(p. A1) DANAOSHAN, China—On the outskirts of a village deep in the mountains of southwest China, a lone surveillance camera peers down toward a disused copper mine smothered in dense bamboo. As night approaches, bats swoop overhead.
This is the subterranean home of the closest known virus on Earth to the one that causes Covid-19. It is also now a touchpoint for escalating calls for a more thorough probe into whether the pandemic could have stemmed from a Chinese laboratory.
In April 2012, six miners here fell sick with a mysterious illness after entering the mine to clear bat guano. Three of them died.
Chinese scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were called in to investigate and, after taking samples from bats in the mine, identified several new coronaviruses.
Now, unanswered questions about the miners’ illness, the viruses found at the site and the research done with them have elevated (p. A12) into the mainstream an idea once dismissed as a conspiracy theory: that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, might have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, the city where the first cases were found in December 2019.
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Over the next year or so, WIV scientists entered the Mojiang mine and took fecal samples from 276 bats, identifying six different species, according to a research paper they published later.
They extracted genetic material from the samples and sequenced fragments. Half of the samples tested positive for coronaviruses, including an unidentified strain of a SARS-like one, according to the scientists. They called the virus RaBtCoV/4991.
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That research was led by Shi Zhengli, the WIV’s leading bat coronavirus expert. When the results were published in 2016 in the journal Virologica Sinica, few scientists paid attention to RaBtCoV/4991. It didn’t appear to be closely related to SARS. It came from an abandoned mineshaft, said the paper, which made no mention of the miners who fell sick there.
Only after the Covid-19 pandemic began did it become more significant. In February 2020, Dr. Shi and her colleagues published a paper in the scientific journal, Nature, revealing the existence of a virus called RaTG13. Sequencing had revealed it was 96.2% similar to SARS-CoV-2 genetically, making it the closest known relative to the pandemic virus.
They said it was found in a bat in Yunnan, the Chinese province that includes the Mojiang region mine, but didn’t say when or where.
That revelation was considered a breakthrough in the search for Covid-19’s source, strongly indicating that it originated in bats.
In the following weeks, however, some scientists outside China noticed striking similarities in the sampling dates and partial genetic sequences of the virus called RaTG13 and the one called RaBtCoV/4991, which Dr. Shi’s team had found in the Mojiang mine.
After repeated requests by scientists to clarify the issue, Dr. Shi said that the two viruses were one and the same.
She also revealed that the WIV retested samples from the miners and established that they weren’t infected with SARS-CoV-2. And she disclosed that her team subsequently had found eight other SARS-type coronaviruses in the mine.
On Friday, after repeated requests from scientists to share the genetic sequences of the viruses, Dr. Shi and colleagues released a scientific paper on a preprint server, meaning that it has yet to be peer-reviewed. The paper said the eight were almost identical to each other and only 77.6% similar to SARS-CoV-2, although one part of their genetic code was a 97.2% match. “Albeit there is a speculation claiming the possible leaking of RaTG13 from lab that caused SARS-CoV-2, the experiment evidence cannot support it,” the paper said.
Many scientists question why the WIV didn’t announce the existence of those viruses earlier, as well as their connection to the mine, and why they waited so long to allow scientists to examine their sequences. Such information about the types of coronaviruses that were circulating is critical in the search for the pandemic’s origins, they say.
Some have noted that Dr. Shi has repeatedly asserted that the Mojiang miners had a suspected fungal infection, not a virus, contradicting research papers at the time and Dr. Shi’s update in Nature, which said the miners were thought to have a virus.
Dr. Shi didn’t respond to requests for comment.
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One area of controversy is the experiments the WIV was doing to construct new viruses by combining elements of existing bat coronaviruses to determine whether they could become more infectious to humans.
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Some scientists say work described by Dr. Shi fits a broad definition of gain-of-function research. There are wide differences of opinion about where the boundaries are drawn.
Dr. Shi has publicly described doing experiments, including in 2018 and 2019, to see if various bat coronaviruses could use a certain spike protein on their surfaces to bind to an enzyme in human cells known as ACE2. That is how both the SARS virus and SARS-CoV-2 infect humans.
Those experiments involved combining one bat coronavirus with the spike protein of another and then infecting mice genetically engineered to contain human ACE2, Dr. Shi told the WHO-led team in February, according to its report.
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Ian Lipkin, an infectious-disease specialist at Columbia University who has worked closely with Chinese research partners, was among five scientists who last year co-wrote a paper dismissing the idea that the virus was manipulated in a lab. Now he says he is concerned that the WIV was doing experiments on coronaviruses in laboratories at a lower biosafety level than required in the U.S.
For the full story, see:
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 24, 2021, and has the title “The Wuhan Lab Leak Question: A Disused Chinese Mine Takes Center Stage.” In the online version of the passages quoted above, there are a couple of added sentences that are not included in the print version quoted above.)