The chief Chinese scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been linked to at least two Chinese military scientists who collaborated with her on coronavirus research, according to a report from NBC News.
Dr. Shi Zhengli, nicknamed China's "bat woman" for her field research collecting coronavirus samples from bat caves, has previously denied accusations that her Wuhan lab conducted studies with the military. But NBC News found that she collaborated with two military scientists on coronavirus work, one of whom is now deceased under unknown circumstances.
The report says that Shi collaborated with Chinese military scientist Tong Yigang on coronavirus research in Spring 2018. And Shi reportedly worked with another military scientist, Zhou Yusen, in December 2019. A scientific paper published in 2020 listed Zhou as decreased, and NBC News was unable to confirm the cause of his death.
Shi's research is known to involve gain-of-function experiments that genetically alter virus samples to make them transmissible among humans for the purpose of studying how naturally occurring pathogens might evolve to become dangerous to human beings.
In January 2021, the Trump administration State Department published a fact sheet that stated "the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China's military."
Former State Department official David Asher, one of the co-authors of the fact sheet, told NBC News that he believes the research was related to Shi's coronavirus work.
"I am confident that the military was funding a secret program that did involve coronaviruses. I heard this from several foreign researchers who observed researchers in that lab in military lab coats," Asher said.
In March 2021, Shi denied that her Wuhan lab was anything more than a civilian institution.
"At the beginning of COVID-19, we heard the rumors that it's claimed that in our laboratory we have some projects blah blah with the army blah blah. These kind of rumors. But this is not correct," Shi told Jamie Metzl, a member of the World Health Organization's advisory board.
Metzl, the "origins COVID-19 whistleblower," was among the first to hypothesize "the most likely starting point of the coronavirus crisis is an accidental leak from one of the Chinese virology institutes in Wuhan."
Reacting to the NBC News report, he said that if Shi lied about her work with the Chinese military, it's hard to trust her claims that the Wuhan Institute of Virology did not have the SARS-CoV-2 virus or a "precursor virus" stored in its lab.
"If they did, that would prove the pandemic stems from a lab incident," Metzl said.
Metzl is one of 31 international scientists who signed an open letter to WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on June 28 calling for a "comprehensive investigation" into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The Chinese government's well documented measures to hide records and prevent Chinese experts from sharing critical information and granular data make it very clear that the current process has no possibility, without significant changes, of fully and credibly investigating all plausible origin hypotheses," the letter states.
The scientists suggest international investigators adopt a "two-track" approach for determining how the pandemic started, one that invites China to fully cooperate and be transparent, and a second plan should China continue to obfuscate evidence.
"While the Chinese government must be offered every opportunity to join a comprehensive investigation into pandemic origins, it should not be afforded a veto over whether or not the rest of the world carries out the fullest possible investigation," the scientists state.