“The scientific collaboration in virology is gone,” said a foreign researcher who has worked for years with WIV and who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the hostile political climate. “Now, the Chinese will not welcome foreigners because their opinion is that you are entering to dig dirt.”
This account of WIV’s 65-year history, its coronavirus research, and its P4 laboratory is based on interviews with visiting scientists, laboratory audit reports, satellite images, archival records, and other documentation. WIV did not respond to requests for comment.
‘Best of the best’
The P4 lab is located along an eight-lane highway on the industrial outskirts of southern Wuhan, where factories give way to low mountains and farmland. The laboratory’s facilities cover approximately two soccer fields, on a 12 times larger field, according to a June 2018 environmental safety audit report.
The building’s stark gray lines are softened by the trees: From 2005 to 2015, when the lab was under construction, scientists would drive out on Arbor Day to add a few more trees to the perimeter.
Based on the French P4 laboratory in Lyon, the building has four floors: waste management at the bottom; experimental laboratories and animal rooms on the main floor; and in the first two, devices to guarantee a safe air flow, says the report.
Visitors called it avant-garde, in contrast to other aging WIV buildings, where scientists wore coats indoors in winter due to poor heating.
The lab had “the newest technology, a huge complex,” recalled Boris Klempa, a researcher from the Slovak Academy of Sciences who visited in 2017.
Not everything was meant for the public’s eyes. When a reporter asked him in 2018 what kind of virus they kept for the state Guangzhou Daily, the deputy director of the P4 laboratory, Song Donglin, responded that “the disclosure of this type of information must be controlled.”
WIV management has reminded staff for years of state secrets requirements and to beware of foreign spies.
Jean-Pierre de Cavel, a French expert who conducted security training at WIV in 2010, said Chinese researchers hoped to use the new lab to study highly infectious diseases such as Ebola, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever and smallpox.
“Their expectations were to have a powerful tool, to have a P4, like any other large country,” he said. “They wanted to have the best of the best.”
However, the new P4 lab was not being used to investigate coronaviruses, which are classified at lower security levels.
A virus file
At a scientific conference in Barcelona in 1986, Danish researcher Ole Skovmand met a lanky Chinese scientist in his 20s. His name was Yuan Zhiming and he was studying how to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes with the bacteria Bacillus sphaericus.
Skovmand, 73, recalls that Yuan’s research at the time was not cutting edge. But Skovmand was impressed enough to help Yuan get scholarships in France and Denmark. In Denmark, Yuan worked as a cook in a Chinese restaurant and played table tennis with Skovmand’s son, Skovmand said.
Yuan was outgoing and talkative, recalls Christina Nielsen-LeRoux, research director at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, who met him in Europe two decades ago. Later, Yuan would recall his time in Europe and sometimes complain about having to give up his research to focus on building the P4 lab, Nielsen-LeRoux said.
“He said, ‘I miss that day we spent together. It was one of the best things in my life, ‘”he said.
WIV was starting to catch up then, after tumultuous origins.
Founded in 1956 as a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), WIV’s initial work focused on agricultural pests, a serious concern during the famine that began in 1959. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, its investigation was discontinued. since 229 CAS scientists died in the political purges, according to official figures.
After Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping officially welcomed scientific research again in 1978, Beijing directed WIV to build the nation’s first virus archive, with 400 collected over a decade, according to an official story. In 1985, WIV helped establish China’s first mechanized pesticide factory.
WIV set its sights higher in 2003, with the SARS outbreak. Chen Zhu, the top CAS official for life sciences and soon to be China’s health minister, asked WIV to build a P4 laboratory, according to people familiar with the project.
Yuan accompanied Chen to France to persuade French experts to take over the construction. President Hu Jintao flew to Paris in January 2004 to seal the deal.
“Yuan Zhiming really wanted the P4 lab,” said Gabriel Gras, a French biosafety expert who helped oversee the construction of the lab. “It is the project of his life.”
While the WIV had the support of Beijing for the P4 laboratory, it also fought against bureaucracy. When SARS took hold, WIV had so much trouble accessing the official investigation of the new virus that Director Hu Zhihong ended up “stealing” a sample from a morgue, according to a 2006 article in the state. China Youth Daily.
Around this time, another fateful figure emerged in WIV history. Yuan’s colleague, Shi Zhengli, was beginning to search bat caves for the origin of SARS.
Shi was a year younger than Yuan and had also studied in France, specializing in aquatic viruses. Now he turned to bats, in collaboration with a prominent Singapore-based virologist, Linfa Wang. In 2004, his team collected samples from 408 bats in China.
It was hard work. Shi and his colleagues crawled upside down through narrow caves, he recounted in a speech in June 2018. They caught bats with nets, released most after taking samples, and occasionally brought some bats to the lab.
Seven years after his search, Shi discovered a close relative of SARS in 2011 in a cave in the subtropical Yunnan province. Her team’s article, published in 2013, launched her to national fame and earned the nickname “Bat Woman.”
In 2014, at age 50, Shi received a national grant of $ 58 million ($ 78 million) to continue studying coronaviruses in southern China. Three years later, his team announced that they had found all the genetic pieces of the SARS virus in bats in a Yunnan cave, essentially proving the origin of the disease.
Meanwhile, Yuan’s 13-year effort was finally paying off, and the P4 lab gave the green light in 2017 to start operating. The $ 42 million lab was not for everyday experiments. Only a handful of the 300 scientists at WIV had been trained to use it, including Shi, the deputy director.
‘The situation worries me’
Shi entered the international spotlight on January 23, 2020, the same day that Chinese authorities sealed Wuhan to contain a new disease. In a pre-printed document, his team announced that they had found a virus 96.2 percent identical to the new coronavirus.
Shi originally feared that the virus could come from his laboratory, as he said. American scientist. But she has since become adamant that WIV never crossed paths with the virus, saying she checked lab records and all employees tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.
Shi supporters say that had there been a cover-up of the lab, it is unlikely that the staff would have prevented the secret from leaking, especially with the court-wide press by US intelligence agencies. The US intelligence report given to President Joe Biden last month said that the coronavirus was not a biological weapon and that the Chinese authorities did not know about the virus beforehand.
Yuan and Shi have withdrawn from the world amid the controversy. The “comprehensive news” section of the WIV website once highlighted international collaborations, but it has been reduced to politically correct posts about researchers studying the speeches of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Nielsen-LeRoux said it last heard from Yuan in March 2020, towards the end of the Wuhan shutdown.
“We had a hard time fighting the infection in Wuhan,” Yuan wrote in an email.
“The virus is spreading in your country, and more people have been infected in the last few days, and the situation worries me a lot. I am sure that we will finally be able to stop the spread of the virus with our joint efforts, and our lives will return to normal soon.
The Washington Post