Covid: Wuhan scientist would 'welcome' visit probing lab leak theory
A Chinese scientist at the center of unsubstantiated claims that the coronavirus leaked from her laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan has told the BBC that she is open to "any kind of visit" to rule it out.
Prof. Shi Zhengli's surprising statement comes as a team from the World Health Organization prepares to travel to Wuhan next month to begin investigating the origins of Covid-19.
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The remote Tongguan District in southwest China's Yunnan Province is difficult to get to at best. But when a BBC team tried to visit him recently, it was impossible.
Plainclothes policemen and other officers in unmarked cars followed us for miles on the narrow, bumpy roads, stopped when we did, and walked back with us when we were forced to turn around.
We found obstacles on our way including a "broken down" truck which the locals confirmed had been parked across the street a few minutes before we arrived.
And we came across checkpoints where unknown men told us their job was to keep us away.
At first glance, it all seems like a disproportionate effort given our intended destination, a nondescript, abandoned copper mine where six workers succumbed to a mysterious disease in 2012 that ultimately resulted in three deaths.
But their tragedy, which otherwise would almost certainly have largely been forgotten, has been given new meaning by the Covid-19 pandemic.
These three deaths are now at the center of a major scientific controversy over the origin of the virus and whether it came from nature or from a laboratory.
And the attempts by the Chinese authorities to prevent us from reaching the website are a sign of how hard they are working to control the narrative.
WHO is investigating Covid origins in Wuhan, China
China and the virus that threatens everything
Wuhan city of silence
For more than a decade, Yunnan's rolling, jungle-covered hills - and the cave systems they contain - have been the focus of a huge scientific field study.
The Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli can be seen here in the laboratory in Wuhan
It was led by Prof. Shi Zhengli from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
Prof. Shi received international recognition for her discovery that the disease known as Sars, which killed more than 700 people in 2003, was caused by a virus believed to have come from a species of bat in a Yunnan cave.
Since then, Prof. Shi - often referred to as "China's Batwoman" - has pioneered a project to predict and prevent further outbreaks of this kind.
The team behind the project identified hundreds of new bat coronaviruses by capturing bats, collecting fecal samples from them, and then returning those samples to the laboratory in Wuhan, 1,600 km away.
The fact that Wuhan is now home to the world's leading coronavirus research facility and the first city to be struck by a deadly new pandemic outbreak has raised suspicions that the two things are linked.
"Personally, I would welcome any form of visit that is based on an open, transparent, trusting, reliable and reasonable dialogue. However, the specific plan is not determined by me.", Source: Prof. Shi Zhengli, Source description:, Image:
The Chinese government, WIV and Prof. Shi have all angrily denied claims of a virus leak from the Wuhan laboratory.
With the World Health Organization (WHO) appointed scientists planning to visit Wuhan in January to investigate the origin of the pandemic, Prof. Shi, who has given few interviews since the pandemic began, answered a number of BBC questions via email .
"I communicated with WHO experts twice," she wrote when asked if an investigation could help rule out a laboratory leak and end speculation. "I have personally and clearly expressed that I would welcome you to visit the WIV," she said.
When asked whether this would involve a formal investigation with access to the WIV's experimental data and laboratory records, Prof. Shi said: "Personally, I would welcome any form of visit that is based on an open, transparent, trusting, reliable and reasonable Dialogue. But the concrete plan will not be decided by me. "
The BBC then received a call from the WIV press office, according to which Prof. Shi spoke personally and her answers had not been approved by the WIV.
The BBC declined a request to pre-send a copy of this article to the press office.
Dr. Peter Daszak: "I have not seen any evidence of a laboratory leak or laboratory involvement in this outbreak."
Many scientists believe that by far the most likely scenario is that Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, jumped naturally from bats to humans, possibly via an intermediate species. And despite Prof. Shi's offer, there currently seems to be little chance that the WHO investigation will investigate the laboratory leak theory.
The mandate for the WHO investigation doesn't mention the theory, and some members of the 10-person team all but ruled it out.
Peter Daszak, a British zoologist, was chosen to be part of the team because he plays a leading role in a multi-million dollar international wild virus sampling project.
It was a close collaboration with Prof. Shi Zhengli on the bulk sampling of bats in China, and Dr. Daszak previously called the laboratory leak theory "conspiracy theory" and "pure nonsense".
"I haven't seen any evidence of a laboratory leak or laboratory involvement in this outbreak," he said. "I've seen substantial evidence that these are naturally occurring phenomena caused by human encroachment on wildlife habitats, which can be clearly seen across Southeast Asia."
When asked about access to the Wuhan lab to rule out the lab leak theory, he said, "It's not my job to do that.
"WHO has negotiated the mandate and they say we will follow the evidence and we have to do that," he added.
A focus of the investigation will be a market in Wuhan known to trade in wildlife and which has been linked to a number of early cases, although Chinese authorities appear to have already ruled it out as a source of the virus.
Dr. Daszak said the WHO team would "study these clusters of cases, investigate the contacts, investigate the origins of the animals in the market and figure out where this is leading us".
The death of the three Tongguan workers after exposure to a mine shaft full of bats raised suspicions of bat coronavirus.
It was exactly the kind of animal-to-human spillover that got WIV to try and test bats in Yunnan.
It is therefore not surprising that after these deaths, the WIV scientists seriously began to sample bats in the Tongguan mine shaft, made several visits over the next three years and found 293 coronaviruses.
However, aside from a brief article, very little was published about the viruses they collected on those trips.
In January of this year, Prof. Shi Zhengli was one of the first people in the world to sequence Sars-Cov-2, which was already spreading rapidly in the streets and houses of their city.
She then compared the long sequence of letters that make up the virus’s unique genetic code to the vast library of other viruses that have been collected and stored over the years.
And she discovered that her database contained Sars-Cov-2's closest known relative.
RaTG13 is a virus whose name was derived from the bat it was extracted from (Rhinolophus affinis, Ra), the location where it was found (Tongguan, TG), and the year it was identified, 2013 .
Seven years after it was found in this mine shaft, RaTG13 was to become one of the most hotly contested scientific topics of our time.
China has imposed severe restrictions on Wuhan to stop the virus from spreading
There have been many well-documented cases of virus leaking from laboratories. The first Sars virus, for example, leaked twice from the National Institute of Virology in Beijing in 2004, long after the outbreak was brought under control.
The practice of genetically manipulating viruses is not new either, so scientists can make them more contagious or deadly in order to assess the threat and possibly develop treatments or vaccines.
And from the moment it was isolated and sequenced, scientists were struck by Sars-Cov-2's remarkable ability to infect humans.
The possibility that this skill could be acquired through manipulation in a laboratory was taken seriously enough for an influential group of international scientists to address it directly.
In the final paper, which rules out the possibility of a laboratory leak, RaTG13 plays a major role.
Published in the journal Nature Medicine in March, this suggests that if there was a leak, Prof. Shi Zhengli would have found a much closer match in their database than RaTG13.
While RaTG13 is the closest known relative with 96.2% similarity, it is still too far away to be manipulated and converted to Sars-Cov-2.
Sars-Cov-2, the authors concluded, may have acquired its unique effectiveness through a long, undetected period of circulation of a natural and milder precursor virus in humans or animals, which eventually evolved into the potent, deadly form first detected in Wuhan in 2019.
Medical professionals and scientists in Wuhan struggled to control the early stages of the pandemic
However, where are some scientists wondering if these are reservoirs of previous natural infections?
Dr. Daniel Lucey is a doctor and professor of infectious diseases at Georgetown Medical Center in Washington DC and a veteran of many pandemics - Sars in China, Ebola in Africa, Zika in Brazil.
He is certain that China has already conducted thorough searches for evidence of precursor viruses in stored human specimens in hospitals and in animal populations.
"They have the ability, they have the resources, and they have the motivation, so of course they did the animal and human studies," he said.
Finding the source of an outbreak is critical not only for broader scientific understanding, but also to prevent it from occurring again.
"We should look until we find it. I think it is findable and I think it is entirely possible that it has already been found," he said. "But then the question arises why it was not announced."
Dr. Lucey still believes that Sars-Cov-2 is most likely of natural origin, but he doesn't want the alternatives to be ruled out anytime soon.
"So here we are 12, 13 months since the first detected case of Covid-19 and we haven't found the animal source," he said. "For me it is all the more a reason to investigate alternative explanations."
Could a Chinese lab have had a virus they were working on that is genetically closer to Sars-Cov-2 and would they tell us now if they did? "Not everything that is done is made public," said Dr. Lucey.
This is a point I made to Peter Daszak, who is a member of the WHO origins studies team.
"You know, I've worked with WIV for a good decade or more," he said. "I know some of the people there pretty well and have visited the labs frequently. I have met and had dinner with them for over 15 years.
"I work in China with my eyes open and rack my brains in time to get the slightest hint of something unpleasant. And I've never seen that before."
When asked whether these friendships and funding relationships with the WIV represented a conflict of interest with his role in the investigation, he said, "We submit our papers; everything is visible to everyone."
And his collaboration with the WIV, he said, "makes me one of the people on the planet who knows best about the origins of these bat coronaviruses in China".
"The conclusion [of the thesis of Kunming University] is based neither on evidence nor on logic. It is however used by conspiracy theorists to doubt me", source: Prof. Shi Zhengli, source description:, image:
China may have provided limited data on its search for the origin of Sars-Cov-2, but it has started promoting its own theory.
Based on some inconclusive studies conducted by scientists in Europe that suggest that Covid-19 may have circulated earlier than previously thought, government propaganda is full of stories suggesting that the virus did not emerge in China at all is.
In the absence of suitable data, speculation is likely to only increase. Much of this focused on RaTG13 and its origins in a Tongguan mine shaft. Old scientific papers were unearthed online, which apparently differ from the statements of the WIV about the sick miners - including a thesis by a student at Kunming University.
"I just downloaded and read the student's master's thesis at Kunming University," Prof. Shi told the BBC.
"The narrative doesn't make sense," she said. "The conclusion is not based on evidence or logic. But it is used by conspiracy theorists to doubt me. If you were me, what would you do?"
Prof. Shi also had questions about why the WIV's public online virus database suddenly went offline.
She informed the BBC that the website of the WIV as well as the business and personal e-mails of the employees had been attacked and the database had been taken offline for security reasons.
"All of our research is published in English journals," she said. "Virus sequences are also stored in the GenBank database [operated by the US]. It is completely transparent. We have nothing to hide."
In the Yunnan countryside, important questions need to be asked, not just by scientists but also by journalists.
After a decade of sampling and experimenting with viruses collected from bats, we now know that in 2013 the next known ancestor of a future threat was discovered that would claim well over a million lives and destroy the global economy.
According to the information published, however, the WIV did nothing with it other than sequencing it and entering it into a database.
Should this call into question the premise on which the expensive and what some have termed risky bulk sampling of wild viruses is based?
"To say that we haven't done enough is absolutely right," Peter Daszak told the BBC. "To say we failed is not fair at all. What we should have done is 10 times the work on these viruses."
Both Dr. Daszak and Prof. Shi firmly believe that research into pandemic prevention is important and urgent work.
"Our research is forward-looking and difficult to understand for laypeople," wrote Prof. Shi by email. "Given the innumerable microorganisms that exist in nature, we humans are very small."
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The WHO promises an "open-minded" investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus, but the Chinese government is not interested in questions, at least not in journalists.
After leaving Tongguan, the BBC team attempted a couple of hours drive north to the cave, where Prof. Shi conducted her groundbreaking research on sars nearly a decade ago.
After we were still followed by several unmarked cars, we ran into another roadblock and learned there was no way through.
A few hours later we discovered that local traffic had been diverted onto a dirt road that bypassed the obstacle, but when we tried to use the same route, we encountered another "broken" car on our way.
We were trapped in a field for over an hour before we were finally forced to drive to the airport.
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