Meet Wuhan 'bat woman' at the centre of US-China battle over COVID-19 'lab' origins

There were rumours that Shi Zhengli defected from China to the US

Shi Zhengli Shi Zhengli | Twitter

Speaking on ABC's This Week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday reiterated President Trump's commments on the 'man-made' nature of novel coronavirus, and said that there was significant evidence that the virus emanated from a laboratory in Wuhan. He said he had no reason to believe that the virus was deliberately spread. "But," he added, "Remember, China has a history of infecting the world, and they have a history of running substandard laboratories. These are not the first times that we've had a world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab."

He added: "And so, while the intelligence community continues to do its work, they should continue to do that, and verify so that we are certain, I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan."

This seemed a continuation of a geopolitical game of tag between Washington and its trade rival Beijing, with the latter repeatedly pushing back on US accusations that the outbreak was China's fault, pointing to many missteps made by American officials in their own fight against the outbreak.

But, a leading Chinese virologist is now at the centre of the Washington-Beijing war of words. Shi Zhengli, known as the 'bat woman' for her passionate research about bats and the viruses associated with them, had to refute rumours of her defection to the US after online chatter circulated that she had leaked critical info to Washington, the South China Morning Post reported. 

"Shi has been troubled by rumours for quite a long time. The recent rumour which has been circulating on overseas social media platforms said that Shi Zhengli, director at Wuhan Institute of Virology, has defected with a treasure trove of intelligence to the US embassy in Paris," Chinese media reports said.

Denying "rumours" of "defecting to the West", Shi on her WeChat account wrote, "Everything is alright for my family and me, dear friends!" She also posted nine photos of her recent life, the Global Times reported.

In the post, Shi, reported to be the Director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), said, "No matter how difficult, it (defecting) shall never happen. We've done nothing wrong. With strong belief in science, we will see the day when the clouds disperse and the sun shines."

Who is Shi Zhengli?

The publication National Interest reported that  Zhengli was a world-renowned researcher into bat-based viruses, and part of the team that, in 2005, determined that the SARS virus originated in bats. "Shi's work has often taken her to caves in remote areas of China, and she was called in almost immediately following the discovery of what's now called the coronavirus," according to the report.

There were questions about her absence since December last year when the virus began spreading in Wuhan and then the rest of China and the world.

While some reports said she was muzzled by the Chinese government after she unlocked the genome sequence of the coronavirus on January 2, others said she may have been defected to the West.

The Global Times report said it is not the first time that Shi responded to the rumours on her WeChat account.

On February 2, she said on her WeChat Moment that, "the 2019 novel coronavirus is a punishment by nature to humans' unsanitary lifestyles. I promise with my life that the virus has nothing to do with the lab," in a response to an article by Indian scientists implying the novel coronavirus possibly originated from the WIV, Chinese media reports said.

China is resisting mounting pressure from the US and the leaders of many countries for an inquiry into the origin of the virus, which was initially stated to have emerged from a wet market in Wuhan selling live animals located close to WIV.

On April 29, state television CGTN reported that US scientists are working with their Chinese counterparts to investigate the origin of the coronavirus, a prime demand of Trump and several other countries.

The report said China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is facilitating the cooperation between Dr E.N. Lipkin, Director for Centre for Infection and Immunity of Columbia University, and Prof Lu Jinhai of Sun-Yat-Sen University of Guangzhou to conduct the probe.

-Inputs from AFP via PTI