Batwoman or bane?

14 Apr

REVEALED! Shady Chinese lab was performing experiments on BATS! REVEALED! Heroic Chinese lab sequenced virus genome and was GAGGED! Oh no, hang on, they’re the same institution! Aaaaah!

It’s hard to know what to make of the Wuhan Institute of Virology from the Mail on Sunday’s coverage this weekend, especially when these two stories are right next to each other on the homepage at time of writing (and, indeed, appended to each other as footnotes). Are the staff disgusting Frankensteins playing fast and loose with nature, or courageous boffins trying to save the world?

In the scary story:

The Chinese laboratory at the center of scrutiny over a potential coronavirus leak has been using U.S. government money to carry out research on bats from the caves which scientists believe are the original source of the deadly outbreak.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology undertook coronavirus experiments on mammals captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan which were funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government …

The revelation that the Wuhan Institute was experimenting on bats from the area already known to be the source of COVID-19 – and doing so with American money – has sparked further fears that the lab, and not the market, is the original outbreak source.

US Congressman Matt Gaetz said: ‘I’m disgusted to learn that for years the US government has been funding dangerous and cruel animal experiments at the Wuhan Institute, which may have contributed to the global spread of coronavirus, and research at other labs in China that have virtually no oversight from US authorities.’

The $37million Wuhan Institute of Virology, the most advanced laboratory of its type on the Chinese mainland, is based twenty miles from the now infamous wildlife market that was thought to be the location of the original transfer of the virus from animals to humans.

According to documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday, scientists there experimented on bats as part of a project funded by the US National Institutes of Health, which continues to licence the Wuhan laboratory to receive American money for experiments. …

The news that COVID-19 bats were under research there means that a leak from the Wuhan laboratory can no longer be completely ruled out …

American biosecurity expert Professor Richard Ebright, of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, New Jersey, said that while the evidence suggests COVID-19 was not created in one of the Wuhan laboratories, it could easily have escaped from there while it was being analyzed.

Prof Ebright said he has seen evidence that scientists at the Centre for Disease Control and the Institute of Virology studied the viruses with only ‘level 2’ security – rather than the recommended level 4 – which ‘provides only minimal protections against infection of lab workers’.

In the heartwarming story:

… Shi Zhengli [is] known as China’s ‘Bat Woman’ after years spent on difficult virus-hunting expeditions in dank caves that have led to a series of important scientific discoveries.

The virologist was called back to her highsecurity laboratory in Wuhan at the end of last year after a mysterious new respiratory condition in the city was identified as a novel coronavirus – and within three days she completed its gene sequencing …

Shi is a specialist in emerging diseases and has earned global acclaim for work investigating links between bats and coronaviruses, aided by expeditions to collect samples and swabs in the fetid cave networks of southern China.

She was a key part of the team that traced SARS to horseshoe bats through civets, a cat-like creature often eaten in China …

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, based ten miles from the wildlife market blamed as the source of Covid-19, developed a £30million high-security laboratory after the SARS outbreak with French assistance.

It was the first laboratory in China with P4 status – denoting highest global biosafety levels – and contains the largest virus bank in Asia.

It was this fact that sparked now discounted conspiracy theories that Covid-19 was man-made.

Shi, the laboratory’s deputy director, admits that when summoned back from a conference to investigate the new disease, she wondered at first if a coronavirus could have escaped from her unit.

She has warned about the danger of epidemics from bat-borne viruses. But she says she did not expect such an outbreak in Wuhan, in the centre of China, since her studies suggested subtropical areas in the south had the highest risk of such ‘zoonotic’ transmission to humans.

Shi told the respected science journal Scientific American last month of her relief when, having checked back through disposal records, none of the genome sequences matched their virus samples.

‘That really took a load off my mind. I had not slept a wink for days,’ she said. …

Shi has worked alongside many of the world’s top experts on infectious diseases. ‘She is a superb scientist and very nice person,’ said James LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory, a high-security biocontainment centre in Texas.

‘She has been very open and collaborative for the decade I’ve worked with her.’

The fact that Shi’s superiors at the lab may have hushed up her conclusions is not contradicted by anything in the other story, and the wider narrative of Beijing’s bad faith in relation to the outbreak is not affected by either. But this seems to be essentially the same set of facts cooked two ways: one flavoured with angry, shoot-from-the-hip congressmen and conspiracy theories, the other with a personable heroine and glowing character references. An instructive reminder that journalism is not just about what you find out, but also who you then approach for comment.

One Response to “Batwoman or bane?”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Christiansen Method | Ten minutes past deadline - July 21, 2020

    […] As editor, Christiansen used to write a daily bulletin to his staff, and the former Express journalist Geoffrey Mather has collected many of the most engaging quotes from them on his website. They’re fascinating. And they do, as Nash suggests, hint at a journalist of a somewhat different type to Dacre and MacKenzie: one constantly struggling, not always successfully, to reconcile the instinct to excite with the desire to be high-minded. (At one stage, for example, he writes: “Watch out for loaded stories. There is a tendency for reporters to write copy which, sentence for sentence, seems innocuous, but which adds up in detail to the dangerous business of creating a prejudicial atmosphere.” Well, quite.) […]

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