When alarmed health care workers sent samples of what appeared to be a new virus to China’s “batwoman” for urgent testing late last year, the renowned virologist admitted she was skeptical.
“Drop whatever you are doing and deal with it now,” health authorities told Shi Zhengli, an expert on coronaviruses in bats at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“I wondered if [the municipal health authority] got it wrong,” said the scientist. “I had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China.”
For years, the bats Shi had studied in her field work were plucked from caves in China’s fetid, subtropical regions in the south, not in the colder parts of the country, she told she told Scientific American in an interview first published in March.
But health officials were very worried about the samples they sent on Dec. 30, 2019, to her lab. They showed a new coronavirus that had led to atypical pneumonia in two Wuhan patients.
By the time she started analyzing the samples, the new coronavirus was spreading rapidly in China. Months later, COVID-19 would become a global pandemic, leading to more than 3.3 million cases and resulting in 240,000 deaths, according to the most recent statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Now, the same lab where Shi works at the pandemic’s ground zero in Wuhan is at the center of a recently leaked bombshell intelligence dossier that accuses the Chinese government of gross cover-ups about the human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, and says authorities lied about the virus’ rapid spread and suppressed information that could help scientists develop a vaccine. Beijing also locked up whistle-blowing doctors who first reported on the new virus, and bleached stalls at outdoor markets in Wuhan where the coronavirus was said to have originated.
The 15-page dossier prepared by the “Five Eyes” alliance, an intelligence-sharing coalition of the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, also suggests that the coronavirus could have escaped from Shi’s lab. The intelligence report, which was recently leaked to the Australian Daily Telegraph, cites a lack of security protocols at the Wuhan lab that could have caused the virus to escape to the outside world.
Weeks after she began analyzing the virus, scientists around the world began pointing to the Wuhan lab.
“I promise with my life that the virus has nothing to do with the lab,” Shi said in a statement on Feb. 2.
But a month later, in March, Shi admitted she’d endured several sleepless nights. “Could they have come from our lab?” she asked, according to Scientific American, referring to the coronavirus.
Last week, rumors swirled on social media that Shi had defected from China taking years of confidential research on bat coronaviruses with her to the US Embassy in Paris. She quickly denied the rumors on WeChat, a Chinese messaging service, and posted nine pictures of herself in Wuhan on Saturday.
“No matter how difficult things are, it [defecting] shall never happen,” she said. “We’ve done nothing wrong. With a strong belief in science, we will see the day when the clouds disperse and the sun shines.”
Shi ZhengliWuhan Institute of Virology
Since 2004, Shi has been studying viruses in bats in southern China. The research began in order to understand the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, the first major epidemic of the 21st century, which began spreading in 2002.
Her breakthrough came in 2013, when she collected a sample of bat feces from a cave in Yunnan province which was found to contain a virus that was 96.2 percent identical to SARS CoV-2, the virus that caused COVID-19. Shi’s team then worked to alter parts of the coronavirus in order to analyze whether they could be transmitted from one species to another. Two years later, in 2015, in research conducted in conjunction with the University of North Carolina, Shi’s lab reached the conclusion that the SARS-like virus could jump from bats to humans and that there was no known treatment.
“This virus is highly pathogenic and treatments developed against the original SARS virus in 2002 and the ZMapp drugs used to fight Ebola fail to neutralize and control this particular virus,” said Ralph Baric, a co-author on the 2015 study from the University of North Carolina in an interview with Science Daily.
For years, US diplomats and scientists who visited the Wuhan lab warned the US administration about a lack of safety protocols among scientists studying deadly pathogens. The lab, which is affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, stores more than 1,500 strains of deadly viruses.
“During interactions with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” according to a Jan. 19, 2018, diplomatic cable obtained by The Washington Post.
The US intelligence community has long worried about the same thing. Last Thursday, President Trump told a news conference that he had seen evidence linking the coronavirus to a lab in Wuhan after US intelligence officials confirmed that they were looking into “whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
Despite intelligence probes into whether her laboratory may have been responsible for the outbreak, Dr. Shi is forging ahead with her research, which she argues is more important than ever in preventing a new pandemic. She said she plans to head a national project to systemically sample viruses in bat caves. She estimated that there are more than 5000 coronavirus strains “waiting to be discovered in bats globally.”
“Bat-borne coronaviruses will cause more outbreaks,” she told Scientific American. “We must find them before they find us.”