China's 'Bat Woman' Shi Zhengli Says Nobody at Wuhan Lab Has Been Infected With Coronavirus

Shi Zhengli, the deputy director of China's Wuhan Institute of Virology, has said that to date, no students or staff members at the research center have been infected with the new coronavirus.

Dubbed China's "bat woman," Shi also said she does not believe SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—moved from bats to humans in the Hubei Province or the city of Wuhan, where the first cases were identified at the end of last year.

Shi has been at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic after the Wuhan lab became the first to identify a "pneumonia with unknown etiology," which later turned out to be COVID-19. She is a leading expert in bat coronaviruses, having been one of the scientists to discover bats are natural reservoirs of them. When the pandemic began, she was one of the first people to study the virus.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology also gained global attention after President Donald Trump and members of his administration suggested the virus may have originated from the laboratory. Theories included SARS-CoV-2 having been artificially created at the biosafety level 4 lab, and that it was released by accident.

In an interview with Science magazine, Shi has now addressed these accusations and answered questions about the work on coronaviruses she and her team are currently doing at the institute.

Evidence strongly suggests SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it originally came from an animal before being passed over into humans. When and where this happened is unclear, and what animal was the host is also unknown. The first cases have been traced back to at least November last year. Research also indicates it may have passed from a bat to a pangolin, before spilling over into humans.

Shi said that there is currently no evidence to say where and when the virus first infected a human population, but she believes it originated from outside the central province of Hubei. "We know from historical experience like HIV that the places where big emerging diseases first break out usually are not their place of origin," Shi told the magazine. "We have done bat virus surveillance in Hubei Province for many years, but have not found that bats in Wuhan or even the wider Hubei Province carry any coronaviruses that are closely related to SARS-CoV-2. I don't think the spillover from bats to humans occurred in Wuhan or in Hubei Province."

Addressing the idea SARS-CoV-2 came from the laboratory where she works, Shi said there was no way this was possible. She said that before the sample was sent to them in December last year, they had "never been in contact with or studied this virus, nor did we know of its existence."

"Every year, the lab's facilities and equipment must be tested by a third-party institution authorized by the government," she said. "Only after passing the test can the lab continue to run. The high-level biosafety laboratories at our institute have been operated safely and stably. To date, no pathogen leaks or personnel infection accidents have occurred...Recently we tested the sera from all staff and students in the lab and nobody is infected by either bat SARSr-CoV or SARS-CoV-2. To date, there is 'zero infection' of all staff and students in our institute."

Shi also said that experts from across the globe have said SARS-CoV-2 is of natural origin. "President Trump's claim that SARS-CoV-2 was leaked from our institute totally contradicts the facts. It jeopardizes and affects our academic work and personal life. He owes us an apology."

Following the outbreak, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) pulled its funding into research in China that looked at how coronaviruses spill over from bats to humans. The decision was met with widespread criticism. At the time, Robert Garry, a microbiologist at Tulane University, told NPR the decision was "highly unusual," saying "scientifically this doesn't make sense."

"Scientists should be able to work with other scientists without politics."

Shi called the NIH decision "absolutely absurd." She said the project includes scientists from all over the world, working together "to jointly explore early warnings and predictions of infectious diseases, which will help vaccine design and drug development to protect us from coronavirus threats."

"Over the past 20 years, coronaviruses have been disrupting and impacting human lives and economies," she said. "Here, I would like to make an appeal to the international community to strengthen international cooperation on research into the origins of emerging viruses."

Shi Zhengli
Shi Zhengli, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Shi has said no one at the institute has been infected with SARS-CoV-2. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images