Wuhan lab virologist: Viruses discovered so far are just tip of the iceberg

Lab at centre of allegations that COVID-19 pandemic was man-made denies charges

scientists-wuhan-institute-virology-AP In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, researchers work in a lab of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Claims promoted by the Trump administration that the global coronavirus pandemic originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the central Chinese city are a "pure fabrication," the institute's director said Sunday, May 24, 2020 | Chinatopix Via AP

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses China’s only level-four biosafety lab, has been studying coronaviruses for years, ever since the 2003 SARS epidemic prompted greater research into the role of bats in spreading such viruses.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, conspiracy theories quickly emerged that the lab could have played a role in the origin of the novel coronavirus. Scientists pointed out that the virus showed no signs of being man-made and was natural in origin, but many—including US President Donald Trump—have continued to blame the lab and China for originating the deadly virus.

Rebuffing criticism of the lab’s alleged role in the spread of the novel coronavirus, the institute’s director, Wang Yanyi, called such allegations “pure fabrication” and said that the institute had never dealt with anything like the SARS-CoV-2 virus before.

“Our institute first received the clinical sample of the unknown pneumonia on December 30 last year. After we checked the pathogen within the sample, we found it contained a new coronavirus, which is now called SARS-CoV-2. We didn't have any knowledge before that, nor had we ever encountered, researched or kept the virus,” Wang told CGTN.

Wang added that Shi Zhengli, who had been studying coronaviruses for over 15 years, had three strains of live coronaviruses taken from bats in the institute.

“After many years of research, Professor Shi and her team have isolated and obtained some coronaviruses from bats. Now we have three strains of live viruses. One of them has the highest similarity, 96 percent to the SARS virus. But their highest similarity to SARS-CoV-2 only reaches 79.8 percent,” Wang said.

In another interview with CGTN, professor Shi that the viruses discovered so far as “just the tip of the iceberg”. Shi Zhengli told CGTN that she would continue studying unidentified pathogens. "There are many types of bats and other wild animals in nature [which could potentialy be the carriers of many viruses]. The viruses that we have discovered are just the tip of the iceberg," she said, adding that they had to learn about viruses carried by wild animals and give early warnings, store drugs and detection reagents for future prevention and control.

“These viruses exist in nature whether we admit it or not. If we don't study them, there will possibly be another outbreak, and we wouldn't know them. So the job we are doing now is to find the viruses before they find us,” Shi said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had on May 3 claimed that the US had “enormous evidence” that the virus originated in the WIV. Pompeo’s statement prompted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson to provide the evidence.

Pompeo later appeared to back away from the allegation, telling Breitbart that “we know it began in Wuhan, but we don’t know from where or from whom, and those are important things”.

The World Health Organisation in April also said that there was no evidence that the virus originated in a lab. A published in Nature Medicine in March said that their analyses “clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus” on account of indicators that the virus emerged due to natural selection rather than human agency.