China’s ‘Bat Woman’ rebukes Trump, denies virus link to lab

Jeff Sutherland

China’s “bat woman” lashed out at Donald Trump, saying the U.S. president owes her country an apology as she again denied assertions that the novel coronavirus is linked to the Wuhan lab where she works.

Shi Zhengli, deputy director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said in an interview published in Science magazine that she and her colleagues encountered the virus in December last year, when reports of the disease first emerged in the city. She said the lab hadn’t seen or studied the virus before that.

In this Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 file photo, Shi Zhengli works with other researchers in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province.

“U.S. President Trump’s claim that SARS-CoV-2 was leaked from our institute totally contradicts the facts,” Shi said in the article published July 24. “It jeopardizes and affects our academic work and personal life. He owes us an apology.”

The question of the coronavirus’s origin has become an increasingly politicized issue as relations between the U.S. and China deteriorate. Trump, who has repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as the “China Virus,” and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo have suggested a link between the Wuhan lab and the outbreak, although no evidence has ever been presented publicly.

The World Health Organization is sending a team of researchers to China to study the virus’s animal origins.

While Shi, who is renowned for her work on coronavirus in bats, has previously dismissed any link between the virus and the lab, her comments in the interview provided the most detailed rebuttal yet: WIV has identified hundreds of bat viruses, but never anything close to SARS-CoV-2, Shi said.

Questions have been raised about a possible link with RaTG13, a bat virus similar to SARS-CoV-2. Shi said the lab didn’t culture that bat virus, making an accident unlikely.

Shi said differences in the sequences of the two viruses suggest they diverged from a common ancestor 20 to 70 years ago.

Shi’s partial genome sequencing in 2016 of a coronavirus she called 4991 led to suspicions it was SARS-CoV-2. But Shi said 4991 is actually RaTG13: 4991 was named for the bat, and was switched to RaTG13 after the entire virus was sequenced.

The Wuhan lab is subject to inspections, and antibody tests have shown no infections among staff. Shi said the lab has never been ordered to destroy any samples after the pathogen emerged.

Shi said the coronavirus probably originated in bats and jumped to humans either directly or through an intermediate host.

The lab found RNA fragments from the virus in various places in the Wuhan seafood market, but not in frozen animal meat. Shi said years of surveillance in Hubei province hasn’t turned up bat coronaviruses close to SARS-CoV-2, leading her to believe the jump from animals to humans happened elsewhere.