The top Chinese scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology denied that her lab has been conducting classified research with the Chinese military, contradicting claims from the U.S. intelligence community that the Wuhan lab carried out secret projects with the People’s Liberation Army for years.
Officials from the Trump and Biden administrations have said the Chinese government worked to thwart investigations into the origins of the virus, which has killed 2.73 million worldwide, and the World Health Organization-China report is slated to be released soon.
Dr. Shi Zhengli, known as “bat lady” for her work with coronaviruses, gave an online presentation for Rutgers New Jersey Medical School on Tuesday in which she contradicted information tying the Wuhan lab to the Chinese military that was laid out in a declassified fact sheet released by the Trump State Department in January.
Jamie Metzl, a WHO advisory committee member who has called for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19, pressed Shi at the end of her presentation, asking if she had knowledge of all the work done at the Wuhan lab and on the full repository of viruses there and if the U.S. government claims about classified military research at the lab were accurate. Shi dismissed it as a false rumor.
“OK, firstly, the [Wuhan lab] is an institute belong to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. We — our work, our research is open, and we have a lot of international collaboration. And from my knowledge, all our research work is open, is transparency,” Shi said in audio provided to the Washington Examiner by the White Coat Waste Project. “So, at the beginning of COVID-19, we heard the rumors that it claimed in our laboratory we have some project, blah blah, with army, blah blah, these kinds of rumors. But this is not correct because I am the … director and responsible for research activity. I don’t know any kind of research work performed in this lab. This is incorrect information.”
A State Department fact sheet released in mid-January contended that “despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military” and that the Wuhan lab “has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
The fact sheet also said Wuhan lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar)” and that the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.”
“Both of these claims cannot simultaneously be true,” Metzl tweeted Tuesday about assertions by the U.S. and Shi. “If Shi Zhengli is correct, the credibility of the U.S. State Department and ODNI would be undermined significantly. If the U.S. government is correct, then all of Dr. Shi's claims regarding WIV research & the absence of SARS-CoV-2 or precursor viruses in WIV repositories would be in doubt.”
Metzl added: “If the Chinese military was doing secret animal pathogen research at or with the WIV & Chinese government / WIV officials were lying about this to the WHO, media, & world, the case for an accidental lab leak followed by a cover up would grow significantly stronger.”
During an interview last week, the Washington Examiner asked former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo what the U.S. believed the Chinese military was doing at the Wuhan lab, and he said that “I can’t say any more than what we put out in the fact sheet.” When asked if he could say the U.S. believed the Chinese military was involved with research there, Pompeo replied, “That’s correct, and it is a high-confidence assessment that that’s the case.”
Pompeo said the declassified fact sheet effort was led by the State Department with input from the intelligence community and that “we wanted to share what we believed was important information about the origination of the virus and the risks of what was taking place at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Multiple Trump officials have defended the declassified intelligence on the Wuhan lab.
Former President Donald Trump’s spy chief, John Ratcliffe, said in February that “the Chinese military ordered scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to experiment with coronaviruses starting as far back as 2017.”
David Asher, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who helped spearhead a State Department task force looking into COVID-19’s origins, appeared on a panel discussion this month, arguing the Wuhan lab was involved in a “military program” or “military-funded program” he speculated may have been involved in “bio offense” research.
Pompeo told the Washington Examiner that biosecurity was “a long-standing challenge that we knew about, not just, frankly, at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but more broadly with respect to what we knew about the broad scope of the bio-activities that were taking place inside of China.”
U.S. Embassy officials in China raised concerns in 2018 about biosecurity at the Wuhan lab. One State Department cable warned about a “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” It also mentioned meeting with Shi.
Shi originally “wondered if [the municipal health authority] got it wrong,” she told Scientific American last year. She admitted asking herself, “Could they have come from our lab?” But the magazine said she “breathed a sigh of relief when … none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves.” Shi told Chinese state television in August 2020 that “there could not possibly have been a lab leak.”
Peter Daszak, the only American on the WHO-China joint study, leads the EcoHealth Alliance, which steered at least $600,000 in National Institutes of Health funding to the Wuhan lab for bat coronavirus research. Daszak called the lab’s decision to take down a public database containing thousands of viral samples “absolutely reasonable” this month and said it was the fault of “anti-China political rhetoric” in the U.S. that resulted in China blocking an investigation for a year. He previously criticized the Biden administration for appearing skeptical of the WHO’s preliminary findings in February and defended China to CCP outlets.
Shi thanked Daszak and NIH in her presentation slides Tuesday.
Peter Ben Embarek, the head of the WHO group that investigated the coronavirus's origins, said in late February that “we didn’t do an audit of any of these labs, so we don’t really have hard facts or detailed data on the work done” at the Wuhan lab.
It is yet unclear when the WHO-China report will be released.
The Chinese government denies that the coronavirus originated in the Wuhan lab and has cast doubt on the idea that it originated in Wuhan, including using Chinese diplomats to push conspiracy theories that it started with the U.S. military.
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