The coronavirus pandemic has thrust virologist Shi Zhengli into a fierce spotlight. Shi, heads a group that studies bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and many have speculated that the virus that causes COVID-19 accidentally escaped from her lab — a theory promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump. Some have even suggested it could have been engineered there.
Now, Shi has broken her silence about the details of her work. On 15 July, she emailed Science answers to a series of written questions about the virus’ origin and the research at her institute. In them, Shi hit back at speculation that the virus leaked from WIV.
She and her colleagues discovered the virus in late 2019, she says, in samples from patients who had a pneumonia of unknown origin. “Before that, we had never been in contact with or studied this virus, nor did we know of its existence,” Shi wrote. "Subsequently, we rapidly conducted research in parallel with other domestic institutions, and quickly identified the pathogen," she wrote.
When the rumor that the virus was leaked from her lab started to circulate, Shi actually went through her own lab's records from the past few years to check for any mishandling of experimental materials, especially during disposal, she said in a Scientific American profile. And none of the bat virus sequences from her lab closely matched SARS-CoV-2, she said.
“U.S. President Trump’s claim that SARS-CoV-2 was leaked from our institute totally contradicts the facts,” she added. “It jeopardizes and affects our academic work and personal life. He owes us an apology.”
Their research meets strict biosafety rules, she said, and the lab is subject to periodic inspections “by a third-party institution authorized by the government.” Antibody tests have shown there is “zero infection” among institute staff or students with SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses.
Although unsure about the origin of the novel coronavirus, Shi believes it originated in bats and jumped to humans directly or via an intermediate host.
“We have done bat virus surveillance in Hubei Province for many years, but have not found that bats in Wuhan or even the wider Hubei Province carry any coronaviruses that are closely related to SARS-CoV-2. I don't think the spillover from bats to humans occurred in Wuhan or in Hubei Province. ”
A report released on July 17 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that U.S. President Donald Trump issued travel restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19 too late to help New York City. Trump imposed restrictions on Chinese travelers entering the U.S. on February 2 but didn't carry on similar restrictions on Europeans until March 13. However, community spread of COVID-19 was already occurring in New York City by March 8. The report said that the viral strain in the city closely matched that of the coronavirus circulating in Europe.
What was circulating most closely matched the strain of the virus circulating in Europe, not China, which President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed for not preventing its spread to the US.