Coronavirus Diagnostic Kit Developed by Former University Researcher Who Faced Scrutiny for Ties to China


A University of Florida chemistry professor of Chinese heritage who fled the United States after falling under investigation for his ties to academic institutions in China has been at the forefront of developing a diagnostic test for the novel coronavirus in China.

Weihong Tan left the United States and his position in Gainesville, Florida to take a post at Hunan University in south-central China, where he continues with his research. Tan fell under federal scrutiny for his alleged failure to disclose financial ties to academic institutions in China while he worked at the University of Florida and received significant grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, ProPublica reported.

Since moving to China, Tan helped lead that nation’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic that has spread across the globe. Financially supported by a grant from the Chinese government, Tan shifted his research from cancer and focused on the escalating coronavirus epidemic. He and his colleagues from other Chinese academic institutions developed a diagnostics kit that provides results in less than an hour and can be used in either a physician’s officer or in less controlled, non-medical environments, ProPublica reported.

In his interview with ProPublica, Tan did not provide much information on the diagnostics test for the coronavirus, which has now infected more than 236,384 people across the globe. Multiple companies have been focused on the development of diagnostics for the pandemic, with a few already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under Emergency Use Authorization. Last week, the FDA approved Roche’s cobas SARS-CoV-2 Test under EUA and this week, Abbott’s RealTime SARS-CoV-2 test was approved under EUA. Abbott said it has plans to immediately ship more than 150,000 units and more are coming online. The FDA also approved a system by Thermo Fisher Scientific under the EUA.

Tan was one of the U.S.-based researchers who had taken part in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, which provides funding for scientists willing to conduct scientific research on behalf of the Chinese government. During his nearly two decades at the University of Florida, Han had also been able to teach part time at the University of Hunan, ProPublica noted. Florida began to look into Han’s activities following an alert from the National Institutes of Health, ProPublica reported. During an interview with Tan, the noted researcher provided documentation that showed the U.S. college was aware of his work with the Chinese university for years.

The U.S. government has been closely monitoring researchers with ties to China, either through funding or heritage. A 2017 report issued by the FBI noted that that intellectual-property theft by China costs the U.S. as much as $600 billion annually. The U.S. government has alleged that the Chinese Thousand Talents program is not only a way for that country to prosper off of U.S.-based research but also as a means to steal proprietary information from companies and research institutions. Last year, the Chinese government tamped down promotion of the Thousand Talents plan as western fears mounted over concerns of intellectual property theft.

Tan isn’t the only researcher based in the United States to face intense scrutiny over the connections with Chinese institutions. Last year, researchers at Emory University and at MD Anderson were terminated following the revelation of potential undisclosed funding ties with the government of China. Earlier this year, the government charged Harvard University’s Charles Lieber was charged with “one count of making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement” regarding his work with organizations tied to the Chinese government, including the Thousand Talents Plan, while he filed for research grant funding from the National Institutes of Health.

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