The head of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says he has been injected with an experimental coronavirus vaccine in an attempt to persuade the public to follow suit when one is approved.
"I'm going to reveal something undercover: I am injected with one of the vaccines," Gao Fu said in a webinar Sunday hosted by Alibaba Health, an arm of the Chinese e-commerce giant, and Cell Press, an American publisher of scientific journals. "I hope it will work."
Gao did not say when or how he took the vaccine candidate, leaving it unclear whether he was injected as part of a government-approved human trial. He did not respond to requests for comment.
The claim underscores the enormous stakes as China competes with US and British companies to be the first with a vaccine to help end the pandemic - a feat that would be both a scientific and political triumph.
China has positioned itself to be a strong contender. Eight of the nearly two dozen potential vaccines in various stages of human testing worldwide are from China, the most of any country.
Last month, Gao was a coauthor on a paper introducing one candidate, an "inactivated" vaccine made by growing the whole virus in a lab and then killing it. That candidate is being developed by an affiliate of state-owned SinoPharm.
The company previously said in an online post that 30 employees, including top executives, helped "pre-test" its vaccine in March, before it was approved for its initial human study. Scientists vehemently argue against such self-experimentation, because what happens to one or a few people outside a well-designed study is not usable evidence of safety or effectiveness.
Gao said he took the injection to instill public confidence in vaccines, especially amid a tide of rising mistrust that has fuelled conspiracy theories and attacks on scientists.
"Everybody has suspicions about the new coronavirus vaccine," Gao said. "As a scientist, you've got to be brave. . If even we didn't do it, how can we persuade the whole world - all the people, the public - to be vaccinated?"
Gao's revelations come at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions fuelled by the outbreak. The US has made unsubstantiated claims that the virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where it was first detected.
Tensions have flared to the point where it's now disrupting research, leading to frustration among scientists who work with Chinese collaborators. The Trump administration has moved to withdraw the US from the World Health Organisation, and has cut funding to research initiatives studying coronaviruses in China.
Gao said repeatedly in his lecture that he wanted more cooperation between the US and China.
"We don't want to have China and the US separated scientifically," Gao said. "We've got to work together."
Australian Associated Press