A top Chinese virologist who works at the Wuhan Institute of Virology has spoken out about the much-politicized debate surrounding the origins of COVID-19, strongly denying it has anything to do with her lab.
Dr Shi Zhengli, a virologist who directs the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, recently spoke to the New York Times about the so-called “lab-leak hypothesis”, the idea that COVID-19 escaped from her lab in Wuhan.
“How on earth can I offer up evidence for something where there is no evidence?” she said.
Dr Shi vehemently denied the lab held any source of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, prior to the initial outbreak. She pointed out the closest bat virus held in her lab was only 96 percent identical to SARS-CoV-2, which by genomic standards is a significant difference. All of this data, she says, has been publicly shared.
“I’m sure that I did nothing wrong,” she continued. “So I have nothing to fear.”
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has come under the spotlight in recent weeks over its possible role in the COVID-19 pandemic. The origin of SARS-CoV-2 is currently unknown, but current evidence suggests that the virus likely has a natural origin, jumping from bats to humans possibly via another intermediate species. After all, there is plenty of examples of other zoonotic diseases that we know originated in animals: Plague, Ebola, anthrax, West Nile virus, Salmonellosis, bird flu, and swine flu. This was the conclusion of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) investigation of COVID-19’s origins, which concluded it was “extremely unlikely” the virus emerged from a lab.
However, as some scientists and politicians have pointed out, it’s not possible to totally exclude the lab hypothesis because there is currently no direct evidence of a natural spillover. Until this proof comes to light, they argue, all options should be on the table. On May 14, 2021, 18 scientists signed a letter in the journal Science arguing that all avenues of investigation should remain open and a few theories remain viable, including the lab leak hypothesis.
The lab in Wuhan has been the focus of this lab leak hypothesis for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s in the city of Wuhan where the virus was first identified in late 2019. Secondly, the lab also carries out research on horseshoe bat coronaviruses that are part of the extended family SARS-CoV-2 belongs to. Some have suggested that the lab has worked on “gain of function” research, which sees scientists altering a virus to make them more deadly, more contagious, etc.
But speaking to the NYT, Dr Shi states her lab “never conducted or cooperated in conducting GOF experiments that enhance the virulence of viruses.”
She also denied another prominent report about the Wuhan Institute of Virology: A recent US intelligence report suggested three scientists from her lab had fallen severely sick with a flu-like illness in November 2019. Dr Shi said the lab has no record of this.
Of course, all of these claims will not persuade any hardliners on the matter. The NYT noted in its article that many of Dr Shi’s statements were impossible to verify or validate due to the secrecy of the Chinese state. However, it’s worth remembering that the weight of scientific evidence currently indicates that the origin of COVID-19 was a natural event, as found here, here, and here.