Wuhan Scientist Hits Back at Call for New COVID Origin Probe: 'Really Sad'

A Wuhan scientist has criticized a call for another investigation into the origins of COVID-19, stating it would harm the reputation of researchers working on animal viruses.

The call for a further COVID investigation came in a letter co-written by 18 scientists from around the world, published in the journal Science on Friday.

In it, the scientists wrote that the theory of "accidental release from a lab" remains viable and they claimed that such a theory was not given "balanced consideration" by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its own report, published earlier this year.

The letter states: "Only 4 of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident.

"We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data."

The letter prompted a response from Shi Zhengli, the chief scientist for emerging disease at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China, who told the MIT Technology Review: "It's really sad to read this 'letter' written by these 18 prominent scientists.

"This kind of claim will definitely damage the reputation and enthusiasm of scientists who are dedicated to work on the novel animal viruses which have potential spillover risk to human populations and eventually weaken the ability of humans to prevent the next pandemic."

In March this year, the WHO's report into the origins of COVID-19 stated that "laboratory accidents do happen" and that multiple labs are working with bat coronaviruses around the world.

It added that the closest known strain to SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—was sequenced in bat samples at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

However, it concluded that "a laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be extremely unlikely" and called for a continued scientific approach towards tracing where the virus came from.

The WHO report added that there were three Wuhan labs working with coronaviruses and that all of them had "high quality biosafety level facilities." Additionally, there were no reports of COVID-19 illness among the lab staff prior to December 2019, the report stated.

Calls for further investigation into the origins of COVID-19 are not limited to Friday's letter. At the end of March the U.S., Britain, Australia and other nations called for "transparent and independent analysis" into the origins of COVID-19 and voiced concerns that the WHO report had "lacked access to complete, original data."

Meanwhile, the authors of Friday's letter criticized "anti-Asian sentiment in some countries" and pointed out that "it was Chinese doctors, scientists, journalists and citizens who shared with the world crucial information about the spread of the virus—often at great personal cost."

Wuhan COVID disinfection
Firefighters prepare to carry out disinfection at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan, China, April 2020. A WHO team visited Wuhan earlier this year to research the origins of COVID. Stringer / Getty