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She is at the center of the covid lab leak controversy. Now she tells her story.

Some in the West agree. “I am very upset that people are throwing around such extremely serious allegations,” Nancy Connell, a microbiologist and member of the National Institutes of Health’s National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosafety, told me last February when she worked at the Johns Hopkins Research Center. Health safety. “This is extremely irresponsible.”

But even if the lab leak theory is partly fueled by deep-seated distrust of China, the country’s dubious reputation and a series of curious missteps have not helped.

During the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, Chinese officials downplayed it for months until a renowned military surgeon blew the whistle. At the beginning of Covid-19, China also withheld information about the first cases and suppressed internal debate. This was exacerbated when, in March 2020, a number of Chinese ministries ruled that scientists must obtain permission to publish any work related to COVID-19 research.

Meanwhile, several Chinese institutions, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, have instructed their scientists – with rare exceptions – not to speak to the press. For some, this was something of a relief. Conducting interviews on politically sensitive topics in English is unreasonably intimidating for many Chinese speakers, as any language errors, especially with regard to tenses and auxiliary verbs, can be easily misinterpreted – with serious consequences. At the same time, many Chinese scientists became reluctant to talk to Western journalists for simpler reasons: Most of the reporters who contacted them, they said, did not understand the intricacies of science and showed strong prejudice.

“I just wanted to put my head down and focus on work,” Shi told me. “I thought the storm would just die down after a while.”

Some of the behavior of the Wuhan Institute has certainly caused alarm. For example, in February 2020 it disabled its virus databases and they remain inaccessible to outsiders, leading some to speculate that they may contain information important to the origin of covid-19. Shi told me that some of the databases that were publicly available before the pandemic contained only published information; The Wuhan Institute, like research organizations in other parts of the world, had unpublished data that could be shared on request through academic collaboration portals. According to her, the institute has disabled the databases for security reasons; there have been thousands of hacking attempts since the start of the pandemic. “IT managers were really worried that someone might sabotage the databases, or worse, introduce virus sequences with malicious intent,” she said.

Instead of directly addressing the crisis of publicity, China is deepening mistrust with its own campaigns of obfuscation and disinformation.

However, says Zhang of the University of Kent, China’s behavior should be understood within the country’s broader political, media and cultural context. In China, with its very different media tradition, “there is neither the vocabulary nor the grammar of the Western press to deal with the advertising crisis,” she told me. “The first impulse of Chinese officials is to always close communication channels.” They often feel it is safer than proactive handling, she says. Several leading Chinese academics, who asked not to be named for fear of political repercussions, told me that this also showed a lack of trust among China’s top leaders. “Despite the fact that China is striving to assert itself as a world power, it is still terribly insecure,” one of them said.


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