She earned the moniker of ‘Bat Woman’ for her extensive work on bats and viruses. China’s top virologist Shi Zhengli – head of the Centre for Emerging Infectious diseases at Wuhan Institute of Virology – once led expeditions into the caves of China collecting over 10,000 bat samples from around the country to know how viruses jumped from animals. In 2017, she published a paper about an experiment at the Wuhan lab which created new hybrid bat coronaviruses in a bid to study their ability to infect human cells. Now she is in the eye of controversy due to the raging Wuhan lab leak theory which speculates that the COVID virus might have escaped the Institute to break out into a global pandemic.
While fingers are being pointed at her for various reasons, so far Shi Zhengli has been avoiding the media for months citing the policies of her institute. But now she has spoken to the New York Times denying accusations of development of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the lab, experimentation under lower biosafety level, and hiding information about the hospitalisation of three lab workers with the COVID symptoms.
‘How can I give evidence of something never happened’
First, she expressed her anguish over the cry for evidence saying, “How on earth can I offer up evidence for something where there is no evidence?” Further, Shi Zhengli wrote in a text message to the NYT correspondent, “I don’t know how the world has come to this, constantly pouring filth on an innocent scientist.”
Evidently, Shi was responding to the widespread suspicion that she along with her team had been conducting controversial gain-of-function research on coronaviruses trying to increase the strength of the virus with the help of genetic engineering tools in the Wuhan lab.
The evidence of her work at the institute is being sought because China reportedly allowed the World Health Organisation team limited access to the lab for their investigation.
‘No gain-of-function experiment conducted in Wuhan lab’
According to NYT, in an e-mailed response to questions, Shi Zhengli reasoned that her research work was different from gain-of-function experiments. She wrote, “My lab has never conducted or cooperated in conducting GOF experiments that enhance the virulence of viruses.”
The ‘Bat Woman’ claimed that the most identical coronavirus she had in her laboratory was around 96 percent similar to SARS-CoV-2. She explained that the comparison might seem very close but by the standards of genomes they were quite distinct from each other. Shi Zhengli also added that she had already made information about that bat virus public long ago.
On the accusation of conducting the experiments in the lower biosafety level labs which could have let the virus escape, she said there was no evidence in China that the virus could directly infect humans so the studies were done in the BSL-2 labs.
Did no wrong, nothing to fear: Shi Zhengli tells NYT
Dismissing the reports of the lab workers being admitted to the Wuhan hospital with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019, Shi Zhengli said that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had never come across such cases and demanded to be given the names of the three researchers to cross-check.
She also clarified that none of the miners in Yunan Province, who suffered severe respiratory disease in 2012, was detected with bat SARS-like coronaviruses in their samples. Apparently, the miners had worked in the same cave before her team found the SARS-CoV-2-like bat virus from there. According to the NYT report, Shi Zhengli emphasised that she had done no wrong and she has nothing to fear.