Dr Anthony Fauci was the face of the pandemic in the US, but in China, the country where Covid-19 first emerged, his equivalent was George Gao.
Both men are esteemed scientists. Both sat atop their country’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC). Both have recently stepped down after navigating the coronavirus era.
Prof Gao, like Dr Fauci, was charged with managing the public health response to a rampaging virus and also trying to find where the coronavirus came from.
But Prof Gao was the director of the Chinese CDC throughout the Covid pandemic and is, perhaps, the one person who knows more than Dr Fauci about where Covid came from and how it first infected people. He may be the most informed man on the topic in the world.
His work to combat the virus and his position as the most senior public health scientist in the country where the outbreak started — as well as his work more recently to help shed light on its origins — have made him a central figure in the ongoing debate over how Covid emerged.
First to detect virus genetic sequence
During his tenure at the Chinese CDC, Prof Gao would have been privy to the world’s first research into the coronavirus which swept the globe in 2020.
His scientists were the first to detect, isolate and share the genetic sequence of the coronavirus, he said in April.
Prof Gao, who got his PhD at Oxford and completed his postdoctoral work at both Oxford and Harvard, has held various high ranking positions in Chinese institutions, and gained valuable on-the-ground experience on pathogens before the pandemic.
His work on the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone was dubbed “heroic” by the US National Academy of Sciences, while his research specialism is in the molecular mechanisms of how pathogens jump from one species to another, as well as how they infect cells and spread.
Much of Prof Gao’s work was on bird flu and the origin of this virus, as well as some work on bats.
Since leaving the CDC last June and being replaced by Shen Hongbing in July last year, Prof Gao has been vice-president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China and has been more public-facing, giving talks in London as well as Geneva.
In April the Oxford-educated Prof Gao flew from China to speak at Rhodes Policy Summit on pandemic preparedness in London, other speakers included his former PhD tutor and Regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, Sir John Bell.
In the 10 months since he left the CDC he has indicated that the theory of an intermediate host between bats and humans is wrong and also suggested several times that there is merit in investigating the possibility of Covid originating in a lab.
There has been no indication of malicious release of a genetically altered coronavirus, and no admission of guilt, but repeated calls to not rule anything out and pursue all avenues of research as to the origins of Sars-Cov-2.
Raccoon dogs debacle
Prof Gao was also recently embroiled in a messy scientific debacle when some raw data from his team was unscrupulously hijacked by scientists and used to claim raccoon dogs at the Huanan Seafood market were the source of the pandemic.
Prof Gao and his team had gathered and released previously unseen genetic data on what animals were in the market from swabs taken there in January 2020.
The data was put on an international scientific database ahead of publication and was spotted by other academics who analysed it and claimed this was proof of a zoonotic origin.
The market, filled with live animals for sale, is claimed by some to be where the coronavirus spilled from animals to humans for the first time.
It is also only a few hundred metres from two coronavirus labs in Wuhan, (one run by the Wuhan CDC and the other one is the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) at the centre of the lab leak theory).
At the very least, the market was the site of the first major superspreader event for Covid.
However, when the Chinese team and Gao published, it poured cold water on these claims as it transpired the data showed raccoon dogs were present at the market, but that the evidence was not sufficient to show they were the source of Covid.
Now, Prof Gao remains a crucial voice in the conversation around the origins of Covid. He may know more about the early response, the involvement of research organisations and the ongoing studies than anyone else in the world.
His continued efforts to keep the discourse around the origins of Covid open are curious and his words have given mainstream credence back to the lab leak theories, taking the conversation out of the mire of conspiracy and back into the realm of open scientific debate.
Prof Gao has also claimed the investigation from the World Health Organisation into Covid’s origins should be renewed – following suitable government negotiations.
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