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Default A Top Virologist in China, at Center of a Pandemic Storm, Speaks Out

A Top Virologist in China, at Center of a Pandemic Storm, Speaks Out
By Amy Qin & Chris Buckley, 6/14/21, NY Times

In less polarized times, Dr. Shi was a symbol of Chinas
scientific progress, at the forefront of research into
emerging viruses. She led expeditions into caves to collect
samples from bats & guano, to learn how viruses jump from
animals to humans. In 2019, she was among 109 scientists
elected to the American Academy of Microbiology for her
contributions to the field.

€œShes a stellar scientist €” extremely careful, with a
rigorous work ethic,€ said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, director
of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of
Maryland School of Medicine.

The Wuhan Inst. of Virology employs nearly 300 people & is
home to one of only two Chinese labs that have been given
the highest security designation, Biosafety Level 4. Dr. Shi
leads the institutes work on emerging infectious diseases,
& over the years, her group has collected over 10,000 bat
samples from around China.

Under Chinas centralized approach to scientific research,
the institute answers to the Communist Party, which wants
scientists to serve national goals. €œScience has no borders,
but scientists have a motherland,€ Xi Jinping, the countrys
leader, said in a speech to scientists last year.

Dr. Shi herself, though, does not belong to the Communist
Party, acc. to official Chinese media reports, which is
unusual for state employees of her status. She built her
career at the institute, starting as a research assistant
in 1990 and working her way up the ranks.

Dr. Shi, 57, obtained her Ph.D. from the U of Montpellier
in France in 2000 & started studying bats in 2004 after the
outbreak of SARS, which killed more than 700 people around
the world. In 2011, she made a breakthru when she found bats
in a cave in SW China that carried coronaviruses that were
similar to the virus that causes SARS.

€œIn all the work we do, if just once you can prevent the
outbreak of an illness, then what weve done will be very
meaningful,€ she told CCTV, Chinas state broadcaster, in 2017.

But some of her most notable findings have since drawn the
heaviest scrutiny. In recent years, Dr. Shi began experi-
menting on bat coronaviruses by genetically modifying them
to see how they behave.

In 2017, she & her colleagues at the Wuhan lab published a
paper about an experiment in which they created new hybrid
bat coronaviruses by mixing & matching parts of several
existing ones €” including at least one that was nearly
transmissible to humans €” in order to study their ability
to infect & replicate in human cells.

Proponents of this type of research say it helps society
prepare for future outbreaks. Critics say the risks of
creating dangerous new pathogens may outweigh potential benefits.

The picture has been complicated by new questions about
whether American govt funding that went to Dr. Shis work
supported controversial gain-of-function research. The Wuhan
institute received around $600,000 in grant money from the
US govt, thru a nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance. The Nat'l
Inst. of Health said it had not approved funding for the
nonprofit to conduct gain-of-function research on coronas
that would have made them more infectious or lethal.

Dr. Shi, in an emailed response to questions, argued that
her experiments differed from gain-of-function work because
she did not set out to make a virus more dangerous, but to
understand how it might jump across species. €œMy lab has
never conducted or cooperated in conducting GOF experiments
that enhance the virulence of viruses,€ she said.

€˜Speculation rooted in utter distrust.
Concerns have centered not only on what experiments Dr. Shi
conducted, but also on the conditions under which she did them.
Some of Dr. Shis experiments on bat viruses were done in
Biosafety Level 2 labs, where security is lower than in other
labs at the institute. That has raised questions about whether
a dangerous pathogen could have slipped out.

Ralph Baric, a prominent UNC Chapel Hill expert in coronas
who signed the open letter in Science, said that although a
natural origin of the virus was likely, he supported a review
of what level of biosafety precautions were taken in studying
bat coronas at the Wuhan inst. Baric conducted N.I.H.-approved
gain-of-function research at his lab at UNC using info on
viral genetic sequences provided by Dr. Shi.

Dr. Shi said that bat viruses in China could be studied in
BSL-2 labs because there was no evidence that they directly
infected humans, a view supported by some other scientists.
She also rejected recent reports that 3 researchers from her
institute had sought treatment at a hospital in Nov 2019 for
flulike symptoms, before the 1st Covid-19 cases were reported.

€œThe Wuhan Inst. of Virology has not come across such cases,€
she wrote. €œIf possible, can you provide the names of the 3
to help us check?€

As for samples that the lab held, Dr. Shi has maintained that
the closest bat virus she had in her lab, which she shared
publicly, was only 96% identical to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that
causes Covid-19 €” a vast difference by genomic standards. She
rejects speculation that her lab had worked on other viruses
in secret.

Dr. Shis research on a group of miners in Yunnan Province
who suffered severe respiratory disease in 2012 has also
drawn questions. The miners had worked in the same cave where
Dr. Shis team later discovered the bat virus that is close
to SARS-CoV-2. Dr. Shi said her lab did not detect bat SARS-
like coronaviruses in the miners samples and that she would
publish more details in a scientific journal soon; her critics
say she has withheld information.

€œThis issue is too important not to come forward with every-
thing you have & in a timely & transparent manner,€ said Alina
Chan, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Broad Institute of
M.I.T. & Harvard who also signed the Science letter.

Many scientists & officials say China should share employees
medical records & the labs logs of its experiments & its
viral sequence database to evaluate Dr. Shis claims.
Dr. Shi said she & the institute had been open with the W.H.O.
& with the global scientific community. €œThis is no longer a
question of science,€ she said on the phone. €œIt is
speculation rooted in utter distrust.€

€˜I have nothing to fear.
The pandemic was a moment that Dr. Shi & her team had long
braced for. For years, she had warned of the risks of a
coronavirus outbreak, building up a stock of knowledge
about these pathogens. In Jan of last year, as Dr. Shi &
her team worked frantically, they were exhausted, but also
excited, said Wang Linfa, a virologist at the Duke-National
University of Singapore Medical School who was in Wuhan with
Dr. Shi at the time.

€œAll the experiences, reagents & the bat samples in the
freezer were finally being used in a significant way
globally,€ said Dr. Wang, Dr. Shis collaborator & friend
for 17 years. Dr. Shi published some of the most important
early papers on SARS-CoV-2 & Covid-19, which scientists
around the world have relied on. But soon, the speculation
about Dr. Shi & her lab began to swirl. Dr. Shi, who is known
among friends for being blunt, was baffled & angry €” &
sometimes let it show.

In an interview with Science mag last July, she said Trump
owed her an apology for claiming the virus came from her lab.
On social media, she said people who raised similar questions
should €œshut your stinky mouths.€

Dr. Shi said what she saw as the politicization of the
question had sapped her of any enthusiasm for investigating
the origins of the virus. She has instead focused on Covid
vaccines & the features of the new virus, & over time, she
said, has calmed down. €œIm sure that I did nothing wrong,€
she wrote. €œSo I have nothing to fear.€
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