Shi Zhengli, a top Chinese virologist who researches coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has long drawn attention about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shi denied that her lab took part in causing or had any knowledge early on about the virus, despite being located in Wuhan, where the COVID-19 virus first emerged, according to a new New York Times report. Shi has conducted experiments on bats to study how a virus can transfer from a bat to a human since 2004.
According to the Times, some think her research wasn’t safe enough. Others are asking for more transparency on reports from American intelligence that suggest there were infections of COVID among employees at Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In the report, Shi denied both of the accusations.
“How on earth can I offer up evidence for something where there is no evidence?” she said to the Times in an unscheduled conversation. “I don’t know how the world has come to this, constantly pouring filth on an innocent scientist,” she wrote in a text message.
China, however, will not allow an independent investigation into her lab or share data on its research, according to the Times, which continues speculation.
Many scientists, including White House medical advisor Dr. Anthony Facui, believe that COVID most likely originated as a jumping of species rather than in a lab. A recent joint WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19 said that it is “extremely unlikely” a lab leak caused the virus. However, many scientists want a full investigation into the virus’s origins to answer any remaining questions.
“This has nothing to do with fault or guilt,” David Relman told the Times. Relman is a microbiologist at Stanford University and co-author of a recent letter that was signed by 18 scientists calling for a transparent investigation into all possible origins of the pandemic.
“It’s just bigger than any one scientist or institute or any one country — anybody anywhere who has data of this sort needs to put it out there,” Relman said in the Times report.
Shi is not a member of the Communist Party, despite being a state employee. She also has a track record of working for protection from viruses telling CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, in 2017, “In all the work we do, if just once you can prevent the outbreak of an illness, then what we’ve done will be very meaningful,” according to the Times. Shi also published important papers on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 which have aided people around the world.
Additionally, Shi has warned of the risks of a coronavirus outbreak for years and according to the Times, worked to gain more knowledge about these pathogens.
“This is no longer a question of science,” Shi said on the phone to the Times. “It is speculation rooted in utter distrust.”
Some of Shi’s research has drawn scrutiny, specifically experimentation with bat coronaviruses which are genetically modified to study how they behave, according to the Times.
Those who support this kind of research argue it helps prepare for outbreaks, those who don’t say the risks of creating dangerous viruses outweigh possible benefits.
Shi responded saying she only conducts gain-of-function work to understand how a virus might jump across species. “My lab has never conducted or cooperated in conducting GOF experiments that enhance the virulence of viruses,” she told the Times.
More conversation has erupted around American government funding, as the Wuhan institute received about $600,000 from the U.S. government through grant money provided from a nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance.
Shi has called on former President Donald Trump to apologize for accusing her lab of leaking the virus.
“I’m sure that I did nothing wrong,” she wrote to the Times. “So I have nothing to fear.”