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China honours ‘Bat Woman’ of controversial Wuhan lab as WHO team arrives to probe COVID-19 origins

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China has honoured a virologist of a controversial Wuhan-based bio-lab, which was at the centre of COVID-19 storm, as a WHO team arrived at the Chinese city to probe the origins of the coronavirus.

Shi Zhengli from the Wuhan Institute of Virology who has earned the moniker of ‘Bat Woman’ for her passionate research into bats and viruses was honoured as an “advanced worker of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)”, the state-run Global Times reported, citing a WIV announcement on Friday.

Outgoing US President Donald Trump has alleged that the novel coronavirus emanated from WIV before it spread across the world and claimed millions of lives and shattered global economies.

Ever since the virus outbreak came to light in Wuhan in December last, speculation has been rife on whether the viral strain originated from China’s premier virology institute or from its nearby Huanan Seafood Market.

Shi was honoured along with 20 advanced workers during the CAS 2021 annual work conference held in Beijing, said Liu Lijun, director of the National Commendation and Rewarding Office of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.

She was praised as adhering to the scientific values of innovation, serving the country and benefiting people, and fought hard and never flinched in the face of difficulties and challenges, the report said.

Shi came under the spotlight of local and global media after Trump’s allegation. Trump had asked China to permit the US to conduct a probe, which Beijing ignored.

Curiously, after her name appeared in the local and foreign media early last year, Shi conspicuously disappeared for months amid rumours that she had defected to a western country.

But she suddenly resurfaced in official Chinese media and denied reports of her defection to the West and questioned Trump’s allegation that the virus emerged from WIV.

“Trump’s claim jeopardises and affects our academic work and personal lives. He owes us an apology,” she was quoted by official media.

Significantly, Shi’s “honour” by CAS coincides with the arrival of the 13-member World Health Organisation (WHO) team to Wuhan on Thursday to probe the origins of COVID-19.

The WHO experts are currently put up in a hotel in Wuhan to serve 14-day quarantine.

Their site visits in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in December 2019, are expected to include the WIV and the wet market, where the deadly virus was suspected to have been transmitted from live animals like bats to humans. The market remained closed and sealed since early last year.

The WHO team’s visit has become a bone of contention as Beijing, which questions the widely-held view about the virus’ origins in Wuhan, delayed granting permission to it. China says the virus has appeared in many places in the world and it only reported first.

Meanwhile, China on Friday permitted one of the two WHO experts, earlier barred from travelling to Wuhan for testing COVID-19 positive, to join his colleagues in the Chinese city.

A British and a Sudanese scientist from Qatar tested positive for COVID-19 in Singapore, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing here on Friday.

As a show of support to WHO, China has agreed to conduct the required tests again, he said

“The results of the British expert showed negative but the Sudanese expert from Qatar still showed positive. So we have agreed for the British expert to travel to China,” Zhao said.

“We will remain in contact with WHO on this relevant matter and jointly work towards greater cooperation on this origin tracing work,” he said.

The WHO team includes virus and other experts from the US, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases continue to rise in China after it managed to contain the virus earlier.

China’s National Health Commission on Friday reported 144 new COVID-19 cases, of whom 135 were locally transmitted.

Of the locally transmitted cases, 90 were reported in Hebei, 43 in Heilongjiang and one each in Guangxi and Shaanxi, the commission said.

On Wednesday, China reported its first death due to coronavirus in eight months.

Hebei province, bordering Beijing, continues to be the new hotbed for the spread of the virus. Several cities with millions of people in Hebei are under lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. China has largely brought the virus under control through quick mass testing, stringent lockdowns and tight travel restrictions.

China has so far reported 87,988 COVID-19 cases and 4,635 deaths due to the disease.

According to Johns Hopkins University‘s coronavirus tracker, over 93,227,340 people have been confirmed with the disease across the world and more than 1,996,620 people have died.

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