One of Wuhan’s top virologists – known as “Bat Woman” by colleagues for her expertise on coronaviruses in bats – has kept out of the public eye amid reports this month that she had defected from China and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Paris with 1,000 pages of confidential research in hand, Japan’s Nikkei reported on Thursday.
Shi Zhengli, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, is an expert researcher on coronaviruses in bats and has studied the subject at her Wuhan lab for years. News of her disappearance comes amid increasing reports that the Wuhan coronavirus, which has caused a global pandemic responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, may have originated in the Wuhan laboratory she directed.
Reports surfaced in early May that Shi may have defected from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s regime, fleeing Wuhan for the U.S. Embassy in Paris along with her family and hundreds of pages of intelligence files.
According to a May 2 article by the CCP newspaper Global Times, Shi denied the reports that she had defected. The CCP alleged that Shi issued a statement via social media saying she would never betray her country.
“No matter how difficult things are, it [defecting] shall never happen,” the statement appearing on her WeChat account reportedly read.
The Nikkei’s report describes Shi as “one of the people most likely to know the truth about [the Wuhan coronavirus’s] origin.” As the report points out, Shi herself has remained largely silent so far on the origin of the Wuhan coronavirus. Any statements allegedly made by Shi, such as her CCP-approved social media statement on May 2, have yet to be proven as having come directly from her.
The CCP’s promotion of the social media post, in the absence of Shi offering public comments, does not necessarily mean the statement came from her, given the Communist party stands accused of silencing and punishing several Wuhan doctors who tried to share information about the novel coronavirus this year in the early months of its initial outbreak.
What Shi is reported to have said upon being notified of the first cases of the novel coronavirus by Wuhan authorities in December seems most revealing. In an article about Shi and the Wuhan coronavirus originally published on March 11 by the Scientific American, Shi told the magazine she immediately suspected that the novel coronavirus cases may have emerged from her Wuhan lab and asked herself, “Could they have come from our lab?” Shi continued:
I wondered if [the Wuhan municipal health authority] got it wrong,” she says. “I had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China.” Her studies had shown that the southern, subtropical provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan have the greatest risk of coronaviruses jumping to humans from animals—particularly bats, a known reservoir. If coronaviruses were the culprit, she remembers thinking, “Could they have come from our lab?”
According to an editor’s note, the Scientific American article was updated since its original March publication for inclusion in the magazine’s June 2020 issue and “to address rumors that SARS-CoV-2 [Wuhan coronavirus] emerged from Shi Zhengli’s lab in China.” In the updated version, the author says she interviewed Shi after the initial lockdown of Wuhan was lifted in April. Although the stated purpose of the additional interview in April was to “address rumors” that the Wuhan coronavirus emerged from Shi’s lab, Shi still refused the opportunity to deny the reports. Instead, she is described as “distressed” at the allegations. Perhaps tellingly, Shi did say of the matter, “What we have uncovered is just the tip of an iceberg.”