time of increasing competition in almost every endeavor.
“We must be aware that the development of a vaccine is a battle that China cannot afford to lose,” commentator Mu Lu wrote in the nationalistic Global Times newspaper this week, calling it “life-and-death.”
Chen, for one, appears conscious that she’s in a race, saying her efforts would be no slower than the 12-week time frame that President Trump set for American researchers.
CanSino Biologics, a company based in Tianjin that is working with Chen, said Tuesday that it’s looking for volunteers to test its vaccine, a genetically engineered recombinant adenovirus vector labeled “Ad5-nCoV.”
Chen, 54, is credited in China with developing a nasal spray that helped protect health-care workers against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and with making significant contributions to treating Ebola during the 2014-16 outbreak.
She went to Wuhan on Jan. 26, days after the government conceded the virus could be transmitted between people, and has since been working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to develop a vaccine.
State media have lauded her efforts as the most promising among nine possible treatments that Chinese scientists are developing.
One Shanghai-based researcher, Xu Jianqing, has given himself a shot of a vaccine he first tested in mice and monkeys. But he has said that, unlike with SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome, the host and the pathway of the novel coronavirus remain unclear, hampering vaccine development.
Scientists say the coronavirus is most likely to have begun in bats and then jumped to an intermediate carrier, perhaps pangolins, before mutating into a form that humans could catch.
Chen has said the earliest her team can start clinical trials is April. But there’s little detail about what trials have begun — and whether Chen received her own vaccine.
Commentators have expressed skepticism online, suggesting that the photo showing her receiving an injection was dated and doubting that a rapid solution was possible.
Leo Poon, professor of public health laboratory sciences at Hong Kong University, said viewing the development of a vaccine as a competition is the wrong approach.
“It’s always good to have multiple vaccines being developed at the same time so that we have options and can see which one is best,” he said. “Determining whether vaccines are safe to use takes quite a lot of effort. . . . You can’t just vaccinate 10 people and say that it’s safe.”
Even with seasonal flu prevention, Poon noted, it took about six months to develop a vaccine against the H1N1 strain in 2009.
Relations between the world’s two largest economies are plumbing new depths.
After a tentative trade deal was signed Jan. 15, analysts such as Carla Freeman, U.S.-China chair at the Library of Congress, hoped the United States and China had overcome a key area of dispute and could now work together on issues of common concern, such as North Korea.
But those hopes withered as the severity of the coronavirus became known, prompting tensions that only worsened as Trump continued to call it the “Chinese virus” and Chinese diplomats openly suggested biological warfare by American soldiers.
As the friction has increased, each side has expelled the other’s journalists in tit-for-tat retaliation.
“There is a huge amount at stake,” Freeman said. She noted that the tensions could spur China to divert or restrict sales of supplies such as protective gear for medical personnel and the active ingredients in prescription medicines, including antibiotics.
“This crisis might have been an opportunity for the U.S. and China to push the reset button on their relationship,” she said. “Unfortunately, amid politics on both sides, that opportunity appears lost.”
Lyric Li in Beijing and Tiffany Liang in Hong Kong contributed to this report.