Professor Shi welcomes visit to Wuhan virology lab, lab quickly says that’s not approved

Yesterday the BBC published an interesting piece about the origin of the coronavirus. The piece notes that a team of scientists working for WHO are belatedly examining the evidence for the virus’ origins in China. The group of 10 is scheduled to visit Wuhan next month to examine the wet market once thought to be the site where the virus may have jumped from some intermediate mammal to humans.

In light of that pending visit the BBC sent questions to Dr. Shi Zhengli from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Dr. Shi is the person who has been collecting hundreds of coronaviruses from bats in the south of China and bringing them back to Wuhan for study. She seemed eager to do anything that would clear her name and that of the WIV from the suspicion that a lab leak of some kind was the origin of the virus:

“I have communicated with the WHO experts twice,” she wrote, when asked if an investigation might help rule out a lab leak and end the speculation. “I have personally and clearly expressed that I would welcome them to visit the WIV,” she said.

To a follow-up question about whether that would include a formal investigation with access to the WIV’s experimental data and laboratory records, Prof Shi said: “I would personally welcome any form of visit based on an open, transparent, trusting, reliable and reasonable dialogue. But the specific plan is not decided by me.”

The BBC subsequently received a call from the WIV’s press office, saying that Prof Shi was speaking in a personal capacity and her answers had not been approved by the WIV.

In other words, don’t count on that visit to the WIV happening anytime soon.

There’s another interesting aspect of the BBC story. One of the viruses Dr. Shi collected from bats is the closest known relative to COVID-19. The virus called RaTG13 is 96.2% similar to COVID and was discovered in a mine shaft in Tongguan, a remote district in south China. The remaining difference seems small but is considered far too significant to bridge with a few tweaks in a lab.

Still, the BBC reports that back in 2012 six workers in the same mine “succumbed to a mystery illness that eventually claimed the lives of three of them.” The fact that these workers died and that COVID-19s nearest known relative was found in the same mine seems like an avenue for further investigation, but when the BBC tried to travel to the mine they were literally blocked by Chinese officials:

The remote district of Tongguan, in China’s south-western province of Yunnan, is hard to reach at the best of times. But when a BBC team tried to visit recently, it was impossible.

Plain-clothes police officers and other officials in unmarked cars followed us for miles along the narrow, bumpy roads, stopping when we did, backtracking with us when we were forced to turn around.

We found obstacles in our way, including a “broken-down” lorry, which locals confirmed had been placed across the road a few minutes before we arrived.

And we ran into checkpoints at which unidentified men told us their job was to keep us out.

…the attempts of Chinese authorities to stop us reaching the site are a sign of how hard they’re working to control the narrative.

The BBC crew didn’t have scientists on hand to collect samples. They were there to take pictures. So the effort to block them isn’t about stopping the scientific effort to identify the origin of the virus, it’s about preventing a possible origin site being splashed on front pages around the world. As it has been for a year, China is mostly focused on public relations for the CCP. Meanwhile, as the BBC points out, state news outlets continue to suggest the virus may have originated somewhere outside China’s borders.

So it’s possible that Dr. Shi is legitimately frustrated that she can’t prove her lab had nothing to do with this. But doing that would mean opening the lab to examination which would once again raise questions China doesn’t want to see raised.

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