A press release from the Chinese Embassy criticizes the state of free speech in the US, and claims that

Helen Zhu, a female doctor of Chinese descent who warned about the epidemic in the United States and reported the test results, was given a gag order by the administration.

I tried to search around for this Helen Zhu and couldn't find anyone matching anything close to this story. Did this actually happen? Which epidemic was this? (Presumably the Covid pandemic)?

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    Is this about Covid or some other epidemic? Given the next sentence in the source, I suppose it is. Commented May 19 at 8:51
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    I first thought this is satirical, given the whole suppression of information in china regarding COVID-19. It isn't, but instead a pinpoint mis-information campaign: china (and other authoritarian regimes) try to highlight how "freedom of speech" etc doesn't work in other countries either without comparing the magnitude of how well it works (that's all that matters). The main purpose of the article is to distribute the propaganda narrative "no free speech in the US" (subtext, "like in china, so china is not worse regarding this")
    – Mayou36
    Commented May 20 at 12:08

3 Answers 3


It appears that the Chinese Embassy is referring to Dr Helen Y. Chu, an American immunologist who was born in China.

Dr Chu has been lauded for ignoring a "CDC gag order" (example from Reddit) in February 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic in the USA. The gag order, in practice, appeared to be that she was denied permission by the CDC and FDA to run COVID-19 tests on swabs that had been already collected as part of an effort to trace influenza.

The Week:

In Seattle, Dr. Helen Chu, an infectious disease expert who was part of an ongoing flu-monitoring effort, the Seattle Flu Study, asked permission to test their trove of collected flu swabs for coronavirus.

State health officials joined Chu in asking the CDC and Food and Drug Administration to waive privacy rules and allow clinical tests in a research lab, citing the threat of significant loss of life. The CDC and FDA said no. "We felt like we were sitting, waiting for the pandemic to emerge," Chu told the Times. "We could help. We couldn't do anything."

They held off for a couple of weeks, but on Feb. 25, Chu and her colleagues "began performing coronavirus tests, without government approval," the Times reports.

I imagine there were ethical questions in allowing human samples to be used in a manner contrary to the consent provided when they were collected. I have trouble seeing "You may not run tests on these samples" as the same as a gag order, but this is a subjective call about definitions, and I accept that others may disagree.

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    I agree with the last paragraph, but just realized that maybe after they ignored the 'do not repurpose collected samples'-order, they got a second order to at least not publish the (illegally?) collected further data, which would be a gag order.
    – Nobody
    Commented May 19 at 15:37
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    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 20 at 5:04
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    So her last name is Chu, not Zhu. Aren't these different last names, even in Chinese / ignoring issues of different romanizations? Or can the same Chinese last name be romanized as Chu or Zhu depending on the system? Commented May 21 at 12:42
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    @FarazMasroor: It is a good question; I wondered the same, but I don't know. However, given the context, I feel very comfortable in assuming that whether it is an inconsistency in transcriptions, or a typo or other mistake, this is the person that was being referenced. The other details (first name, job, country of birth, and the "gag order" story, plus a lack of Google hits on the name Zhu) line up too neatly.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 21 at 13:28
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    The term "gag order" has a specific meaning. A bureaucratic delay in getting permission to repurpose samples approved for one study for use in a second study is in no way a "gag order." Dr. Chu was not punished for going ahead and repurposing the samples nor was she prevented from using them or discussing her plans or publishing the results.
    – JRE
    Commented May 23 at 5:49

Michael Boeckh, Helen Y. Chu,Janet A. Englund, Christina M. Lockwood, Deborah A. Nickerson, Jay Shendure  and Lea Starita


"Our efforts to test for SARS-CoV-2 in the community were constrained by the labyrinth of conflicting and uncoordinated actions among state and federal regulators"


The labyrinth has given rise to a number of conflicting and uncoordinated descriptions of the constraining actions, some of which aren't exactly true.

In my opinion, the two most widely reported and widely misreported constraints were:

(1) The "Seattle Flu Study" was initially unprepared to release individual results, because that was not what they had approval for from the studied individuals.

(2) The USFDA (US Food and Drug Administration) required emergency use authorization (EUA) for any test that would return results.

Those two constraints, at different times, prevented the Seattle Flue Study from contacting infected individuals and those providing medical care to infected individuals.

Neither of these two important constraints prevented the Seattle Flu Study from running tests on flu swabs, publishing data from those tests, or even speaking to the media about those tests.

Individuals within the SFS may well feel that they had been gagged by their institution or their regulators: I would be surprised if that was not the case. But the general effect complained about was not the suppression of publicity: it was about the failure to find a way for effective medical/health use of the information.


It was not a gag order, and it was not to suppress COVID testing.

I remember reading about this doctor. The issue was that the samples were taken months before COVID-19 was a thing, so there wasn't any authorization by any clinic to test them for that. This doctor argued that, if this really is a pandemic, then we need to violate patient privilege and test them anyway, but the feds said no, you cannot do that.

Here is the quote from the Wikipedia article:

Whilst it would have been simple to repurpose the nasal swabs from the Seattle Flu Study to test for coronavirus disease, Chu was not given federal approval to do so.

The CCP framed it as a gag order, but the real issue is that clinics cannot take your samples and randomly use it however they see fit.

In the end, there wasn't any actual consequences for her performing the test because all hell broke loose after that. This was Feb 2020, and her "illegal" test was one of the first community spread detected within the US on individuals that didn't have any travel history.

At the time, there really wasn't any gag order. She wasn't arrested, and her report wasn't silenced. The primary concern was patient privacy, and using samples to test for things the patient did not authorize.

You have to realize the context also. In Jan 2020, the WHO released official statements saying that COVID-19 was not human transmissible. The official idea was that COVID spread wasn't going to happen, and the CDC didn't have any reason to believe otherwise at the time.

Enter image description here

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    It is totally unclear what privacy concerns there were that could not easily be overcome, for example by anonymization. The samples were old, so no intervention was necessary or possible any longer; the idea was simply to prove or disprove community spread. For the life of me I cannot see a privacy issue there. (What I can potentially, vaguely and faintly see are ethical concerns. Say, you wouldn't want doctors messing around with your frozen fetuses, or grow experimental weird stuff from your tissue samples. But simply testing a fluid sample? I'm at a loss.) Commented May 20 at 16:13
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    @Nelson I'm sorry, I understand the impulse to err on the safe side -- but I fail to see the slightest human rights violation. Nobody is hurt. Nobody's privacy has to be violated if this is done right. Commented May 21 at 3:38
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica: If the plan was to use test samples (with an unproven method) and contact the patients who tested positive, then there are real, ethical issues to be considered. Discovering people have the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and not contacting them is also an ethical minefield. I don't envy those on who had to make the decision (without the benefit of 20:20 hindsight).
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 21 at 5:13
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica The ramifications of legally allowing bodily fluids to be tested for unauthorized diseases is a gigantic minefield like what Oddthinking said. There are things that doctors become liable for. If a radiologist looks at your x-ray but fails to detect obvious tumors, he actually becomes liable for malpractice and can lose their license. What actually happens when you test for COVID and then they end up dying? Do you then test for other stuff? Where do you draw the line? The entire situation is unprecedented. Hindsight says "Test" because it was a pandemic.
    – Nelson
    Commented May 21 at 6:51
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    If the samples are fully anonymized already, things are simpler, but if it's possible for the subject to be identified, you start running into requirements for institutional review board oversight, contacting patients for permission, etc. Sometimes, the subject will consent to additional future research use of the samples when they're collected; other times, they consent for the samples to be used in a particular way only. You are not permitted to make the determination yourself whether a use is ethical (outside of a small set of enumerated exceptions); there needs to be third party review
    – Ray
    Commented May 21 at 13:30

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