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The Wuhan Institute of Virology in the central Chinese province of Hubei is among a handful of labs around the world cleared to handle Class 4 pathogens. It’s proximity to the first reported cases of the new coronavirus have put it in the spotlight during the pandemic. Photo: AFP

Wuhan lab staff should clear up coronavirus rumours and lies and defend institute’s name, says scientist

  • Former staff member says the virology institute is at the centre of a smear campaign and staff should be proactive in clearing its reputation
  • Zhao Fei says it is important during the pandemic for the lab to reveal the truth promptly and openly, despite the fear of criticism
A former employee at a Chinese laboratory at the centre of rumours about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, urged the research facility and its scientists to be proactive and speak out to clear up misinformation about the coronavirus.
Zhao Fei, who studied and worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) for several years until the end of 2018, published a long defence of the institute on ScienceNet on the weekend. His article rejected theories that the Covid-19 virus was manufactured in – or had accidentally leaked from – the institute.
Zhao accused media reports and politicians of “smearing” the institute and its renowned researcher Shi Zhengli after the Covid-19 virus was first reported in Wuhan in central China late last year. Shi has worked extensively with bat coronaviruses.

“From my personal point of view, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Shi Zhengli should stand up and refute the rumours and stigmas one by one but they are also subject to certain restrictions in this situation,” Zhao wrote.

“I believe it is better for you to honestly, objectively, and rationally tell everyone the real situation, including your work, efforts, achievements and the pressure you are facing, your responsibilities, and even your mistakes … it would be far better and more convincing than my response and analysis.”

While he acknowledged that it took valuable time for scientists to counter rumours, Zhao wrote in ScienceNet that an official spokesperson for the institute should promptly release information during the pandemic, grant permission for individual scientists to speak up about their work and take action against people spreading rumours or false information.

ScienceNet is a Chinese science blog co-sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Engineering, National Natural Science Foundation of China, and China Association for Science and Technology.

Zhao’s piece comes amid mounting pressure for an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus and Beijing’s handling of the pandemic. While there is an international push to find the source of the virus there is also growing international scepticism of the US administration’s claim that it has proof the new coronavirus came from the Wuhan lab.
The P4 epidemiological Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory was built in co-operation with French bio-industrial firm Institut Merieux and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Photo: AFP
Questions have been raised about potential links between the outbreak and the Wuhan institute, given its proximity to a seafood market linked to early cases of the coronavirus, but scientists say the virus most likely spread to humans from an animal source.

Most scientists around the world say the new coronavirus is most likely of natural origin because its genomic sequence is about 96 per cent identical to that of the Rhinolophus affinis bat. There is a consensus in the international scientific community that these bats probably provided the natural reservoir for the virus and it was somehow transmitted to humans, possibly via another animal.

While the exact origins of Sars-CoV-2, the official name of the virus, have not yet been found, studies have shown that the virus likely had an animal origin. A study led by Kristian Andersen, from the Scripps Research Institute in California, analysed genomic data to find evidence that the virus was “not a laboratory construct or a purposely manipulated virus”.

Dimitrios Paraskevis, an epidemiologist from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, said that there had not been any evidence in the genomic sequences of the novel coronavirus of genetic experimentation, so the likelihood it originated from the lab was low.

“Based on previously published findings, the likelihood that the Sars-CoV-2 jumped to humans in a research lab is not very high,” he said.

Beijing and Washington have sparred over culpability in the pandemic. The White House has accused the Chinese government of cover-ups and a lack of transparency, while Beijing said this was an effort to shift the blame from missteps in the US pandemic response.

In his piece, Zhao questioned the “ulterior motives” of some people raising concerns about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and defended the security protocols in place at the top-level lab. He also outlined the work the institute had done since the first coronavirus cases were reported, including successfully isolating the Covid-19 virus strain and conducting research into vaccines.

“Even while the research institute has worked its hardest to fight against the epidemic, it has faced rumours that are causing a great clamour, suspicions with no evidence, clearly targeted rumours and sinister slander from some new media outlets,” he wrote.

“After the virus spread to the entire world, media and politicians in some countries disregarded the professional opinions of the world’s scientists to insist on pointing a finger at China and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, if not to concoct sensationalised fake news, then to shift the blame and divert attention, or for some other political purpose.”

Zhao said there was no evidence that the virus was not of natural origin or that weak security protocols in the Wuhan lab had allowed the virus to leak.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: stand up and reject smears, Wuhan lab workers urged