The none-too-subtle reference was not lost on Chinese audiences.
Now, in 2020, as a deadly coronavirus that causes a disease known as covid-19 spreads across the world, Dr. Chen is back in the limelight.
This time it’s the real Dr. Chen: Chen Wei, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army and a 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 this week — the same 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 about the fight for supremacy between China and the United States that spans trade and technology, the military and the media, and now a virus.
Chinese leaders are spurring their scientists to become the first to a breakthrough against the coronavirus, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year has infected more than 220,000 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 this week in the Communist Party magazine Qiushi Journal. Major scientific achievements were “a vital component of the national strategic system,” he said.
China wants to rewrite its role in the coronavirus story from source to savior, to show — as Chen herself said — 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 sphere.
“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 that her efforts would be no slower than the 12-week time frame that President Trump set American researchers.
CanSino Biologics, a company based in Tianjin that is working with Chen, said Tuesday it is looking for volunteers to test its vaccine, a genetically engineered recombinant adenovirus vector labeled “Ad5 ncov.”
Chen, who is 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 been working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to develop a vaccine ever since.
Her efforts have been lauded in state media as the most promising among nine possible treatments that Chinese scientists are developing.
One Shanghai-based expert, Xu Jianqing, has given himself a shot of a vaccine he had already tested in mice and monkeys. But Xu 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 most likely began in bats and jumped to an intermediate carrier, perhaps pangolins, before mutating into a form that humans could catch.
Chen has said that the earliest her team can start clinical trials is April. But there is little detail about what trials have been commenced – and whether Chen received her own vaccine.
Commentators have expressed skepticism online, suggesting the photo showing her receiving an injection was dated and doubting that a rapid solution was possible.
But viewing this as a competition was the wrong approach, said Leo Poon, professor of public health laboratory sciences at Hong Kong University.
“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 and you can’t just vaccinate 10 people and say that it’s safe.”
Even with seasonal flu prevention, it took about six months to develop a vaccine against the H1N1 strain in 2009, Poon said.
The contest over vaccine development comes as relations between the world’s two largest economies plumb new depths.
With a tentative trade deal signed Jan. 15, analysts like Carla Freeman, U.S.-China Chair at the Library of Congress, hoped that the United States and China had overcome a key area of dispute and could work together on issues of common concern, such as North Korea.
But these hopes withered with the tensions that erupted as the severity of the virus became known, escalating as President Trump called it the “Chinese virus” and Chinese diplomats openly suggest biological warfare by American soldiers.
“There is a huge amount at stake,” said Freeman, noting 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.