China has forcefully rejected such claims, but Shi (pronounced SHIH) herself has said very little publicly.
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.
“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.”
Shi stressed that over the past 15 years, her lab has isolated and grown in culture only three bat coronaviruses related to one that infected humans: the agent that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which erupted in 2003. The more than 2000 other bat coronaviruses the lab has detected, including one that is 96.2% identical to SARS-CoV-2—which means they shared a common ancestor decades ago—are simply genetic sequences that her team has extracted from fecal samples and oral and anal swabs of the animals. She also noted that all of the staff and students in her lab were recently tested for SARS-CoV-2 and everyone was negative, challenging the notion that an infected person in her group triggered the pandemic.
Shi was particularly chagrined about the 24 April decision by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), made at the White House’s behest, to ax a grant to the EcoHealth Alliance in New York City that included bat virus research at WIV. “We don’t understand [it] and feel it is absolutely absurd,” she said.
Science shared Shi’s responses—available here in full (PDF)—with several leading researchers in other countries. “It’s a big contribution,” says Daniel Lucey of Georgetown University, an outbreak specialist who blogs about SARS-CoV-2 origin issues. “There are a lot of new facts that I wasn’t aware of. It’s very exciting to hear this directly from her.”
Shi’s answers were coordinated with public information staffers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, of which WIV is part, and it took her 2 months to prepare them. Evolutionary biologist Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research says he suspects Shi’s answers were “carefully vetted” by the Chinese government. “But they’re all logical, genuine, and stick to the science as one would have expected from a world-class scientist and one of the leading experts on coronaviruses,” Andersen says.
However, Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, who from the early days of the pandemic has urged that an investigation look into the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 entered humans through a laboratory accident, was decidedly unimpressed. “Most of these answers are formulaic, almost robotic, reiterations of statements previously made by Chinese authorities and state media,” Ebright says.
Shi’s responses come at a time when questions about how the pandemic began are increasingly causing international tensions. Trump frequently calls SARS-CoV-2 “the China virus” and has said China could have stopped the pandemic in its tracks. China, for its part, has added an extra layer of review for any researchers who want to publish papers on the pandemic’s origins and has asserted without evidence that SARS-CoV-2 may have originated in the United States.Calls for an independent, international probe into the origin questions are mounting, and China has invited two researchers from the World Health Organization to visit the country to discuss the scope and scale of a future mission. They are now in China working through those details. Lucey says Shi’s answers to Science’s questions could help guide the investigation team. (Here are related questionsScience has suggested the mission should address.)、