The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been at the centre of suspicion over the outbreak of coronavirus after unverified reports suggesting Covid-19 escaped from it
An ex-employee at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) has hit back at claims that the deadly Covid-19 strain of coronavirus spread after being leaked from the lab.
The Chinese city is at the centre of international suspicion after unverified reports suggesting Covid-19 escaped from a research centre.
Coronavirus has killed more than 316,000 people across the world since first emerging in China towards the end of 2019.
Zhao Fei, who studied and worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) for several years until the end of 2018, published a long defence of the institute on ScienceNet over the weekend.
His article rejected theories suggesting the Covid-19 virus was manufactured in – or had accidentally leaked from – the institute.
Zhao accused media reports and politicians of “smearing” the institute and its renowned researcher Shi Zhengli after the Covid-19 virus was first reported in Wuhan in central China late last year.
During his time at the institute, Shi had worked extensively with bat coronaviruses.
“From my personal point of view, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Shi Zhengli should stand up and refute the rumours and stigmas one by one but they are also subject to certain restrictions in this situation,” Zhao wrote.
“I believe it is better for you to honestly, objectively, and rationally tell everyone the real situation, including your work, efforts, achievements and the pressure you are facing, your responsibilities, and even your mistakes … it would be far better and more convincing than my response and analysis.”
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While he acknowledged that it took valuable time for scientists to counter rumours, Zhao wrote on ScienceNet that an official spokesperson for the institute should promptly release information during the pandemic, grant permission for individual scientists to speak up about their work and take action against people spreading rumours or false information.
ScienceNet is a Chinese science blog co-sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Engineering, National Natural Science Foundation of China, and China Association for Science and Technology.
Zhao’s piece comes amid mounting pressure for an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus and Beijing’s handling of the pandemic.
While there is an international push to find the source of the virus there is also growing international scepticism of the US administration’s claim that it has proof the new coronavirus came from the Wuhan lab.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has dismissed all suggestions it was the origin of the pandemic and Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, called Trump’s claims “disinformation”.
Questions have been raised about potential links between the outbreak and the Wuhan institute, given its proximity to a seafood market linked to early cases of the coronavirus, but scientists say the virus most likely spread to humans from an animal source.
Some scientists say the new coronavirus is most likely of natural origin because its genomic sequence is about 96% identical to that of the Rhinolophus affinis bat.
Beijing and Washington have sparred over culpability in the pandemic. The White House has accused the Chinese government of cover-ups and a lack of transparency, while Beijing said this was an effort to shift the blame from missteps in the US pandemic response.
In his piece, Zhao questioned the “ulterior motives” of some people raising concerns about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and defended the security protocols in place at the top-level lab.
He also outlined the work the institute had done since the first coronavirus cases were reported, including successfully isolating the Covid-19 virus strain and conducting research into vaccines.
“Even while the research institute has worked its hardest to fight against the epidemic, it has faced rumours that are causing a great clamour, suspicions with no evidence, clearly targeted rumours and sinister slander from some new media outlets,” he wrote.
“After the virus spread to the entire world, media and politicians in some countries disregarded the professional opinions of the world’s scientists to insist on pointing a finger at China and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, if not to concoct sensationalised fake news, then to shift the blame and divert attention, or for some other political purpose.”
Zhao said there was no evidence that the virus was not of natural origin or that weak security protocols in the Wuhan lab had allowed the virus to leak.
It is highly likely the coronavirus occurred naturally and is not man-made and the institution has repeatedly denied the accusations that it escaped from the facility.
Yuan Zhiming, director of the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory said in an interview with the state-run China Global Television Network: “There is absolutely no way that the virus originated from our institute.”
The institute began construction on the lab’s current “national biosafety laboratory” in Wuhan in 2005 after the 2003 SARS outbreak, its website reads.
It was completed in 2015 and received “recognition and authentication certificate for the critical protection equipment installation and commissioning”, it continues.