'Lab leak' theory unfounded

2021-07-23 China Daily Editor:Mo Hong'e

Claim about institute workers' infection 'created out of thin air', researcher says

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has never engineered or leaked the novel coronavirus and no staff members have ever contracted the virus, a researcher from the institute said on Thursday.

Yuan Zhiming, who is also director of the National Biosafety Laboratory in Wuhan, Hubei province, said that the institute had not come in contact with, preserved or researched the virus before Dec 30, 2019.

"The infrastructure, management levels, team composition and working protocols at the institute's P4 biosafety laboratory are the same as other P4 labs in operation around the world," he said at a news conference held by the State Council Information Office. "Since the laboratory began operating in 2018, no laboratory leaks or human infection incidents have ever happened."

Yuan said the laboratory has stable and reliable biosafety precautions in place, and has established complete biosafety management systems and a professional team to strengthen, manage and maintain its operation.

Dismissing the claim that three workers at the institute were infected with the disease in November 2019, Yuan said those spreading the accusation had never provided any names of the alleged researchers. "The claim has been created out of thin air," he said.

Zeng Yixin, vice-minister of the National Health Commission, added that the institute had never carried out gain-of-function experiments. He added that the closest strain to the novel coronavirus studied at the institute only shared 96.2 percent of their genome sequences, which is not similar enough to be determined as the novel coronavirus' progenitor.

Yuan Zhiming, a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, Hubei province, speaks during a news conference on the origin tracing of the COVID-19 virus in Beijing, July 22, 2021. [Photo by Zhu Xingxin / chinadaily.com.cn]

Yuan said that when the outbreak occurred in Wuhan in December 2019, the institute quickly confirmed the pathogen was a new coronavirus, isolated the strain and analyzed and shared its full genome sequence with the world.

"These research results have laid a foundation for developing tests, screening for antiviral drugs and vaccine research, and have bought time for the global fight against the disease," he said.

Yuan said unfounded accusations that the institute was the source of the outbreak had disrupted its scientific research as well as international communication and cooperation.

From Jan 14 to Feb 10, Chinese and international experts organized by the World Health Organization visited Wuhan to study the origin of the virus.

Liang Wannian, head of Chinese experts on the WHO-convened mission, said that to fully assess the "laboratory leak" theory, the team had conducted field inspections at the institute, and in particular, learned about the institute's implementation of management and safety regulations, as well as its past and current research projects.

"The joint expert panel had already performed detailed reviews and inspections of the lab in Wuhan, and reached the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that the virus originated from a laboratory," he said.

If some scientists still decide to pursue this hypothesis, Liang said, Chinese researchers have suggested that they direct attention to P4 laboratories in other countries, which have so far not been visited by outside experts, and review these labs for possible safety risks and leak incidents.

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