Shi Modified Bat Coronaviruses in Low Biosafety Wuhan Labs

(p. A1) Shi Zhengli, a top Chinese virologist, is once again at the center of clashing narratives about her research on coronaviruses at a state lab in Wuhan, the city where the pandemic first emerged.

The idea that the virus may have escaped from a lab had long been widely dismissed by scientists as implausible and shunned by others for its connection with former President Donald J. Trump. But fresh scrutiny from the Biden administration and calls for greater candor from prominent scientists have brought the theory back to the fore.

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(p. A8) The Wuhan Institute of Virology employs nearly 300 people and is home to one of only two Chinese labs that have been given the highest security designation, Biosafety Level 4. Dr. Shi leads the institute’s work on emerging infectious diseases, and over the years, her group has collected over 10,000 bat samples from around China.

Under China’s centralized approach to scientific research, the institute answers to the Communist Party, which wants scientists to serve national goals. “Science has no borders, but scientists have a motherland,” Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, said in a speech to scientists last year.

Dr. Shi herself, though, does not belong to the Communist Party, according to official Chinese media reports, which is unusual for state employees of her status.

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. . . some of her most notable findings have since drawn the heaviest scrutiny. In recent years, Dr. Shi began experimenting on bat coronaviruses by genetically modifying them to see how they behave.

In 2017, she and her colleagues at the Wuhan lab published a paper about an experiment in which they created new hybrid bat coronaviruses by mixing and matching parts of several existing ones — including at least one that was nearly transmissible to humans — in order to study their ability to infect and replicate in human cells.

Proponents of this type of research say it helps society prepare for future outbreaks. Critics say the risks of creating dangerous new pathogens may outweigh potential benefits.

The picture has been complicated by new questions about whether American government funding that went to Dr. Shi’s work supported controversial gain-of-function research. The Wuhan institute received around $600,000 in grant money from the United States government, through an American nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance. The National Institutes of Health said it had not approved funding for the nonprofit to conduct gain-of-function research on coronaviruses that would have made them more infectious or lethal.

Dr. Shi, in an emailed response to questions, argued that her experiments differed from gain-of-function work because she did not set out to make a virus more dangerous, but to understand how it might jump across species.

“My lab has never conducted or cooperated in conducting GOF experiments that enhance the virulence of viruses,” she said.

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Concerns have centered not only on what experiments Dr. Shi conducted, but also on the conditions under which she did them.

Some of Dr. Shi’s experiments on bat viruses were done in Biosafety Level 2 labs, where security is lower than in other labs at the institute. That has raised questions about whether a dangerous pathogen could have slipped out.

Ralph Baric, a prominent University of North Carolina expert in coronaviruses who signed the open letter in Science, said that although a natural origin of the virus was likely, he supported a review of what level of biosafety precautions were taken in studying bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan institute. Dr. Baric conducted N.I.H.-approved gain-of-function research at his lab at the University of North Carolina using information on viral genetic sequences provided by Dr. Shi.

Dr. Shi said that bat viruses in China could be studied in BSL-2 labs because there was no evidence that they directly infected humans, a view supported by some other scientists.

For the full story, see:

Amy Qin and Chris Buckley. “Chinese Scientist Under Pressure As Lab-Leak Theory Flourishes.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 15, 2021): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 14, 2021, and has the title “A Top Virologist in China, at Center of a Pandemic Storm, Speaks Out.”)

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