Shi Zhengli at work in her Wuhan laboratory, where studies of bat viruses have taken place
Philip Sherwell, Asia Correspondent |
Sunday April 19 2020, 12.01am BST, The Sunday Times
China’s “bat woman” was attending a conference with colleagues in Shanghai in late December when an urgent phone call came from her boss at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
People were falling sick from a mysterious new virus just a few miles from the institute. And Shi Zhengli, who had earned her nickname for her virus-hunting expeditions to bat caves, was summoned back to the central Chinese city to lead the laboratory’s investigations of samples taken from patients.
Momentum is now growing behind a theory that the laboratory itself — an internationally renowned centre of research — was the source of the coronavirus pandemic that has since claimed more than 150,000 lives and crippled the world economy.
That was what Shi reportedly feared, and US intelligence agencies are investigating while the Trump administration puts the screws on China. But what is the evidence? Is this another Chinese cover-up — or politicised “baloney” as one top US reseacher claims?
Shi is an acclaimed virologist who headed the team that traced the source of the lethal outbreak of Sars — another coronavirus — to horseshoe bats in southern China in 2002-03. She was a joint author of a research paper that warned last year that it was “highly likely” that future coronavirus outbreaks would originate from bats, and an “increased probability” that this would occur in China.
Within eight days of her return from Shanghai to Wuhan in December, her team concluded that the new disease sweeping the city was indeed almost certainly a new bat coronavirus. But Shi was surprised that the cases had emerged so far from the bats’ usual habitat in China’s subtropical south. In comments published by Scientific American magazine, she recalled a nagging fear: “Could they have come from our lab?”
Shi, who developed one of the world’s largest databases of bat-related viruses, frantically pored over the records at the institute. She was checking for any mishandling of experimental materials from bat virus research, especially during disposal, Scientific American reported in an article about her work last month. And she breathed a “sigh of relief” when the results showed that the sequencing of the new infections did not match those of the viruses her team had sampled. “That really took a load off my mind,” she said. “I had not slept a wink for days.”
Since those early days, though, speculation that the Wuhan institute, which houses China’s top biosafety laboratory, could have been the source of the outbreak has swirled online.
It was long dismissed as an internet conspiracy theory. But amid the US and Chinese blame game over the handling of the pandemic, the scenario was pushed to centre stage last week by hawks close to Donald Trump, with the fans flamed by the president.
The possibility of a laboratory leak has also been discussed at the highest levels of the British government. Earlier this month a senior government adviser described it as “credible” and said “it is not discounted”.
Samples from bats found in caves were sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology
The leading theory among scientists remains that the virus spread to humans from bat-infected animals at Wuhan’s now-infamous wildlife market. But findings published in The Lancet medical journal gave some cause for doubt.
According to that study, 14 of the first 41 confirmed infected patients had no direct exposure to the market. For some experts, this suggested that even if the market had a significant role in transmission it may not have been the source.
Tom Cotton, a Republican senator, has been raising questions for months. “We don’t know where it originated and we have to get to the bottom of that,” he said. “We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level-four super-laboratory that researches human infectious diseases.”
By now the theory that the virus may have leaked from the laboratory by human error, infecting a worker who would have been “patient zero”, has become common currency among China hawks.
It gained added credence last week when it was revealed that in 2018, US embassy officials in China sent warnings back to Washington about the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In two diplomatic cables, US officials who visited the facility and met Shi expressed concerns about safety and management weaknesses at the laboratory, according to The Washington Post. One cable warned that the research into bat coronaviruses and their potential for human transmission could cause a new Sars-like epidemic.
Another piece of circumstantial evidence on the desks of Trump’s national security analysts is a paper published in February by two Chinese researchers, who said the virus “probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan”. The authors later withdrew it, saying they did not have evidence for the theories, but the claims entered the public domain.
Evidence of the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to cover-up the outbreak at the early stages, even as Shi and her colleagues were investigating its origins, has further compounded suspicions.
In the latest revelation, internal party documents seen by the Associated Press disclosed that China’s leaders delayed warning the public for at least six days after secretly determining that the country was facing an epidemic.
On January 14, Ma Xiaowei, the top health official, laid out the grim assessment to provincial cadres, delivering unspecified instructions from President Xi Jinping. It was only on January 20 that Xi alerted the Chinese people to the dangers of the highly contagious disease. During the six-day public silence, more than 3,000 people had been infected and millions had travelled ahead of the lunar new year holiday.
Such secrecy explains why scepticism greeted an announcement by Beijing on Friday increasing Wuhan’s official Covid-19 death toll by a suspiciously precise 50% — from 2,579 to 3,869. Chinese officials insisted that the new figures reflected a more accurate count now that the epidemic had eased, not an earlier effort to conceal the severity of the crisis.
Many believe, however, that the figure is still way too low — and that cover-ups possibly included an accidental leak from Shi’s laboratory.
“We’re not suggesting that the Chinese had sinister intent, but that they might have screwed up,” said one Republican national security aide. “It’s perfectly possible the lab got sloppy and something got out. We know that the Chinese have been engaged in a more general cover-up over the pandemic, destroying evidence, cracking down on whistleblowers. Is it not reasonable then to ask about the origins of the virus, given there was a lab in Wuhan studying bat coronaviruses?”
In a press briefing, Trump was asked whether he thought the virus originated in a lab. He responded: “I don’t want to say that . . . but I will tell you more and more, we’re hearing the story. We are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation.”
Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a US research organisation, who has worked with Shi and her institute for 15 years, is scathing about the lab accident theory. “The idea that this virus escaped from the laboratory is pure baloney,” he told the Democracy Now! TV network.
Daszak said he had collected bat samples with Chinese colleagues — “some of the best scientists in the world” — and that the Wuhan laboratory did not house the culture of bat viruses but rather their genetic sequencing. “It’s a politicisation of the origins of a pandemic and that’s really unfortunate,” he added.
Shi herself strongly rejects what she calls “tinfoil-hat” theories. “The novel 2019 coronavirus is nature punishing the human race for keeping uncivilised living habits,” she told the Caixin website. “I swear on my life that it has nothing to do with our laboratory.”
But other scientists are open to the idea that the virus might have originated in the lab, not a wildlife market. Richard Ebright, professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told The Washington Post that it was “at least as probable” the virus came from a laboratory accident as from outside the facility.
Luc Montagnier, a French scientist who shared a Nobel prize as the co-discoverer of the HIV virus, also weighed in. No stranger to scientific furores, he claimed in an interview that the new virus was released accidentally from the laboratory by scientists working on an Aids vaccine.
In an election year, Trump undoubtedly has a strong political incentive to pin the blame for America’s initially lacklustre response to the pandemic on external sources.
One is the World Health Organisation, the UN body whose funding he suspended last week. Another is China, with whom relations plummeted further last week after a new State Department report suggested that Beijing might have conducted secret nuclear tests.
Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, ramped up the pressure on Friday, telling the radio show host Hugh Hewitt: “We are still asking the Chinese Communist Party to allow experts to get into that virology lab so that we can determine precisely where this virus began.
“We don’t know the answer to the question about the precise origination point,” Pompeo said. “But we do know this: We know that the first sightings of this occurred within miles of the Wuhan Institute of Virology . . . where there’s high-end virus research being conducted.”
He continued: “We know that the Chinese Communist Party, when it began to evaluate what to do inside of Wuhan, considered whether the [institute] was in fact the place where this came from. And most importantly, we know that they’ve not permitted the world’s scientists to go into that laboratory to evaluate what took place there, what’s happening there, what’s happening there even as we speak, Hugh, even as we’re on the show this morning. We still have not had western access to that facility so that we can properly evaluate what really has taken off all across the world and how that began.
“Those are facts, and those are important facts,” Pompeo added. “And the Chinese Communist Party and the World Health Organisation have a responsibility to the world to take those facts and take them to their logical conclusion and find out these answers, these important answers. These aren’t political. This is about science and health, and we need to get to the bottom of it.”
The claims about the lab might be hotly disputed, but they have resonance with many Americans. According to a Pew Research poll, only 43% think the virus came about naturally, while a sizeable 29% believe it was made in a laboratory.
Beijing has repeatedly argued that there is no proof that the coronavirus originated on Chinese soil, even promoting an outlandish theory that American soldiers might have brought Covid-19 to China during a military sports competition. But until irrefutable evidence of the source of the virus emerges, the rest of the world, not least Trump, will continue to ask questions.