‘Batwoman’ of Wuhan research lab denies virus originated there


May 28, 2020

A noted Chinese virologist appeared on Chinese state media May 25 to flatly deny the claim by U.S. President Donald Trump that her lab was the source of the novel coronavirus.

The appearance by Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology came amid an escalating war of words between Washington and Beijing over who bears responsibility for the pandemic, which has killed thousands of people around the world.

Appearing in an interview on China Global Television Network, Shi said her institute first became aware of the novel coronavirus on Dec. 30, 2019, when a sample was brought in from a patient suffering from pneumonia of an unknown origin.

“We studied the genetic sequence and realized it was different from any virus that we were aware of up until then,” Shi said.

Shi has been called “Batwoman” because her specialization is researching how viruses use bats as hosts. She obtained her doctorate from a French university and has been accepted as a member of a U.S. academy of microbiology.

Her research into bats led to a finding in 2018 that SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) may have been transmitted to humans from them. She researched the source of the SARS virus between 2002 and 2003.

When rumors spread outside China from around February that a Wuhan institute was the source of the novel coronavirus, Shi posted messages on social media arguing that the virus was not man-made.

While her comments gathered attention because of her position at the institute, she subsequently reduced her presence as the verbal warfare between China and the United States escalated.

But Beijing apparently has brought her back into the spotlight to counter the accusations coming out of the United States.

At the annual meeting of the World Health Organization held earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed support for an international effort to look into the source of the novel coronavirus and how it spread.

However, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official later indicated that now was not the time to begin such a project, apparently due to concerns from China about it being led by the United States.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is located on a low hill about 30 kilometers south of central Wuhan. It first attracted attention due to a diplomatic cable sent in 2018 by a U.S. diplomat who visited the institute.

An April 14, 2020, column in The Washington Post touched upon the cable in which the diplomat pointed to the research being conducted there about coronaviruses from bats, stating, “the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”

The Trump administration has long pointed the finger of blame for the novel coronavirus at China, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling it the “Wuhan virus” in early March.

On May 3, Trump said a very strong report would likely emerge soon describing the relationship between the Wuhan institute and the novel coronavirus.

While the institute is now at the center of the confrontation between China and the United States, it was at one time a stage for international cooperation.

A new lab that met the highest biosafety level standards in the world was constructed in 2015 at the institute through cooperation from France. At that time, a major task for the lab was to conduct research to prevent a recurrence of SARS. The lab was the first of its kind in China.

Daisuke Hayasaka, a professor of veterinary microbiology at Yamaguchi University, visited the lab in May 2018. Hayasaka said the experimental facilities met the safety standards and his impression was that the management of the lab was also of a high level.

Regarding whether the novel coronavirus might have somehow leaked from the lab, Hayasaka said, “The only possibility I can think of would be if a researcher became infected.”

At one time, the United States also provided financial support to the special lab at Wuhan. From 2015, the U.S. National Institutes of Health was part of such a project along with a number of U.S. universities. That cooperation led to research on about 1,500 types of viruses.

(This article was written by Yoshikazu Hirai in Wuhan and Senior Staff Writer Kenji Minemura in Tokyo.)