Chinese scientist at Wuhan lab dismisses the “lab leak theory” of coronavirus
Shi Zhengli, a top Chinese virologist, is once again at the center of clashing narratives about her research on coronaviruses at a state lab in Wuhan, the city where the pandemic first emerged.
The idea that the virus may have escaped from a lab had long been widely dismissed by scientists as implausible and shunned by others for its connection with former President Donald J. Trump. But fresh scrutiny from the Biden administration and calls for greater candor from prominent scientists have brought the theory back to the fore.
Scientists generally agree that there is still no direct evidence to support the lab leak theory. But more of them now say that the hypothesis was dismissed too hastily, without a thorough investigation, and they point to a range of unsettling questions.
Some scientists say Dr. Shi conducted risky experiments with bat coronaviruses in labs that were not safe enough. Others want clarity on reports, citing American intelligence, suggesting that there were early infections of Covid-19 among several employees of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Dr. Shi has denied these accusations, and now finds herself defending the reputation of her lab and, by extension, that of her country. Reached on her cellphone two weeks ago, Dr. Shi said at first that she preferred not to speak directly with reporters, citing her institute’s policies. Yet she could barely contain her frustration.
“How on earth can I offer up evidence for something where there is no evidence?” she said, her voice rising in anger during the brief, unscheduled conversation. “I don’t know how the world has come to this, constantly pouring filth on an innocent scientist,” she wrote in a text message.
In a rare interview over email, she denounced the suspicions as baseless, including the allegations that several of her colleagues may have been ill before the outbreak emerged.
The speculation boils down to one central question: Did Dr. Shi’s lab hold any source of the new coronavirus before the pandemic erupted? Dr. Shi’s answer is an emphatic no.
But China’s refusal to allow an independent investigation into her lab, or to share data on its research, make it difficult to validate Dr. Shi’s claims and has only fueled nagging suspicions about how the pandemic could have taken hold in the same city that hosts an institute known for its work on bat coronaviruses.
Many scientists say they want the hunt for the virus’s origins to transcend politics, borders and individual scientific achievements.
“This has nothing to do with fault or guilt,” said David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University and co-author of a recent letter in the journal Science, signed by 18 scientists, that called for a transparent investigation into all viable scenarios, including a lab leak. The letter urged labs and health agencies to open their records to the public.
“It’s just bigger than any one scientist or institute or any one country — anybody anywhere who has data of this sort needs to put it out there,” Dr. Relman said.
Dr. Shi was a symbol of China’s scientific progress, at the forefront of research into emerging viruses.
She led expeditions into caves to collect samples from bats and guano, to learn how viruses jump from animals to humans. In 2019, she was among 109 scientists elected to the American Academy of Microbiology for her contributions to the field.
“She’s a stellar scientist — extremely careful, with a rigorous work ethic,” said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology employs nearly 300 people and is home to one of only two Chinese labs that have been given the highest security designation, Biosafety Level 4. Dr. Shi leads the institute’s work on emerging infectious diseases, and over the years, her group has collected over 10,000 bat samples from around China.
Under China’s centralized approach to scientific research, the institute answers to the Communist Party, which wants scientists to serve national goals. “Science has no borders, but scientists have a motherland,” Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, said in a speech to scientists last year.
Dr. Shi herself, though, does not belong to the Communist Party, according to official Chinese media reports, which is unusual for state employees of her status. She built her career at the institute, starting as a research assistant in 1990 and working her way up the ranks.
Dr. Shi, 57, obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Montpellier in France in 2000 and started studying bats in 2004 after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed more than 700 people around the world. In 2011, she made a breakthrough when she found bats in a cave in southwestern China that carried coronaviruses that were similar to the virus that causes SARS.
“In all the work we do, if just once you can prevent the outbreak of an illness, then what we’ve done will be very meaningful,” she told CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, in 2017.
But some of her most notable findings have since drawn the heaviest scrutiny. In recent years, Dr. Shi began experimenting on bat coronaviruses by genetically modifying them to see how they behave.
In 2017, she and her colleagues at the Wuhan lab published a paper about an experiment in which they created new hybrid bat coronaviruses by mixing and matching parts of several existing ones — including at least one that was nearly transmissible to humans — in order to study their ability to infect and replicate in human cells.
Proponents of this type of research say it helps society prepare for future outbreaks. Critics say the risks of creating dangerous new pathogens may outweigh potential benefits.
Dr. Shi, in an emailed response to questions, argued that her experiments differed from gain-of-function work because she did not set out to make a virus more dangerous, but to understand how it might jump across species.
“My lab has never conducted or cooperated in conducting GOF experiments that enhance the virulence of viruses,” she said.
Source- Business Standard