Chinese Netizens Question Source of the Coronavirus Outbreak

Chinese Netizens Question Source of the Coronavirus Outbreak
Volunteers in protective suits disinfect a railway station as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Changsha, Hunan Province, China on Feb. 4, 2020. (cnsphoto via Reuters)

When virologists and medical experts around the globe discussed the suspicious nature of the novel coronavirus and pointed to Wuhan’s P4 lab as a likely source, netizens inside China were watching. A Chinese scholar recently challenged Wuhan’s P4 lab to explain how the proteins of the novel coronavirus seem to have been precisely engineered to enable the virus to bind onto human cells. He also disclosed unethical and unprofessional practices he previously observed in China’s bioresearch labs.

According to Wuhan-based Yangtze Daily, Shi Zhengli, Deputy Director of Wuhan’s P4 Lab, publicized a statement on Feb. 2 saying: “I pledge with my life that the 2019 novel coronavirus has nothing to do with our lab. This virus is a punishment imposed on mankind from nature, to condemn mankind’s uncivilized way of living. Those of you who believe rumors or so-called scientific analysis by unqualified researchers, I advise you to shut your damn mouths!”

Shi’s statement irritated many Chinese netizens. “For such a huge calamity that may take countless lives, give us facts and evidence, not pretentious statements such as pledging with your life,” one netizen commented.

A social media user named Wu Xiaohua, who on his WeChat profile claims to have a Ph.D. in biological related fields, challenged Shi to answer key questions about the suspicious gene mutations found in the new virus. The Epoch Times could not independently confirm Xiaohua’s identity but included his comments to illustrate the online debate in China.

Wu argued there is no way that these mutations are the outcome of natural recombination.

“Now, many scientists, including Shi herself, believe that this virus must have originated from bats, and would involve one or two virus hosts to explain the gene mutations. Based on current scientific publications, the virus must jump from rats to primates before it can infect humans. Then how is this step—from rats to primates—usually achieved? It can only be done in a research lab by scientists inserting a certain protein from primates into rats,” Wu wrote.

“I have personally performed the same type of genetic engineering experiments. You cannot get away by being cavalier. Do you dare to accept the challenge and give us an explanation?” he asked.

Wu also claimed that some biolabs in China are very poorly regulated.

Wu’s WeChat post. (Screenshot)
Wu’s WeChat post. (Screenshot)

“For instance, some researchers in these labs kept the laboratory dogs as pets; some disposed of animal carcasses casually because following the biosafety rules and cremating them costs a lot of money. Some cut up the laboratory pigs and took the meat home to eat. I know this happened at Beijing 301 Hospital’s spine surgery lab. Worst of all, some laboratory animals were sold to wet markets as wild-caught animals for profit,” he claimed.

Xu Bo, a well-known IT magnate and billionaire in China, cited reports and articles to support Wu’s statements.

In his blog, Xu cited a news report about a lawsuit against biologist Li Ning.

Li is an academician of China Engineering Academy, and a former professor at China Agricultural University. His research was focused on transgenic animals in agriculture. The judgment in Li’s case, which came out on Jan. 2 this year, stated that between 2008 and 2012, Li’s lab sold experimental pigs, cows, and milk to local markets. These animal and animal products were bought using research funds; but Li and his fellow colleagues pocketed the money, a total of 10,179,201 yuan ($1,460,304), from the sale of these animals and animal products.

Li was sentenced to 12 years in prison for embezzlement.

According to a 2016 report from the China Experimental Animal Information Network, Chinese researchers use tens of millions of laboratory animals every year. The Experimental Animal Research Center of Hubei Province alone handles about 300,000 animals a year, either for bioresearch experiments inside the center, or to be sold and distributed to other labs in Hubei Province.

A P4 lab handles level 4 biosafety pathogens, the highest level and most dangerous, which have high fatality rates and no known treatments, such as, the ebola and SARS viruses. Such a lab must follow the highest microbiological safety standards to ensure the safety of researchers and the public.

The P4 lab in Wuhan is not only the first of its kind in China, but also the first in Asia. When it opened in 2017, U.S. scientists expressed concerns that, considering China’s opaque administrative structure, if one of those killer viruses “escaped” from the lab, it could cause a doomsday disaster.

Update: This article was updated on May 19, 2020.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Feb. 6, 2020, as the discussion on the origins of the virus developed. This article does not intend to provide an answer to this question, as no one can yet prove or disprove any conclusion. Rather, this article intends to present the known information and different viewpoints on the matter.
Olivia Li is a contributor to The Epoch Times with a focus on China-related topics since 2012.
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