A scientist at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) who has recently faced media allegations that he was the first person with COVID-19 and his research on coronaviruses sparked the pandemic strongly denies that he was ill in late 2019 or that his work had any link to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2.
“The recent news about so-called ‘patient zero’ in WIV are absolutely rumors and ridiculous,” Ben Hu emailed Science in his first public response to the charges, which have been attributed to anonymous former and current U.S. Department of State officials. A WIV colleague who has also been named as one of the first COVID-19 cases denies the accusation as well.
Hu and two of his WIV colleagues were thrown into the furious COVID-19 origin debate on 13 June when an online newsletter called Public said the three scientists developed COVID-19 in November 2019. That was prior to the outbreak becoming public when a cluster of cases surfaced at the end of December 2019 that were linked to a Wuhan marketplace. Public’s report was quickly embraced by a camp that argues COVID-19 came from a virus stored, and possibly being studied, at WIV, rather than from infected animal hosts, perhaps being sold at the Wuhan market. A Wall Street Journal article on 20 June that said it had “confirmed” the allegations against the three, without referring to any public evidence or named sources with direct knowledge, fueled the flames even more. Social media and other publications spread the charges—and the scientists’ names.
Public’s account came just before an 18 June deadline for a law enacted on 20 March that required the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to declassify documents about the origin of COVID-19 within 90 days. The deadline has passed and the documents have not yet been made public. The law specifically asks for the names and other details about any sick WIV researchers before the Wuhan outbreak surfaced.
Hu and the two other WIV scientists named in media reports, Yu Ping and Zhu Yan, conducted research in the lab of Shi Zhengli, who long has collected and studied bat coronaviruses. Shi has been at the center of pandemic origin debates because of the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 could have leaked from her lab’s samples of natural viruses or is a genetically engineered virus created as part of what critics have branded as “gain-of-function” experiments—research that makes pathogens with pandemic potential more harmful or transmissible. Former President Donald Trump repeatedly blamed the pandemic on the leak of a virus from WIV, and a few days before his administration left, the State Department issued a fact sheet that said, without offering any proof, it had “reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019.”
ODNI in a COVID-19 origin assessment it made public on 29 October 2021 gave this claim little credence, noting that it was “not diagnostic of the pandemic’s origins.” That same assessment said four intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council favored a natural origin of the virus and its spillover from animals to humans but with “low confidence,” whereas one intelligence agency had “moderate confidence” in the lab-leak hypothesis, and three were undecided. (The Wall Street Journal subsequently reported a new classified document that updated the ODNI report and said an intelligence unit at the Department of Energy (DOE) had shifted from undecided to “low confidence” for the lab leak. But no documentation has become public that confirms this. And in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Science, DOE’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence said it did not locate any related documents.)
As for Hu, he categorically denies having anything to do with the origin of SARS-CoV-2. “I did not get sick in autumn 2019, and did not have COVID-19-like symptoms at that time,” Hu wrote. “My colleagues and I tested for SARS-CoV-2 antibody in early March 2020 and we were all negative.”
Yu emailed Science that the charges are “fake news” and similarly insisted there was no basis for the allegations. “In autumn 2019, I was neither sick nor had any symptoms related to COVID-19,” Yu wrote. Zhu did not reply to email requests for comment.
Hu is an appealing suspect for lab-leak proponents because he was a lead author on a 2017 paper in PLOS Pathogens describing an experiment that created chimeric viruses by combining genes for surface proteins from bat coronaviruses that would not grow in cultures with the genome of one that did. This paper has received intense scrutiny because it was partially funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and, lab-leak proponents insist, led to a gain of function in the cultured virus. NIH officials have strongly denied this and noted that the chimeric viruses created were not closely related to SARS-CoV-2. Hu says he never worked with live viruses in that experiment or any others done in Shi’s lab. “My work in the lab was mainly genome characterization and evolutionary analysis of viruses,” Hu wrote.
Yu, who was not a co-author of the PLOS Pathogens study, also denied being involved with live virus experiments. “I like bioinformatics and I mainly engage in gene sequencing and data analysis in the laboratory,” she wrote.
Shi backs up her the accounts of her colleagues. She wrote in an email that Hu, Yu, and Zhu “worked on genome sequencing based on extract RNA and never worked on live virus.” Everyone in her lab she said received a COVID-19 antibody test on 3 March 2020 and no one had evidence of having been infected. “All the allegations about the lab-associated accident of COVID-19 are wrong,” Shi wrote. “The prevalence of lab-leak conspiracy is harmful for us to get further funding to continue our research on zoonosis, which is the major threat to the public health in the future.”
Shi has made similar statements in the past, but lab-leak proponents have discounted them, saying she and China have a clear reason to lie if work at WIV led to the pandemic. They stress that WIV has refused requests to allow outside investigators to conduct an independent review of lab notebooks and the like, and to make public a bat coronavirus database it removed from the internet. Lab-leak proponents have been pinning their hopes on the possibility that the ODNI declassification would provide evidence that would back up at least one of the many, often conflicting allegations against WIV.
The bill that led to the law to declassify ODNI documents was crafted by Senator Josh Hawley (R–MO), who in 2020 introduced a different bill, the Justice for Victims of Coronavirus Act, that would allow Americans to sue the Chinese government, which he asserted was guilty of “waging a global propaganda offensive to deflect attention away from its mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak and create unfounded accounts of the origins of the virus.” That bill died without getting to a full vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate, but Republicans in the House of Representatives continue to hold hearings focused on the lab-leak theory and whether NIH helped fund research that led to COVID-19.
Shi and her supporters have stressed that no evidence exists that her lab has isolated a virus from bats that resembles SARS-CoV-2 or a virus close enough to have served as a precursor that could have been altered into the pandemic cause. In contrast, researchers have published reports, including peer-reviewed papers in Science, that provide evidence supporting the hypothesis that the virus made a jump from animals sold at the marketplace: The market was the epicenter of the early outbreak, two separate lineages of the virus surfaced at the market within weeks of each other, and genetic evidence proves that, despite denials from the Chinese government for more than a year, market vendors sold illegal wildlife that are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 at the time the human cluster surfaced.
Flo Débarre, one of the scientists who analyzed genetic evidence from the Wuhan market, says she is aghast that so many media outlets have passed along the accusations against the three WIV scientists. “I find it shameful that these scientists are denied any presumption of innocence, their names being thrown in the media arena without any consideration for them, without any actual evidence backing the claim,” says Débarre, who is at CNRS, the French national research agency. She originally favored the lab-leak theory but now finds a natural origin more likely and has combated lab-leak proponents online. She posted a Twitter thread that recounts in detail the history of the “sick” WIV lab worker theory.
ODNI has not offered any statement as to how soon it might follow the law and submit a report to Congress with any COVID-19 origin information related to WIV that it has deemed safe to declassify.