Civets in the Wuhan Institute of Virology 2018-2019: resist speculation

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By Daniel R. Lucey, MD, MPH, FIDSA

In the interview between Science writer Jon Cohen and the renowned scientist Dr. Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published online in July 2020, Cohen asks the question (under #18(3) on p. 6 of a nine-page PDF): “Has your lab done any animal experiments with SARS-related viruses recently? If so, can you provide any details?”

Dr. Zhengli Shi answers: “We performed in vivo experiments in transgenic (human ACE2 expressing) mice and civets in 2018 and 2019 in the Institute’s biosafety laboratory. The viruses we used were bat SARSr-CoV close to SARS-CoV. Operation of this work was undertaken strictly following the regulations on biosafety management of pathogenic microbes in laboratories in China. The results suggested that bat SARSr-CoV can directly infect civets and can also infect mice with human ACE2 receptors. Yet it showed low pathogenicity in mice and no pathogenicity in civets. These data are being sorted and will be published soon.”

In my opinion, these experiments involving civets should NOT be the source of speculation that:

  1. Recombination of bat SARS-related coronaviruses occurred in these civets;
  2. Any civet-to-civet serial passage experiments were performed (e.g., by analogy to influenza viruses H5N1 & H7N1 and ferret-to-ferret serial passage experiments published in 2012 (Science, Nature) and 2014 (J. Virology);
  3. Any of these civets somehow ended up outside of the laboratory either in Wuhan or elsewhere in Hubei, or in Harbin, or elsewhere in China;
  4. Any other laboratories in Wuhan were performing experiments with bat SARS-related coronaviruses and civets;
  5. Gain-of-function experiments were performed with civets, including any attempt to create a bat SARSr-coronavirus that efficiently spread animal-to-animal while the animal was asymptomatic;
  6. SARS-CoV-2 ever existed in any WIV laboratory before the epidemic began.

Entirely separate from the WIV experiments in 2018 and 2019 involving civets, the paper “Animal sales from Wuhan wet markets immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic” by Xiao et al. in Nature Scientific Reports published online June 7, 2021 documents that on monthly surveys of Wuhan wet markets May 2017-November 2019 before COVID-19 was reported, civets (Paguma larvata), as well as raccoon dogs and mink, were sold.

To emphasize, no evidence whatsoever exists that any civets or other animals from the WIV ever appeared in any wet markets.

Notably, however, why the fact that civets, racoon dogs, mink and other live mammals were sold in Wuhan wet markets was never disclosed by Chinese authorities before June 2021 is one of the top four enigmas of China’s response to the search for the origin of this pandemic virus.

Daniel Lucey, MD, MPH, FIDSA, FACP, is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, Infectious Disease adjunct Professor at Georgetown Medical Center, senior scholar at Georgetown Law, Anthropology Research Associate at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America Global Health Committee. He served as a volunteer to outbreaks overseas including hands-on Ebola patient care in Sierra Leone and Liberia (Doctors without Borders) 2014, MERS 2013, SARS 2003, as well as HIV, H5N1, Zika, yellow Fever, and pneumonic plague 2017 (with WHO/USAID/CDC). Since Jan. 6, 2020 he has contributed more than 100 posts to Science Speaks on COVID-19 and traveled to China in February 2020. He initially proposed, then fundraised and helped design the content for 2018-2022 Smithsonian Exhibition on Epidemics due to zoonotic viruses. From 1982-1988 he trained at University of California San Francisco and Harvard and was an attending physician at NIH (NIAID) in the 1990s while in the U.S. Public Health Service.

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