Covid-19: Wuhan Lab’s Last and Only Foreign Scientist Speaks Out

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    Danielle Anderson was working in China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology just weeks before the first known cases of Covid-19 emerged in central China. Yet, the Australian virologist still wonders what she missed.

    An expert in bat-borne viruses, Anderson is the only foreign scientist to have undertaken research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 lab, the first in mainland China equipped to handle the planet’s deadliest pathogens. Her most recent stint ended in November 2019, giving Anderson an insider’s perspective on a place that’s become a flashpoint in the search for what caused the worst pandemic in a century.

    The emergence of the coronavirus in the same city where institute scientists, clad head-to-toe in protective gear, study that exact family of viruses has stoked speculation that it might have leaked from the lab, possibly via an infected staffer or a contaminated object. China’s lack of transparency since the earliest days of the outbreak fueled those suspicions, which have been seized on by the U.S. That’s turned the quest to uncover the origins of the virus, critical for preventing future pandemics, into a geopolitical minefield.

    Half-truths and distorted information have obscured an accurate accounting of the lab’s functions and activities, which were more routine than how they’ve been portrayed in the media, she said.

    “It’s not that it was boring, but it was a regular lab that worked in the same way as any other high-containment lab,” Anderson said. “What people are saying is just not how it is.”

    Now at Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Anderson began collaborating with Wuhan researchers in 2016, when she was scientific director of the biosafety lab at Singapore’s Duke-NUS Medical School. Her research—which focuses on why lethal viruses like Ebola and Nipah cause no disease in the bats in which they perpetually circulate—complemented studies underway at the Chinese institute, which offered funding to encourage international collaboration.

    A rising star in the virology community, Anderson, 42, says her work on Ebola in Wuhan was the realization of a life-long career goal. Her favorite movie is “Outbreak,” the 1995 film in which disease experts respond to a dangerous new virus – a job Anderson said she wanted to do. For her, that meant working on Ebola in a high-containment laboratory.

    Anderson was on the ground in Wuhan when experts believe the virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2, was beginning to spread. Daily visits for a period in late 2019 put her in close proximity to many others working at the 65-year-old research center. She was part of a group that gathered each morning at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to catch a bus that shuttled them to the institute about 20 miles away.

    As the sole foreigner, Anderson stood out, and she said the other researchers there looked out for her.

    “We went to dinners together, lunches, we saw each other outside of the lab,” she said.

    Anderson said no one she knew at the Wuhan institute was ill toward the end of 2019. Moreover, there is a procedure for reporting symptoms that correspond with the pathogens handled in high-risk containment labs.

    It’s not that it’s impossible the virus spilled from there. Anderson, better than most people, understands how a pathogen can escape from a laboratory. SARS, an earlier coronavirus that emerged in Asia in 2002 and killed more than 700 people, subsequently made its way out of secure facilities a handful of times, she said.

    If presented with evidence that such an accident spawned Covid-19, Anderson “could foresee how things could maybe happen,” she said. “I’m not naive enough to say I absolutely write this off.”

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