In a rare move among the scientific community, China’s top virologist has issued a statement through a prestigious journal, hitting back at conspiracy theories claiming that the COVID-19 virus came from her laboratory.
Shi Zhengli, an expert on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in central China, on Tuesday published an addendum in Nature to her earlier paper on the novel coronavirus. The supplementary material described in layman’s terms how her lab obtained a bat coronavirus with a genetic sequence highly similar to that of the COVID-19 virus, and which has been the source of unfounded but persistent pandemic origin theories.
In early February, when the world was still largely in the dark about the then-unknown virus that was infecting and killing thousands of people in China, Shi published research showing that the genome of the COVID-19 virus was over 96% similar to a coronavirus her lab had found in wild bats in 2013.
The study provided initial clues about where the virus may have come from — bats — as well as how it might have become infectious to humans — because of mutations to a key protein. A deluge of conspiracy theories soon followed.
Because Shi’s lab is located in the city where the first cases of COVID-19 were identified, rumors swirled that the institute had leaked the virus, or even purposefully designed it. Despite a lack of evidence, some of these theories received high-profile backing, including from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Shi and her team have mostly eschewed the spotlight in the months since. However, in a February interview with domestic outlet Caixin, Shi said she had no control over what others say, and hoped an investigation by China’s “specialist departments” could “clear this up for us.” Then in a July email to Science magazine, she wrote, “Tracing the virus’s origins is a scientific question, which ought to be answered by scientists based on solid data and scientific evidence.”
In Tuesday’s addendum, Shi said she and her team identified the earlier coronavirus, RaTG13, in bats living in and around a mining cave in the southwestern Yunnan province. During their many trips to the cave between 2012 and 2015, the team also identified another 292 coronaviruses among animals — bats, rats, and shrews — living in the area.
Gao Feng, a virologist and professor emeritus at Duke University in the U.S., said he had hoped to see Shi release the genetic data for some of the other coronaviruses she and her team discovered. “That would have been more meaningful to the work of finding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he told Sixth Tone.
“It’s unusual for a scientist to publish something like this — it’s not necessary,” Gao said, adding that, to Shi’s peers in the scientific community who are the main readers of Nature, most of the information in her addendum had already been stated. “I suppose they’re just trying to clear some things up.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Shi Zhengli waits to go to stage during 2020 ZGC Forum, Beijing, Sept. 18, 2020. People Visual)