China’s own ‘bat woman’ feared Covid could have leaked from her secret lab, insiders claimed today.
Dr. Shi Zhengli, a leading virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has spent years researching bat coronaviruses with the goal of identifying those that could potentially infect humans.
Both she and Beijing itself have vehemently and publicly denied the possibility that Covid could have originated from experiments conducted in the lab.
However, one of her colleagues has now revealed that at the start of the pandemic, Dr. Shi feared just that.
Professor Wang Linfa, described by the BBC as a friend of hers, said the respected scientist spent “sleepless nights” sifting through frozen virus samples at the IPH, fearing “what might happen” if she found an exact match for Covid would find in her lab.
Shi Zhengli — dubbed the “Bat Lady” or “Bat Woman” for her work on bat coronaviruses — was investigating the possibility of Covid emerging from her lab in 2020, according to colleagues. Here she is pictured in collaboration with other researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2017
While China insists the virus came from elsewhere, academics, politicians and the media have weighed the possibility that it may have leaked from a high-level biochemistry lab in Wuhan.
Professor Wang, a Singaporean expert in emerging infectious diseases, and an honorary professor at WIV, said he recalled how Dr Shi spent “sleepless nights” to ensure Covid was not linked to her lab
Such a competition could have proved that the virus originated in the corridors of the facility.
However, no such evidence has been found, it is claimed.
It’s the latest sign that Chinese scientists and officials, who have vehemently denied any plausibility of the lab leak hypothesis, have been quietly exploring the possibility in the early days of the outbreak.
Professor Wang, an emerging infectious disease expert based in Singapore, is an honorary professor at WIV.
He worked closely with the team there in January 2020, when Covid cases were just beginning to emerge in Wuhan.
He told Fever: the hunt for the origins of Covidan eight-part BBC Radio 4 series, that Dr Shi was deeply concerned by the coincidence that a coronavirus, similar to the one the WIV was studying, was spreading in the town where the lab was located.
“The thing she was thinking about is ‘what happens if there’s a sample in her lab that she didn’t know has a virus that infected something and escaped,'” he said.
“She went through all of her samples to make sure nothing came close to SARS-CoV-2 (the technical name of the virus that causes Covid).
“She went through all the sequences the first week to make sure nothing even came close.”
According to Professor Wang, Dr Shi was “tremendously relieved” to find that after her audit no Covid, or any virus particularly closely related, was found at 99 percent or more.
While she did find RaTG13, a coronavirus sample collected from bats in China in 2013 was a 96 percent match, this was considered too different from the Covid virus to be a possible origin.
To further allay her concerns about a potential leak, she also asked her team to submit blood samples for Covid antibodies.
If someone tested positive, it would have been a telltale sign that they had been infected with the virus in the days and weeks before, pointing to a possible accidental leak from the WIV.
But according to her, all staff tested negative.
Professor Wang added that during his visit to WIV in January 2020, he felt no panic among the team, suggesting they were panicking about Covid or having something to hide.
“She had a team of over 20 staff and I know them all,” he said.
“So if a scientist has evidence of a virus leak that caused this outbreak, I don’t think the whole team can act like nothing happened.”
He said that in his opinion there is a 0 percent chance that Covid originated from WIV, a view shared by many other experts.
But the lab leak theory, once dismissed as an outright conspiracy, has grown in popularity in the years since the virus first caused a global pandemic.
Some experts are now saying Covid may have originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Here you can see security personnel standing guard during a WHO visit in 2021
Other theories about the origins of Covid point to Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market as the epicenter of the outbreak. Many of the first cases in December 2019 and January 2020 had visited the site, where live animals were sold
The question of whether the global outbreak started with an overflow of wildlife sold on the market or leaked from the lab in Wuhan, just eight miles across the Yangtze River, has sparked fierce debate. Some studies point to a natural overflow in the Huanan game market. Positive smears from floors, cages and counters also track the virus back to stalls in the southwest corner of the market (bottom left), where animals with the potential to harbor Covid were sold for meat or fur at the time (bottom right)
President Xi Jinping’s communist government has repeatedly denied the hypothesis, labeling it a smear campaign by “anti-Chinese” forces and insisting that the virus arose naturally instead.
Still, both the country’s scientists and Beijing itself quietly deemed it worthy of credible investigation.
In addition to dr. Shi’s internal WIV internal audit revealed last week that government-backed experts had “double-checked” the lab regarding a possible virus leak.
This admission came from Professor George Gao, former head of the country’s own public health watchdog, the US equivalent of the UK Health Security Agency or Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2020, the overwhelming opinion, shared by the world’s leading experts, was that Covid naturally crossed over from animals infected with a bat coronavirus to humans.
But the consensus on how the pandemic started three years ago is slowly starting to shift.
The lab leak theory revolves around the fact that the virus first emerged miles away from the WIV, where researchers were known to be working on coronaviruses found in bats.
No concrete evidence has ever been found to support either argument, leading experts to fear the truth behind Covid’s origins may never be discovered.
In addition to being a historical fact, experts want to discover how Covid originated to help prevent other similar pathogens from becoming pandemics in the future.
While conspiracy theorists once dismissed as fringe, favoring hypotheses, the possibility of Covid spreading accidentally from a lab has gained increasing popularity.
Even some US intelligence officials have supported it, with FBI Director Christopher Wray stating in February that the virus “most likely” came from a laboratory incident in Wuhan.
However, most experts argue that Covid most likely arose naturally and was passed from animals to humans – what is known as zoonosis.
Such theories have largely pointed to the Huanan seafood wholesale market in Wuhan, where numerous species of live animals were kept and sold, as the potential place where such an infection could have occurred.
And in February 2021, an investigation into the origins of Covid by the World Health Organization said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus leaked from a laboratory.
But plans for a second phase of the investigation, which would include audits of laboratories in the Wuhan area, were rejected by the Chinese government.