For Chen Wei, the Chinese military’s top epidemiologist and virologist, the scientific battle against an epidemic must be waged even before the pathogen is born. “Prevention and control of an epidemic can never wait until the disease has happened,” Chen said in an interview with China Science Daily , a newspaper under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China top research institution. “What we need is to build … a powerful ‘lead scientists’ system so that they can spend their life studying and researching certain types of viruses and germs … independent of whether this coronavirus is going away or not. “It would mean that whenever an epidemic occurs we will have the best and most authoritative team available and it will not be like what’s happened now when the coronavirus came, and nobody is doing much.” The 54-year-old major general is China’s best known biochemical expert and is spearheading an effort in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, in Hubei province, to understand a previously unknown virus that has sickened tens of thousands of people with a pneumonia-like illness. According to a military insider, Chen is leading the effort from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory with the highest biosafety classification. She arrived in the city at the heart of the epidemic in mid-January with a team of top military scientists. In the early days of the crisis, Chen and her team worked from a makeshift laboratory where they looked for treatment for patients and took the lead in developing the plasma therapy that has since been accepted as one of the officially recognised treatment methods. In the report, Chen said that a number of medical workers in Wuhan had also used a nasal spray developed by her team during the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) to help prevent them from contracting the coronavirus. She said the spray had shown “relatively good results on virus containment and effects in immunity improvement” but could not be mass produced due to “technical difficulties”. Two military sources said that high costs and side effects were however the main reasons why the spray was not widely used to help prevent infections among the medical teams. “It’s a costly formula. The most effective and pragmatic way is to develop a vaccine, which can be used for everyone,” one of the sources said. Chen is widely credited for her contribution in the Sars outbreak but she has also been recognised for the role she played in relief efforts for the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. A military insider in Beijing said Chen stood out as the most capable “old virus hand” to lead China’s fight against the coronavirus given her vast experience in past epidemics. “Compared with other leading epidemiologists like Zhong Nanshan, who is 84, and Li Lanjuan, 72, Chen is much younger. She is also a capable coordinator who can handle the relationship between the military medical personnel who have been sent to Wuhan [to help fight the epidemic] and the local medical teams,” the insider said. Born in the small city of Lanxi in eastern Zhejiang province, Chen graduated with a degree in chemistry from Zhejiang University in 1988 and was admitted to Tsinghua University the next year for graduate studies. In 1989, she met her future husband Ma Yiming, who was then a technician at a winery in Qingdao, on a train from Beijing to the eastern seaport. Three years later, she joined the People’s Liberation Army and became a virologist at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences. To support Chen’s research, Ma took over their household duties, according to an earlier report by state broadcaster CCTV. In the CCTV report, Ma said that when Chen and her team were in isolation developing the nasal spray in 2003, their four-year-old son did not see his mother for months. “During that time, we could only see her on CCTV … My son jumped up and kissed the TV screen when he saw his mother in the programme,” Ma said. “I don’t want her to do housework, it would be a waste of her talents. She should do something more meaningful instead.” In 2013, Chen became a National People’s Congress delegate representing the PLA. Two years later, she was promoted to major general. In 2018, Chen was chosen as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top political advisory body. Additional reporting by William Zheng Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.