Chinese scientist at heart of Covid controversy denies lab leak theory

WASHINGTON : The Chinese scientist at the centre of theories that the coronavirus pandemic originated with a leak from her specialised lab in Wuhan has denied that her institution was to blame for the health disaster.

"How on earth can I offer up evidence for something where there is no evidence?" Dr Shi Zhengli told The New York Times in rare comments to the media.

"I don't know how the world has come to this, constantly pouring filth on an innocent scientist."

US President Joe Biden last month ordered intelligence agencies to investigate the origin of the pandemic, including the lab leak theory.

The theory has gained increasing traction recently, fuelled by reports that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in 2019 after visiting a bat cave in the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan.

Dr Shi, 57, is an expert in bat coronaviruses, and some scientists have said she could have been leading so-called "gain-of-function" (GOF) experiments in which scientists increase the strength of a virus to better study its effects on hosts.

According to The New York Times, in 2017, Dr Shi and her colleagues published a report on an experiment "in which they created new hybrid bat coronaviruses... in order to study their ability to infect and replicate in human cells".

But in an e-mail to the paper, Dr Shi said her experiments differed from GOF experiments since they did not seek to make a virus more dangerous.

Instead they were trying to understand how the virus might jump across species.

"My lab has never conducted or cooperated in conducting GOF experiments that enhance the virulence of viruses," she said. - AFP