China's 'bat woman' feared Covid could have escaped from her Wuhan lab

China’s ‘bat woman’ feared Covid could have escaped from secretive Wuhan lab during the early days of pandemic

  • Colleagues said the virologist spent ‘sleepless nights’ working to rule out a leak
  • Read more: 2020 Covid lockdown saved as few as 1,700 lives, experts claim 

China’s own ‘bat woman’ feared Covid could have leaked from inside her secretive laboratory, insiders claimed today. 

Dr Shi Zhengli, a leading virologist based at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, spent years researching bat coronaviruses with aim of identifying those with the potential to infect people. 

Both she and Beijing itself have vehemently and publicly denied the possibility that Covid could have emerged from experiments carried out at the lab.

However, one of her colleagues has now revealed that at the start of the pandemic, Dr Shi feared exactly that.

Professor Wang Linfa, described as a friend of hers by the BBC, said the respected scientist spent ‘sleepless nights’ combing through frozen virus samples at the WIV, fearing ‘what might happen’ if she found an exact match for Covid in her lab. 

Shi Zhengli – dubbed the ‘Bat Lady’ of ‘Bat Woman’ for her work on bat coronaviruses – investigated the possibility Covid could have emerged from her lab back in 2020 according to colleagues. Here she is pictured working with other researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2017

While China has insisted the virus originated elsewhere, academics, politicians and the media have contemplated the possibility it leaked from a high-level biochemical lab in Wuhan – raising suspicions that Chinese officials simply hid evidence of the early spread

Professor Wang, a Singaporean expert in emerging infectious diseases, and an honorary professor at the WIV, said he recalled how Dr Shi spent ‘sleepless nights’ to ensure Covid wasn’t linked to her lab

Such a match could have proved the virus did spawn inside the halls of the facility. 

However, no such proof was found, it is claimed.  

It is the latest sign that Chinese scientists and officials, who have staunchly denied any plausibility of the lab leak hypothesis, quietly explored the possibility early days of the outbreak. 

Professor Wang, an expert in emerging infectious diseases based in Singapore, is an honorary professor at the WIV.

He was collaborating closely with team there back in January 2020, as Covid cases just started to emerge in Wuhan. 

He told Fever: The Hunt for Covid’s Origin, an eight-part BBC Radio 4 series, that Dr Shi was deeply concerned about the coincidence that a coronavirus similar to ones the WIV was studying was spreading in the city the lab was based in.

‘The thing that was on her mind is ‘what happens if there’s a sample in her lab that she did not know of that has a virus that has contaminated something and got out’,’ he said.

‘She went through all her samples to make sure there was nothing close to SARS-CoV-2 (the technical name of the virus that causes Covid).

‘She spent the first week going through every sequence to make sure nothing was even close.’

According to Professor Wang, Dr Shi was ‘enormously relieved’ to find that after her audit no Covid, or any virus particularly closely related virus, a 99 per cent match or above, was found.

Read more: Benefits of original Covid lockdown were ‘a drop in the bucket compared to the costs’: Experts claim draconian measures taken in spring 2020 saved as few as 1,700 lives 

A report suggests specific initiatives to control the spread of Covid had mixed results in reducing mortality, with mask mandates having the biggest impact while measures such as limiting gatherings paradoxically raised death rates 

While she did find RaTG13, a coronavirus sample collected from bats in China in 2013 was a 96 per cent match, this was considered too different to the Covid virus to be a potential origin. 

To further alleviate her worries of a potential leak, she also asked her team to submit blood samples for Covid antibodies.

If any tested positive, it would have been a tell-tale sign that in the days and weeks prior, they had been infected with the virus, indicating a potential 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 sense of panic among the team indicating they were under any panic about Covid or had anything to hide.

‘She had a team of over 20 staff members and I know each of them,’ he said. 

‘So, if a scientist has evidence of a virus leak that caused this outbreak I don’t think that the whole team can behave like nothing happened.’

He said, in his opinion, there is 0 per cent chance, that Covid emerged from the WIV, a view shared by many other experts.

But, the lab leak theory, once dismissed as an outright conspiracy, has gained increasing traction in the years since the virus first caused a global pandemic. 

Some experts now say Covid may have emerged from within the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Here security personnel are pictured keeping watch during a visit by the WHO in 2021

Other Covid origin theories point to Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan as being the epicentre of the outbreak. Many of the earliest cases in December 2019 and January 2020 had visited the site, where live animals were sold

The question of whether the global outbreak began with a spillover from wildlife sold at the market or leaked out of the Wuhan lab just eight miles across the Yangtze River has given rise to fierce debate. Some studies point to a natural spillover at the Huanan wildlife market. Positive swab samples of floors, cages and counters also track the virus back to stalls in the southwestern corner of the market (bottom left), where animals with the potential to harbour Covid were sold for meat or fur at the time (bottom right)

President Xi Jinping’s communist administration has repeatedly denied the hypothesis, labelling it a smear campaign by ‘anti-China’ forces and insisting the virus emerged naturally instead.

Yet quietly, both the nation’s scientists, and Beijing itself, considered it worthy of credible investigation.

In addition to Dr Shi’s private internal audit of the WIV, last week it was revealed that government-backed experts had ‘double-checked’ the lab regarding a potential virus leak.

This admission came from Professor George Gao, former chief of the country’s own public health watchdog, the equivalent of the UK Health Security Agency or Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US.

Back in 2020 the overwhelming opinion, shared by the world’s leading experts, was that Covid crossed naturally from animals infected with a bat coronavirus to humans.

But consensus over how the pandemic began three years ago has slowly started to shift. 

The lab leak theory centres 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 proof to support either argument has ever been found, leaving experts fearing the truth behind Covid’s origins will never be uncovered. 

Beyond being just a historical fact, experts also want to find how Covid emerged to help stop other similar pathogens becoming pandemics in the future. 

While once dismissed as fringe, conspiracy theorist favoured hypothesis, the possibility of Covid accidentally spreading from a lab has gained increasing traction.

Even some US intelligence officials have backed it, with FBI director Christopher Wray stating in February that the virus ‘most likely’ originated from a lab incident in Wuhan.

However, most experts maintain that Covid most likely emerged naturally, being transmitted from animals to humans – what is known as zoonosis.

Such theories have largely pointed to Wuhan’s Huanan seafood wholesale market, where numerous species of live animals were kept and sold, as the potential site where such an infection could have taken place. 

And in February 2021, an investigation into Covid’s origin by the World Health Organization said it was ‘extremely unlikely’ the virus leaked from a lab. 

But plans for a second phase of the investigation, involving audits of laboratories in the Wuhan area, were rejected by the Chinese government.

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