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. “It was a regular lab that worked in the same way as any other high-containment lab … What people are saying is just not how it is.”
Australian virologist, Dr Danielle Anderson, was working on research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory just weeks before the first known cases of COVID-19 emerged in central China.
One of a dozen experts appointed to an international taskforce in November to study the origins of the virus, Dr Anderson hasn’t sought public attention, especially since being targeted by US extremists in early 2020 after she exposed false information about the pandemic posted online. The vitriol that ensued prompted her to file a police report. The threats of violence many coronavirus scientists have experienced over the past 18 months have made them hesitant to speak out because of the risk that their words will be misconstrued.
Dr Anderson is an expert in bat-borne viruses. She has undertaken research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 lab, the first in China equipped to handle the planet’s deadliest pathogens. Her most recent work in Wuhan ended in November 2019, giving an insider’s perspective on a place that’s become a “flashpoint” in the search for what caused the worst pandemic in a century.
A regional newspaper based in the state of Victoria, in Australia called The Age, on 28 June 2021 published an article after interviewing Dr Anderson. In that interview she talked about working at the lab. The following is an edited version of the content of that interview article.
The work of the Wuhan Institute of Virology Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases is directed by Dr Shi Zhengli, and who Dr Anderson describes as a long-time colleague. Shi has been dubbed “Batwoman” for her work hunting viruses in caves in China. The work Wuhan Institute has been repeatedly questioned by US government officials.
Dr Anderson says 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. “It was a regular lab that worked in the same way as any other high-containment lab. … What people are saying is just not how it is.”
Now at Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, in Australia, Dr 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 under way at the Wuhan institute.
A rising star in the virology community, Dr Anderson, 42, says her work on Ebola in Wuhan was the realisation of a life-long career goal. Her favourite movie is Outbreak, the 1995 film in which disease experts respond to a dangerous new virus – a job Anderson says she wanted to do. For her, that meant working on Ebola in a high-containment laboratory.
Dr Anderson’s career has taken her all over the world. After obtaining an undergraduate degree from Deakin University in Australia, she worked as a lab technician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, then returned to Australia to complete a PhD under the supervision of eminent virologists John Mackenzie and Linfa Wang. She did post-doctoral work in Montreal, before moving to Singapore and working again with Wang, who describes Anderson as “very committed and dedicated,” and similar in personality to Shi.
“They’re both very blunt with such high moral standards,” Wang says by phone from Singapore, where he’s the director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases program at the Duke-NUS Medical School in the US. “I’m very proud of what Danielle’s been able to do.”
Anderson was on the ground just before when experts believe the virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2, was beginning to spread in Wuhan. Daily visits for a period in late 2019 put her in close proximity to many others working at the 65-year-old research centre. 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 30 kilometres away.
From her first visit before it formally opened in 2018, Dr Anderson was impressed with the Wuhan institute’s maximum biocontainment lab. The concrete, bunker-style building has the highest biosafety designation, and requires air, water and waste to be filtered and sterilised before it leaves the facility. There were strict protocols and requirements aimed at containing the pathogens being studied, Anderson says, and researchers underwent 45 hours of training to be certified to work independently in the lab.
The induction process required scientists to demonstrate their knowledge of containment procedures and their competency in wearing air-pressured suits. “It’s very, very extensive,” Anderson says.
Entering and exiting the facility was a carefully planned and controlled. Departures requirement staff to take both a chemical shower and a personal shower – the timings of which were precisely planned.
These rules are mandatory across BSL-4 labs, though Dr Anderson noted differences compared with similar facilities in Europe, Singapore and Australia where she’d worked. The Wuhan lab uses disinfectant made to a particular specification and monitored disinfectants daily, a system Dr Anderson was inspired to introduce in her own lab. She was connected via a headset to colleagues in the lab’s command centre to enable constant communication and safety vigilance – steps designed to ensure nothing went awry.
Some US media claimed that laboratory staff at the Wuhan Institute were hospitalised with flu-like symptoms in November 2019, Dr Anderson says no one she knew at the Wuhan institute was ill towards the end of 2019. Moreover, there is a procedure for reporting symptoms that correspond with the pathogens handled in high-risk containment labs.
“If people were sick, I assume that I would have been sick – and I wasn’t,” she says. “I was tested for coronavirus in Singapore before I was vaccinated, and had never had it.”
Not only that, many of Anderson’s collaborators in Wuhan came to Singapore at the end of December for a gathering on Nipah virus. There was no word of any illness sweeping the laboratory, she says.
“There was no chatter,” Dr Anderson says. “Scientists are gossipy and excited. There was nothing strange from my point of view going on at that point that would make you think something is going on here.”
The US media haven’t named the scientists claimed to have been hospitalised. The Chinese government and Shi Zhengli have repeatedly denied that anyone from the facility contracted COVID-19. Dr Anderson’s work at the facility, and her funding, ended just as the pandemic emerged.
Dr Anderson said that it’s impossible to categorically say the virus did not spilled from the lab. She believes it most likely came from a natural source. Since it took researchers almost a decade to pin down where in nature the SARS pathogen emerged, Anderson says she’s not surprised they haven’t found the “smoking gun” bat responsible for the latest outbreak yet.
Dr Anderson is convinced no virus was made intentionally to infect people and deliberately released – one of the more disturbing theories to have emerged from the US about the pandemic’s origins. She also said there’s no evidence that a scientist in the lab working on a gain of function technique had unknowingly infected themselves and then unintentionally infected others in the community. It would be “theoretically possible” for that to have occurred, but the likelihood would be exceedingly slim, she said
Getting authorisation to create a virus in this way requires many layers of approval, and there are scientific best practices that put strict limits on this kind of work. For example, a moratorium was placed on research that could be done on the 1918 Spanish flu virus after scientists isolated it decades later.
Even if a gain of function trial got clearance, it’s hard to achieve, Dr Anderson says. The technique is called reverse genetics. It’s exceedingly difficult to actually make it work when you want it to work,” she says.
Her lab in Singapore was one of the first to isolate SARS-CoV-2 from a COVID patient outside China and then to grow the virus. It was complicated and challenging, even for a team used to working with coronaviruses that knew its biological characteristics, including which protein receptor it targets. These key facets wouldn’t be known by anyone trying to craft a new virus, she says. Even then, the material that researchers study – the virus’s basic building blocks and genetic fingerprint – aren’t initially infectious, so they would need to culture significant amounts to infect people.
Dr Anderson is dumbfounded by the portrayal of the lab by some media outside China, and the toxic attacks on scientists that have ensued. Nevertheless, she does think an investigation is needed to nail down the virus’s origin once and for all.
The elements known to trigger infectious outbreaks – the mixing of humans and animals, especially wildlife – were present in Wuhan, creating an environment conducive for the spillover of a new zoonotic disease. In that respect, the emergence of COVID-19 follows a familiar pattern. What’s shocking to Anderson is the way it unfurled into a global contagion.
“The pandemic is something no one could have imagined on this scale,” she says. Researchers must study COVID’s calamitous path to determine what went wrong and how to stop the spread of future pathogens with pandemic potential. “The virus was in the right place at the right time and everything lined up to cause this disaster.”
Concluding editorial commentary by China Environment News
The Trump regime in 2020 began to spread the claim that the virus escaped from the Wuhan facility. Most virologists and infectious disease experts dismissed this “theory”, noting that viruses jump from animals to humans with regularity. There is no credible scientific evidence that the SARS-CoV-2’s genome has been artificially manipulated, or that the Wuhan lab harboured progenitor strains of the pandemic virus.
The WHO’s team of international experts final report, produced in collaboration with on the ground Chinese researchers, found little likelihood of a lab leak. Instead, it suggested the virus very probably spread via a bat through another animal vector, or possibly could have been transferred via contaminated frozen food from elsewhere.
The previously dismissed Trumpist conspiracy theory has been revived by the ongoing anti-China politics of the Biden regimen regime following speculation in the Wall Street Journal, which published unsubstatiated claims that three researchers from the Wuhan lab were hospitalised with flu-like symptoms in November 2019.
The WSJ also carried an article by two writers claiming “unusual” genetic features of the virus genome suggested it was manipulated in a lab. The authors of that article lack specialist qualifications and expertise in virology or epidemiology. Experts have dismissed their argument and say that “there is no evidence presented in the WSJ piece that scientifically supports the concept of a lab leak of a genetically engineered virus.” See https://theconversation.com/covid-lab-leak-theory-rare-genetic-sequence-doesnt-mean-the-virus-was-engineered-162360.
The Wall Street Journal is owned and controlled by US media oligarch Rupert Murdoch, and is frequently seen as a mouthpiece for the far right in US politics. https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/111215/who-actually-owns-wall-street-journal.asp