The Omicron COVID-19 variant, which appears more transmissible but less pathogenic than earlier strains of the coronavirus, has caused a surge in demand for nucleic acid testing in China this year. Without test results, citizens have found themselves unable to enter certain spaces or take public transportation. However, false positives have frequently been reported, even as the firms maintain ultra-high profit margins and rapid expansion, arousing public doubts. The most prominent case involves a domestic nucleic acid testing company called Nucleus Gene.
On November 25, the regional government of Lanzhou, Gansu Province issued a notice saying that the staff of a local subsidiary called Nucleus Gene Huaxi mistakenly uploaded information on individual persons with abnormal nucleic acid testing into the information database of COVID-negative persons. Thus, the information of some people designated to be transferred to makeshift quarantine hospitals showed negative nucleic acid test results. That wasn’t the first time institutions under Nucleus Gene have violated regulations.
The background of Nucleus Gene’s founder and president, Zhang Hezi, has aroused public curiosity. According to the official website of the company and China’s National Judicial Authentication Network, Zhang studied forensic medicine at China Medical University from 1990 to 1998, where he obtained a master’s degree. After graduation in 2008, he worked in forensic physical evidence identification in the Forensic DNA Department of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau.
According to domestic media outlet The Paper, an insider who had a long-term relationship with Zhang Hezi revealed that he left his post shortly after entering the Public Security Bureau. Zhang then entered the field of home decoration, as a newcomer to the brand-new industry. The source said that it would have been impossible to achieve his success in such a short time without political and business resources. “Zhang earned his first bucket of gold here, about two or three million yuan then,” said the individual.
According to Nucleus Gene’s official website, the company was established in Shenzhen in 2012. Before the emergence of nucleic acid detection, its business was mainly genetic detection. The above-mentioned insider disclosed that parent-child relationship identification in the field of gene testing is profiteering, at least in Shenzhen. “For paternity testing in Shenzhen, the price is generally about 3,000 yuan [$431], but the actual cost is less than 100 yuan,” said the source.
In 2019, the gene testing service in Changsha was launched by the company, featuring “gifted gene” testing, and was priced at 8,550 yuan, according to a report by Chinese media outlet Shanghai Observer. However, it was confirmed by professionals that children’s talents cannot be accurately predicted by gene testing alone.
While Nucleus Gene now grapples with deepening public anger, its supervisor, Zhang Shanshan, is also attracting widespread discussion. She was exposed to be associated with 38 nucleic acid testing firms. These institutions cover the whole country, and most of them have been registered in recent months. A popular joke emerged online: “Where her company is, that’s where the pandemic breaks out.”
At present, there is no precise news about Zhang Shanshan’s identity. “He [Zhang Hezi] told us himself that he had a daughter who was studying abroad. He didn’t say what his daughter’s name was. My friends said his daughter’s name is Zhang Shanshan,” the abovementioned source said.