Amid Wuhan lab's denials, why a copper mine is back in focus in COVID origin hunt

In April 2012, 6 miners tasked with clearing bat excreta in the mine fell ill, 3 died

wuhan lab rep Representational image of Wuhan Institute of Virology | Chinatopix Via AP

 On Monday, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), one of China's premier virology research institutions, was back in the news after The Wall Street Journal reported that three researchers became ill with symptoms similar to COVID-19 in November 2019.

The report reignited the 'Wuhan lab leak' theory that claimed COVID-19 had leaked from the research institution. Not surprisingly, the Wuhan Institute of Virology has dismissed the reports.

Yuan Zhiming, director of the WIV's Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory told China's Global Times tabloid that The Wall Street Journal report was a "complete lie".

"Those claims are groundless. The lab has not been aware of this situation [sick researchers in autumn 2019], and I don't even know where such information came from," Yuan told the Global Times.

China has consistently denied reports linking the origin of COVID-19 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Abandoned mine back in focus

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that one of its reporters was detained by police in China's Mojiang where he was questioned. The police deleted from the reporter's cellphone a photograph of an abandoned copper mine in Mojiang, which has been linked to the origins of COVID-19.

In April 2012, six miners tasked with clearing bat excreta in the mine fell ill with severe pneumonia and three of them subsequently died.

The incident at the Mojiang mine had ignited curiosity the world years before the pandemic began. Scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology visited the site to take samples of bats and identified multiple new coronavirus variants.

The Wall Street Journal reported that questions about the nature of the illness of the miners and research by the Wuhan Institute, in addition to China's continuing curbs on reporting from the Mojiang area, have "have elevated into the mainstream an idea once dismissed as a conspiracy theory: that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, might have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, the city where the first cases were found in December 2019".

The Wall Street Journal quoted material from academic theses in China to shed light on the nature of the illness experienced by the miners in 2012, which bear similarities to COVID-19. The Wall Street Journal noted one of the miners "had suffered from a fever and cough for two weeks... he had trouble breathing and had begun coughing up rust-color mucus spotted with blood. A CT scan revealed severe pneumonia, with the same lung markings now seen in many COVID-19 patients".

At the time, Chinese researchers suspected the cause of the illness was "a bat-borne SARS-like coronavirus". The Wall Street Journal reported Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers worked at the mine, taking samples from 276 bats. "Half of the samples tested positive for coronaviruses, including an unidentified strain of a SARS-like one, according to the scientists. They called the virus RaBtCoV/4991,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

Bat woman led research

Interestingly, the research was led by Shi Zhengli, a renowned researcher referred to as China's "bat woman". In a February 2020 research paper published in Nature, Shi and her colleagues revealed the existence of a virus called RaTG13, which sequencing showed to be 96.2 per cent similar to SARS-CoV-2. This made RaTG13, the closest "relative" of COVID-19 in genetic terms.

However, the claims in Nature raised suspicion overseas. "… some scientists outside China noticed striking similarities in the sampling dates and partial genetic sequences of the virus called RaTG13 and the one called RaBtCoV/4991, which Dr. Shi’s team had found in the Mojiang mine. After repeated requests by scientists to clarify the issue, Dr. Shi said that the two viruses were one and the same. She updated her paper in Nature in November to reflect that and include details about the sick miners," The Wall Street Journal reported.

Last week, Shi and her team released a paper that referred to RaTG13 and its links to novel coronavirus. "The paper said the eight [coronaviruses found in the mine] were almost identical to each other and only 77.6% similar to SARS-CoV-2, although one part of their genetic code was a 97.2% match. 'Albeit there is a speculation claiming the possible leaking of RaTG13 from lab that caused SARS-CoV-2, the experiment evidence cannot support it,' the paper said. Critically, all six bat species [found in the mine] showed evidence of coronavirus co-infection, the researchers found. In other words, the virus could easily exchange genetic material with similar ones to create a new coronavirus—an environment ripe for the creation of new viruses that could potentially infect humans," The Wall Street Journal reported.

China has continued to block access to the Mojiang mine.

In December, Associated Press had reported China was keeping the Mojiang mine off limits to researchers and journalists. "A bat research team that visited recently had their samples confiscated, two people familiar with the matter said. And a team of Associated Press journalists was tailed by plainclothes police in multiple cars who blocked access to sites in late November," Associated Press reported.