Chinese Covid whistleblower ‘would welcome’ WHO probe into Wuhan lab-leak claims

A Chinese scientist said she would "welcome" a probe into claims coronavirus leaked from her lab in the pandemic's epicentre Wuhan.

Unsubstantiated claims suggest the virus began in the lab of Professor Shi Zhengli and her statement comes as a World Health Organization (WHO) team prepares to travel to Wuhan in January to begin its investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

The fact Wuhan is now home to the world's leading coronavirus research facility, as well as being the first city to be ravaged by the killer virus, has fuelled speculation that the two things could be connected.

Professor Shi won international acclaim for her discovery that the Sars outbreak, which killed more than 700 people in 2003, was caused by a virus that probably came from a species of bat in the province of Yunnan.

It earned her the nickname "China's Batwoman" and ever since she has worked to try and predict and prevent further outbreaks.

She traps bats, takes samples of their faeces and the carries the samples back to her lab in Wuhan where her team have identified hundreds of new bat coronaviruses.

Prof Shi, the Chinese government and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) have all rejected claims of a virus leak from the lab.

The expert said: "I have communicated with the WHO experts twice.

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"I have personally and clearly expressed that I would welcome them to visit the WIV."

She went on: "I would personally welcome any form of visit based on an open, transparent, trusting, reliable and reasonable dialogue. But the specific plan is not decided by me."

The WIV subsequently said that Prof Shi was speaking in a personal capacity and her answers had not been approved by the institute.

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When the BBC tried to reach the lab, it found a "broken-down" lorry blocking its way, which locals said was placed across the road minutes before the team arrived.

Many experts believe the most likely scenario for the spread of coronavirus is that it jumped naturally from bats to humans, possibly via an intermediary species.

Despite Prof Shi's offer, there appears little chance the WHO probe will look into the lab-leak theory as the terms of reference for the inquiry make no mention of it and some members of the 10-person team have all but ruled it out.

Peter Daszak, a British zoologist on the team, said: "I've yet to see any evidence at all of a lab leak or a lab involvement in this outbreak.

"I have seen substantial evidence that these are naturally occurring phenomena driven by human encroachment into wildlife habitat, which is clearly on display across south-east Asia."

One focus of the probe will be a market in Wuhan, which was known to be trading in wildlife and was linked to a number of early cases, although the Chinese authorities appear to have already discounted it as a source of the outbreak.

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