Wuhan ‘batwoman’ authorities are watching
She has been dubbed "Batwoman" by her colleagues after years of virus-hunting expeditions in bat caves around China led to exciting discoveries about SARS and other coronavirus strains in her lab.
When her own neighbours in Wuhan started to fall ill with a mysterious virus in December, authorities immediately turned to her in the mission to identify the virus we now know as COVID-19.
But Shi Zhengli insists the COVID-19 virus did not escape from her "world-class lab", a theory even Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has floated, insisting the new virus does not match the genetic sequence of samples she had previously worked on.
Amid reports Western intelligence agencies including in Australia are examining her work, she maintains COVID-19 was not accidentally unleashed as a result of poor safety standards.
But in an interview with a US science magazine, she admits to "sleepless nights'' when the outbreak first began.
In the early, anxious days of the outbreak, she remembers thinking it was possible the outbreak came from the Wuhan lab.
Because her studies suggested the subtropical provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan had the greatest risk of coronaviruses jumping to humans from animals - particularly via bats - she remembers thinking, "could they have come from our lab?".
"I wondered if (the municipal health authority) got it wrong," she said.
"I had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China."
As Shi and her colleagues raced to uncover the source of the contagion of the mystery illness, the death toll continued to mount.
Her colleagues used a technique called polymerase chain reaction, to detect a virus by amplifying its genetic material. They soon learned that five of seven Wuhan patients with the mystery illness had genetic sequences present in all coronaviruses. But Shi continued to also investigate whether there was a link with the her own work.
According to Scientific American, "Shi breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves".
"That really took a load off my mind," she said.
"I had not slept a wink for days."
However, an exclusive investigation by The Daily Telegraphhas revealed Five Eyes intelligence agencies of Australia, Canada, NZ, UK and US, are looking closely at the work of Shi and a senior scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Peng Zhou. There is a direct Australian link to the researcher's work, with the pair having previously conducted bat research in a Geelong CSIRO lab, The Daily Telegraph uncovered.
The Daily Telegraph did not suggest the two scientists are responsible for the outbreak or spread of COVID-19, but merely that they have come to the attention of intelligence agencies.
It follows a reports in The Washington Post that US embassy scientists and diplomats in Beijing visited the laboratory and met with Shi.
They then sent warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety practices and management as it conducted research on coronaviruses from bats.
According to the Post, the cable "warns that the lab's work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic".
Health Minister Greg Hunt said today it was vital that there was a "clear, independent, fearless global review of the origins, the actions, and the global path forward, in relation to this and all future pandemics".
"The reason we want a review is to make sure we understand exactly how this disease arose. The advice that we have continues to be that it passed from the Animal Kingdom to humans,'' he said.
"But there should be no doubt that, in any such event, with now over 3 million people that have been diagnosed, and likely more than 10 million people that have actually contracted the disease, with over 210,000 lives lost officially, and probably far more in places where there hasn't been full reporting, of course there should be an independent global review."
Despite remaining "distressed" by what she describes as false claims that COVID-19 was linked to her lab Shi said she was committed to her work to track the virus.
"The mission must go on," she said.
"What we have uncovered is just the tip of an iceberg.
"Bat-borne coronaviruses will cause more outbreaks. We must find them before they find us."
Samantha Maiden is news.com.au's national political editor | @samanthamaiden
Originally published as Wuhan 'batwoman' authorities are watching