The Chinese virologist at the center of a theory that Covid-19 originated in a laboratory in Wuhan has angrily denied the claims as "filth" in a rare interview.
Dr Shi Zhengli is the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) leading expert on coronaviruses and her work has fuelled speculation over how the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in the same city.
The WIV’s refusal to allow an independent investigation of its laboratory or its research into coronaviruses has further fuelled suspicions that Covid-19 may have originated and leaked from the institute.
But Dr Shi has rejected calls for further scrutiny of the WIV, telling the New York Times: "How on earth can I offer up evidence for something where there is no evidence?"
“I don’t know how the world has come to this, constantly pouring filth on an innocent scientist,” she added.
Dr Shi Zhengli's research team studied coronaviruses in bats in caves
Credit: Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences
International scientists generally agree that the virus most likely had natural origins, possibly spreading from bats to humans through another unknown animal.
But many experts and governments have stressed the lab leak theory cannot be ruled out until China allows further investigation.
The theory has gained traction in recent weeks after a US intelligence report suggested three researchers from the WIV were hospitalised with flu-like symptoms a month before the first Covid-19 cases were reported.
Amid growing questions over the virus’ origin, US president Joe Biden ordered his intelligence agencies to "redouble" their investigations into the origin of the pandemic.
Dr Shi denied the reports that three researchers from her institute had received hospital treatment in November 2019.
But the virologist’s work on bat coronaviruses has been a focal point of the lab leak theory, with some suggesting her experiments create an unnecessary risk.
In 2017, Dr Shi and her colleagues at the WIV published a report on studies of bats carrying coronaviruses in a cave in southwestern China.
The report noted that at least one of the viruses appeared to be "capable of direct transmission to humans”.
But in her interview with the New York Times, Dr Shi insisted the closest bat viruses she had in her lab was only 96 per cent identical to SARS-CoV-2 – the official name for the Covid-19 virus – a significant amount by genomic standards.
She also insisted her lab has "never conducted or cooperated in conducting" gain-of-function experiments, which can strengthen viruses or make them more infectious.
Instead, Dr Shi said, they were trying to understand how the virus might jump across species.
“I’m sure that I did nothing wrong,” she said of the renewed scrutiny of her work. “So I have nothing to fear.”