Coronavirus outbreak: Did a Chinese 'bat expert' actually release the virus from her laboratory in Wuhan?

Shi Zhengli helped hunt the original animal source of SARS and she is being blamed for COVID-19

                            Coronavirus outbreak: Did a Chinese 'bat expert' actually release the virus from her laboratory in Wuhan?
(Getty Images)

A Chinese scientist gained massive online presence after linking the new coronavirus outbreak to cave-dwelling bats. But for the wrong reasons.

Daily internet searches for Shi Zhengli's name increased and some people called Shi the “mother of the devil”, according to the South China Morning Post.

The reason: many blame her for the outbreak that has killed more than 1,300 people and infected over 60,000 people worldwide, as of Wednesday, February 12.

It all began in 2004. At that time, she was involved in an investigation that traced the origins of the SARS outbreak to cave-dwelling bats, providing proof that these mammals were the virus's natural hosts.

After providing proof that SARS pathogen was a bat virus that had spilled over into people, Zhengli and "colleagues have been tracing coronaviruses in bats since then, warning that some of them are uniquely suited to cause human pandemics," David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, told The New York Times.

(AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Sixteen years later, following reports of the outbreak, she wanted to check whether the new coronavirus bore some similarity with the virus she found on the cave-dwelling virus.

Turns out, her hunch was right: she found a 96% match after comparing their genes, meaning they are closely related. Identifying the animal source is crucial to preventing such outbreaks from taking off again, according to experts.

Using data gathered from her adventures in 2004, Zhengli and her team built a large database of bat-related viruses. This came in handy for her new study.

Only this time her work attracted a barrage of attacks.  People allege that the virus --collected from her bat-hunting adventures from March to December 2004 -- had escaped out of her lab in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

As the intensity of the attacks grew, Zhengli reached out to all her friends on the social media site WeChat: “I swear with my life, [the virus] has nothing to do with the lab."

These attacks have not dissuaded Zhengli, however. She is collaborating with other scientists from different backgrounds to uncover several of the viruses' mysteries.  Responding to the social media allegations, she told South China Morning Post, "My time must be spent on more important matters.”

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