New footage from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China has revealed that live bats were kept in cages despite the WHO's claims that such a possibility was a "conspiracy", reigniting a debate on the origins of the coronavirus.
The infamous lab is at the center of a theory that Covid-19 wasn’t, as many scientists believe, transmitted from bats to people via an unknown intermediary, but was instead leaked, intentionally or not, from the institute.
A joint investigation by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and China into the origins of the disease had called the chance of a laboratory leak “extremely unlikely” and the idea that bats were held at the institute “an error”, the NZ Herald reported.
“No BATS were sent to Wuhan lab for genetic analysis of viruses collected in the field. That’s not how this science works. We collect bat samples, send them to the lab. We RELEASE bats where we catch them,” a member of the WHO team, zoologist Dr Peter Daszak, wrote in a December tweet.
“This is a widely circulated conspiracy theory. This piece describes work I’m the lead on and labs I’ve collaborated with for 15 years,” he wrote in another. “They DO NOT have live or dead bats in them. There is no evidence anywhere that this happened. It’s an error I hope will be corrected.”
Earlier this month, Daszak appeared to walk back his earlier denials, writing on Twitter that the WHO team had not asked the institute if they housed bats.
While the lab leak theory has recently gained traction – despite no new scientific evidence – the prospect that Covid-19 jumped from bats into humans via an intermediate animal, a process known as “zoonosis”, still remains the more likely scenario, experts have said.
On Tuesday, the Chinese scientist at the center of theories that the coronavirus pandemic originated with a leak from her specialized lab in the city of Wuhan has denied 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,” she told the US daily.
The leak hypothesis had been floated earlier during the global outbreak, including by US President Joe Biden's predecessor Donald Trump, but was widely dismissed as a conspiracy theory.
But it has gained increasing traction recently, fueled by reports that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in 2019 after visiting a bat cave in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan.
Shi is an expert in bat coronaviruses, and some scientists have said she could have been leading so-called "gain-of-function” 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 Shi and her colleagues at the Wuhan laboratory published a report on an experiment "in which they created new hybrid bat coronaviruses by mixing and matching parts of several existing ones — including at least one that was nearly transmissible to humans — in order to study their ability to infect and replicate in human cells.”
But in an email to the paper, Shi said her experiments differed from gain-of-function 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.