Wuhan scientist would 'welcome' visit probing lab leak theory

A Chinese scientist at the centre of unsubstantiated claims that the coronavirus leaked from her laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan has told the BBC she is open to "any kind of visit" to rule it out.

The surprise statement from Prof Shi Zhengli comes as a World Health Organization team prepares to travel to Wuhan next month to begin its investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

The remote district of Tongguan, in China's south-western province of Yunnan, is hard to reach at the best of times. But when a BBC team tried to visit recently, it was impossible.

Plain-clothes police officers and other officials in unmarked cars followed us for miles along the narrow, bumpy roads, stopping when we did, backtracking with us when we were forced to turn around.

We found obstacles in our way, including a "broken-down" lorry, which locals confirmed had been placed across the road a few minutes before we arrived.

And we ran into checkpoints at which unidentified men told us their job was to keep us out.

At first sight, all of this might seem like a disproportionate effort given our intended destination, a nondescript, abandoned copper mine in which, back in 2012, six workers succumbed to a mystery illness that eventually claimed the lives of three of them.

But their tragedy, which would otherwise almost certainly have been largely forgotten, has been given new meaning by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Those three deaths are now at the centre of a major scientific controversy about the origins of the virus and the question of whether it came from nature, or from a laboratory.

And the attempts of Chinese authorities to stop us reaching the site are a sign of how hard they're working to control the narrative.

For more than a decade, the rolling, jungle-covered hills in Yunnan - and the cave systems within - have been the focus of a giant scientific field study.

It has been led by Prof Shi Zhengli from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

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

Ever since, Prof Shi - often referred to as "China's Batwoman" - has been in the vanguard of a project to try to predict and prevent further such outbreaks.

By trapping bats, taking faecal samples from them, and then carrying those samples back to the lab in Wuhan, 1,600km (1,000 miles) away, the team behind the project has identified hundreds of new bat coronaviruses.

But the fact that Wuhan is now home to the world's leading coronavirus research facility, as well as the first city to be ravaged by a pandemic outbreak of a deadly new one, has fuelled suspicion that the two things are connected.

The Chinese government, the WIV, and Prof Shi have all angrily dismissed the allegation of a virus leak from the Wuhan lab.

But with scientists appointed by the World Health Organization (WHO) scheduled to visit Wuhan in January for an inquiry into the origin of the pandemic, Prof Shi - who has given few interviews since the pandemic began - answered a number of BBC questions by email.

"I have communicated with the WHO experts twice," she wrote, when asked if an investigation might help rule out a lab leak and end the speculation. "I have personally and clearly expressed that I would welcome them to visit the WIV," she said.

To a follow-up question about whether that would include a formal investigation with access to the WIV's experimental data and laboratory records, Prof Shi said: "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 BBC subsequently received a call from the WIV's press office, saying that Prof Shi was speaking in a personal capacity and her answers had not been approved by the WIV.

The BBC denied a request to send the press office a copy of this article in advance.