“Bat Woman” is the affectionate nickname China’s people use for their top bat virus expert. Find out why she spoke out this week.
In a previous story, we dealt with various rumours concerning the origin of COVID-19. These included some of the more outrageous conspiracy theories like 5G and the idea that the virus is a bioweapon.
We also dealt with speculation that the virus might have accidentally escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) from an honest mistake. Reports from the Washington Post and Fox News provided circumstantial evidence that the lab was a bit lax and that an intern had inadvertently carried the virus home.
In discussing that possibility, we introduced readers to Dr. Shi Zhengli, a virologist and the director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the WIV. For the last few years, her specialty has been SARS-like coronaviruses in bats.
She’s Become Famous in China
She’s become famous in China since her discovery in 2005 that China’s 2003 SARS outbreak came from bat populations. She’s now known affectionately throughout China by her nickname “Bat Woman.”
When speculation first emerged that the virus might have escaped from the WIV, she was adamant that this was not the case. Of course, a possible leak was the first thing she thought of when she heard about the outbreak.
Dr. Shi told Scientific American at that time that she started running tests immediately. She insists that none of the virus DNA from the first few patients matched anything in her lab.
“I Had Not Slept a Wink for Days”
“That really took a load off my mind,” she recalled. “I had not slept a wink for days.” Since giving that interview, we hadn’t heard much from the diligent Bat Woman about any aspect of the pandemic, which seemed suspicious.
This week, Dr. Shi has broken her silence. She agreed to exchange emails with the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) publication Science.
Shi reiterated that “We had never been in contact with or studied this virus, nor did we know of its existence.” Her team discovered the virus from samples taken from patients with a mysterious form of pneumonia whose origin doctors couldn’t explain.
“Conducted Research, and Quickly Identified the Pathogen”
She went into more detail about how her lab sprung into action.“We rapidly conducted research in parallel with other domestic institutions, and quickly identified the pathogen,” she wrote.
According to Dr. Shi, the virus entered the lab after the outbreak started and not the reverse. The WIV team received it from human patients, not from bats.
She had some particularly choice words for the current occupant of the White House. Dr. Shi stated that his “claim that SARS-CoV-2 was leaked from our institute totally contradicts the facts.”
“He Owes Us An Apology”
Dr. Shi went on to say, “It jeopardizes and affects our academic work and personal life. He owes us an apology.”
There’s a reason Dr. Shi gives for being so adamant in her statements. Her lab has only isolated and cultured three SARS-like bat coronaviruses in the last fifteen years.
So it wasn’t terribly difficult or complicated to rule out those three strains early in the process. Dr. Shi told Science that claims that the novel coronavirus had evolved from lab specimens were baseless.
Stories Circulated that Lab Engineered Virus
Dr. Shi was even more distressed by other rumours. Stories circulated that the lab deliberately engineered the virus as part of some kind of germ warfare.
As for carelessness on the part of an intern or any other staff member, China’s respected Bat Women also ruled that out. She had everyone in the lab, staff or student, tested for novel coronavirus antibodies. Not one person came out positive.
That means none of them have COVID-19. It also means that they’ve never had it, and they’ve never been exposed to the coronavirus that causes it.
The Pandemic Didn’t Start in the WIV Lab
So, no, based on the test results, the pandemic didn’t start in the WIV lab, nor was it transmitted to the public by WIV staff. I should admit that I have speculated along those lines in these pages, and I apologize for that.
In an example of the kind of pettiness we’ve come to expect from the current US administration, Dr. Shi’s team received a gratuitous insult. The US National Institutes of Health, on orders from the White House, cut off a grant to the EcoHealth Alliance in New York City.
Why was their funding suddenly shut off? Some of their research into bat viruses entailed collaborating with China’s WIV and its notorious Bat Woman. This should be shocking, but nothing shocks anyone anymore.
Is She Allowed to Speak Freely?
Of course, we are dealing with Communist China in all of this. Even if Dr. Shi has the best of intentions, is she allowed to speak freely? Could the party brass be forcing her to lie?
Clearly, her email statements have gone through channels. Reviewers definitely included public information staff at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which would happen in any large institution.
Still, it took her more than two months to answer the questions in the email from Science. We’d all have to assume that something akin to Orwell’s Ministry of Truth looked over everything she had to say.
Something Akin to Orwell’s Ministry of Truth
To address that, Science asked for a peer review of her responses by Kristian Anderson. Professor Anderson is an immunologist at Scripps Research.
Although Dr. Anderson found the answers “carefully vetted,” they’re also “logical, genuine, and stick to the science as one would have expected from a world-class scientist.” Others disagree.
Molecular biologist Richard Elbright from Rutgers has been demanding an investigation into the lab accident theory for months. He described Dr. Shi’s answers as “formulaic, almost robotic, reiterations of statements previously made by Chinese authorities and state media.”
White House Insists on Calling It the Chinese Virus
Of course, any squabbling among the scientists is amplified beyond recognition by the politicians. The White House continues to insist on calling COVID-19 the Chinese Virus and accusing China of causing it.
For their part, Chinese officials suggest that the virus might have originated in the United States. They claim that athletes could have carried the disease into China during the World Military Games.
Let’s ignore all the sniping back and forth. If the virus didn’t escape from the WIV lab, where does China’s world-class Bat Woman think it started?
Started in Bats and Made Its Way into Humans
Dr. Shi doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Still, she supports the expert consensus that, like SARS, it started in bats and made its way into humans, probably via some other species.
Naturally, Dr. Shi was obliged to weigh in on all the speculation about the much-maligned local seafood market. In line with other experts, Dr. Shi suggested, “The Huanan seafood market may just be a crowded location where a cluster of early novel coronavirus patients were found.”
China’s popular Bat Woman wasn’t always so cautious in her choice of words. In February, on her social media feed, she opined that COVID-19 was “nature punishing the uncivilized habits and customs of humans.”
“Nature Punishing the Uncivilized Habits of Humans”
We’ve brought this up on this site as well. Many scientists agree that new diseases are arising more often from human intrusion into natural habitats.
This is yet another reason we, as a species, need to learn new ways to conserve our wilderness areas.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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