On Jan. 25, 2020, as the city of Wuhan headed into the world’s first Covid-19 lockdown, the Chinese billionaire Wang Jian arrived on one of the last incoming trains. Flanked by a small entourage of younger scientists, Wang exited the station wearing a mask, a light puffy jacket, and a backpack. Thousands were fleeing the river port metropolis. But Wang came ready to work.
During the SARS epidemic in 2003, the now 66-year-old geneticist had been similarly proactive, repeatedly flying to the outbreak’s epicenter in Guangdong Province to petition authorities to allow his young bioscience firm, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), to sequence the deadly respiratory virus’s genome. Wang’s requests were denied until the last moment, after SARS reached Canada and scientists there became the first to sequence it — a national embarrassment for a rising China. BGI eventually sequenced the SARS genome, but the bureaucratic delay angered Wang, who built his career in the fast-moving biotech industry off ambitious, risky plays.