A Chinese scientist who is the one of the world’s leading experts on coronaviruses was ‘muzzled’ after unravelling the genetic composition of the new disease, which is crucial for developing diagnostic tests and vaccines.
The revelation will fuel fresh concerns over China’s cover-up of the pandemic after it erupted in the city of Wuhan. Critics argue that Communist Party chiefs frustrated efforts to contain the outbreak before it exploded around the world.
At the centre of the new claims is Shi Zhengli, known as China’s ‘Bat Woman’ after years spent on difficult virus-hunting expeditions in dank caves that have led to a series of important scientific discoveries.
The virologist was called back to her highsecurity laboratory in Wuhan at the end of last year after a mysterious new respiratory condition in the city was identified as a novel coronavirus – and within three days she completed its gene sequencing.
A virology lab like the one Shi Zhengli completed the gene sequencing of the coronavirus
Her team’s work, and several other breakthroughs in subsequent days, indicated the virus was linked to horseshoe bats found more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan, a region of southern China.
Their findings showed it was similar to SARS, a respiratory disease that sparked an epidemic in 33 countries after emerging from China in 2002.
Gao Yu, a Chinese journalist freed last week after 76 days of lockdown in Wuhan, said he spoke to Shi during his incarceration and revealed: ‘We learned later her institute finished gene-sequencing and related tests as early as January 2 but was muzzled.’
The Mail on Sunday has learned that on that same day, Yanyi Wang, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, sent an email to staff and key officials ordering them not to disclose information on the disease.
She warned, according to a leak on social media confirmed by activists and Hong Kong media, that ‘inappropriate and inaccurate information’was causing ‘general panic’ – thought to refer to eight whistle-blowing doctors whose warnings to local citizens had led to their arrest.
Wang said the National Health Commission ‘unequivocally requires that any tests, clinical data, test results, conclusions related to the epidemic shall not be posted on social media platforms, nor shall [it] be disclosed to any media outlets including government official media, nor shall [it] be disclosed to partner institutions.’
Eight days later, a team led by a professor in Shanghai who received samples from an infected patient, published a genome sequence on an open access platform.
His laboratory was closed for ‘rectification’ two days later.
Shi Zhengli is known as China’s ‘Bat Woman’ after years spent on difficult virus-hunting expeditions in dank caves that have led to a series of important scientific discoveries
At the time, the public was being told that no new cases had been reported in Wuhan for more than a week and there was no clear evidence of human transmission, although dozens of health workers were starting to fall ill with the disease.
In an online lecture last month, Shi Zhengli said her team found on January 14 that the new virus could infect people – six days before this fact was revealed by China.
On the same day, the World Health Organisation issued a tweet backing China’s denials of human transmissions.
Shi’s team released its data identifying the disease on January 23 on a scientific portal before publication the next month by the journal Nature.
It said the genomic sequence was 96 per cent identical to another virus they found in horseshoe bats in Yunnan.
Shi is a specialist in emerging diseases and has earned global acclaim for work investigating links between bats and coronaviruses, aided by expeditions to collect samples and swabs in the fetid cave networks of southern China.
She was a key part of the team that traced SARS to horseshoe bats through civets, a cat-like creature often eaten in China.
Bats have been linked with seven major epidemics over the past three decades
Bats have been linked with seven major epidemics over the past three decades.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, based ten miles from the wildlife market blamed as the source of Covid-19, developed a £30million high-security laboratory after the SARS outbreak with French assistance.
It was the first laboratory in China with P4 status – denoting highest global biosafety levels – and contains the largest virus bank in Asia.
It was this fact that sparked now discounted conspiracy theories that Covid-19 was man-made.
Shi, the laboratory’s deputy director, admits that when summoned back from a conference to investigate the new disease, she wondered at first if a coronavirus could have escaped from her unit.
She has warned about the danger of epidemics from bat-borne viruses. But she says she did not expect such an outbreak in Wuhan, in the centre of China, since her studies suggested subtropical areas in the south had the highest risk of such ‘zoonotic’ transmission to humans.
Shi told the respected science journal Scientific American last month of her relief when, having checked back through disposal records, none of the genome sequences matched their virus samples.
‘That really took a load off my mind. I had not slept a wink for days,’ she said.
For 16 years, she has plunged into caves and crevices filled with roosting bats in areas such as Yunnan and Guangdong, where SARS first erupted.
Her team took blood, saliva and fecal samples while also testing local people for antibodies.
There were initial suggestions that pangolins may have hosted the virus before it started infecting people in Wuhan five months ago, just as civets ‘amplified’ the SARS virus, but a study last week suggested human versions are closer to bat samples.
Wuhan’s wildlife market was closed the day after China notified the WHO about a new pneumonialike virus.
However, party chiefs seemed more focused on the success of a key Communist Party meeting and looming New Year festivities, when millions move around the country. Lianchao Han, a pro-democracy activist based in Washington, said the Chinese government tried to block news about the virus.
He said: ‘They thought it could be controlled, and also President Xi Jinping demanded not to spoil the Chinese New Year.’
As the disease spread and deaths mounted in China, one report appeared in the Beijing News identifying a researcher at the institute as ‘patient zero’ – the first person to be infected.
Shi was subjected to savage attacks on social media as the ‘mother of the devil’ and responded with a furious denial on her WeChat social media account, saying the new virus was ‘nature punishing the human race for keeping uncivilised living habits’.
‘I swear with my life – [the virus] has nothing to do with the lab,’ she declared, telling those spreading false rumours to ‘shut their stinking mouths.’
Shi has worked alongside many of the world’s top experts on infectious diseases. ‘She is a superb scientist and very nice person,’ said James LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory, a high-security biocontainment centre in Texas.
‘She has been very open and collaborative for the decade I’ve worked with her.’