A Chinese virologist dubbed ‘Bat Woman’ has spoken out about claims the deadly Covid-19 pandemic came from her laboratory.
Shi Zhengli leads a group of scientist in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus strain is thought to have originated, and studies the virus in bats.
The global pandemic has thrust her into the spotlight and global heads – including US President Donald Trump – have speculated that Sars-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes Covid-19, accidentally escaped from her lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
China has rejected the claims while Shi has, until now, remained quiet.
But in response an email to the magazine Science, Shi hit back at the speculation.
She said her team discovered the virus in 2019, as patients with a curious and unknown pneumonia provided samples.
She added: “Before that, we had never been in contact with or studied this virus, nor did we know of its existence.
“US President Trump’s claim that Sars-CoV-2 was leaked from our institute totally contradicts the facts.
“It jeopardizes and affects our academic work and personal life. He owes us an apology.”
For 15 years, Shi’s lab has isolated and grown in culture three bat coronaviruses that relate to that which infected humans, the coronavirus agent which caused the Sars pandemic in 2003, she told the publication.
She claimed the 2,000 other bat coronaviruses were genetic sequences taken from swabs and faeces from bats, and one of these was 96.2 per cent identical to Sars-CoV-2.
In response to claims one of her staff or students sparked the pandemic, she said they has all tested negative recently.
Shi slammed a decision by the US National Institutes of Health to scrap a grant to the EcoHealth Alliance in New York that included bat virus research at her lab.
She said: “We don’t understand [it] and feel it is absolutely absurd.”
She remains clear that the coronavirus originated in bats.
She said: “According to the findings of our team and our international peers, Sars-CoV-2 is very likely to have originated from bats.
“It may have evolved in one or more intermediate hosts, become adapted to humans, and eventually spread among humans.
“However, it remains unclear which animals were the intermediate hosts and how it spilled over to humans.”
Shi’s comments are “very exciting” said Daniel Lucey of Georgetown University.
He told Science: “There are a lot of new facts that I wasn’t aware of. It’s very exciting to hear this directly from her.”
But one of the skeptics who has called for an investigation into whether an accident in a lab sparked the pandemic, has raised doubt about Shi’s replies.
Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, said: “Most of these answers are formulaic, almost robotic, reiterations of statements previously made by Chinese authorities and state media.”
Science has made available all of Shi’s responses to their questions in an online PDF document.