By Michelle Cortez
June 28, 2021 — 11.41am
Danielle Anderson was working in what has become the world’s most notorious laboratory just weeks before the first known cases of COVID-19 emerged in central China. Yet, the Victorian virologist still wonders what she missed.
An expert in bat-borne viruses, Anderson is the only foreign scientist to have undertaken research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 lab, the first in mainland China equipped to handle the planet’s deadliest pathogens. Her most recent stint ended in November 2019, giving Anderson an insider’s perspective on a place that’s become a flashpoint in the search for what caused the worst pandemic in a century.
The emergence of the coronavirus in the same city where institute scientists, clad head-to-toe in protective gear, study that exact family of viruses has stoked speculation that it might have leaked from the lab, possibly via an infected staffer or a contaminated object. China’s lack of transparency since the earliest days of the outbreak fuelled those suspicions, which have been seized on by the US. That’s turned the quest to uncover the origins of the virus, critical for preventing future pandemics, into a geopolitical minefield.
The work of the lab and the director of its emerging infectious diseases section – Shi Zhengli, a long-time colleague of Anderson’s dubbed ‘Batwoman’ for her work hunting viruses in caves – is now shrouded in controversy. The US has questioned the lab’s safety and alleged its scientists were engaged in contentious gain of function research that manipulated viruses in a manner that could have made them more dangerous.
It’s a stark contrast to the place Anderson described in an interview, the first in which she’s shared details about working at the lab.
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, she said.
“It’s not that it was boring, but it was a regular lab that worked in the same way as any other high-containment lab,” Anderson said. “What people are saying is just not how it is.”
Now at Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, 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 Chinese institute, which offered funding to encourage international collaboration.
A rising star in the virology community, 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 said she wanted to do. For her, that meant working on Ebola in a high-containment laboratory.
Anderson’s career has taken her all over the world. After obtaining an undergraduate degree from Deakin University in Geelong, 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 described Anderson as “very committed and dedicated,” and similar in personality to Shi.
“They’re both very blunt with such high moral standards,” Wang said by phone from Singapore, where he’s the director of the emerging infectious diseases program at the Duke-NUS Medical School. “I’m very proud of what Danielle’s been able to do.”
On the ground
Anderson was on the ground in Wuhan when experts believe the virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2, was beginning to spread. 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.
As the sole foreigner, Anderson stood out, and she said the other researchers there looked out for her.
“We went to dinners together, lunches, we saw each other outside of the lab,” she said.
From her first visit before it formally opened in 2018, Anderson was impressed with the 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 said, 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 said.
Entering and exiting the facility was a carefully choreographed endeavour, she said. Departures were made especially intricate by a requirement 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 Anderson noted differences compared with similar facilities in Europe, Singapore and Australia in which she’s worked. The Wuhan lab uses a bespoke method to make and monitor its disinfectants daily, a system 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.
However, the Trump administration’s focus in 2020 on the idea the virus escaped from the Wuhan facility suggested that something went seriously wrong at the institute, the only one to specialise in virology, viral pathology and virus technology of the some 20 biological and biomedical research institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Virologists and infectious disease experts initially dismissed the theory, noting that viruses jump from animals to humans with regularity. There was no clear evidence from within SARS-CoV-2’s genome that it had been artificially manipulated, or that the lab harboured progenitor strains of the pandemic virus. Political observers suggested the allegations had a strategic basis and were designed to put pressure on Beijing.
And yet, China’s actions raised questions. The government refused to allow international scientists into Wuhan in early 2020 when the outbreak was mushrooming, including experts from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, who were already in the region.
Beijing stonewalled on allowing World Health Organisation experts into Wuhan for more than a year, and then provided only limited access. The WHO team’s final report, written with and vetted by Chinese researchers, played down the possibility of a lab leak. Instead, it said the virus probably spread via a bat through another animal, and gave some credence to a favoured Chinese theory that it could have been transferred via frozen food.
China’s obfuscation led outside researchers to reconsider their stance. Last month, 18 scientists writing in the journal Science called for an investigation into COVID-19’s origins that would give balanced consideration to the possibility of a lab accident. Even the director-general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the lab theory hadn’t been studied extensively enough.
But it’s US President Joe Biden’s consideration of the idea – previously dismissed by many as a Trumpist conspiracy theory – that has given it newfound legitimacy. Biden called on America’s intelligence agencies last month to redouble their efforts in rooting out the genesis of COVID-19 after an earlier report, disclosed by the Wall Street Journal, claimed three researchers from the lab were hospitalised with flu-like symptoms in November 2019.
What the world wants China to disclose
Anderson said no one she knew at the Wuhan institute was ill toward 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 said. “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 said.
“There was no chatter,” Anderson said. “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 names of the scientists reported to have been hospitalised haven’t been disclosed. The Chinese government and Shi Zhengli, the lab’s now-famous bat-virus researcher, have repeatedly denied that anyone from the facility contracted COVID-19. Anderson’s work at the facility, and her funding, ended after the pandemic emerged and she focused on the novel coronavirus.
‘I’m not naive’
It’s not that it’s impossible the virus spilled from there. Anderson, better than most people, understands how a pathogen can escape from a laboratory. SARS, an earlier coronavirus that emerged in Asia in 2002 and killed more than 700 people, subsequently made its way out of secure facilities a handful of times, she said.
If presented with evidence that such an accident spawned COVID-19, Anderson “could foresee how things could maybe happen,” she said. “I’m not naive enough to say I absolutely write this off.”
And yet, she still 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.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology is large enough that Anderson said she didn’t know what everyone was working on at the end of 2019. She is aware of published research from the lab that involved testing viral components for their propensity to infect human cells. Anderson is convinced no virus was made intentionally to infect people and deliberately released – one of the more disturbing theories to have emerged about the pandemic’s origins.
Gain of function
Anderson did concede that it would be theoretically possible for a scientist in the lab to be working on a gain of function technique to unknowingly infect themselves and to then unintentionally infect others in the community. But there’s no evidence that occurred and Anderson rated its likelihood as exceedingly slim.
Getting authorisation to create a virus in this way typically 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 such a gain of function effort got clearance, it’s hard to achieve, Anderson said. The technique is called reverse genetics.
“It’s exceedingly difficult to actually make it work when you want it to work,” she said.
Anderson’s 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 said. 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.
Despite this, Anderson does think an investigation is needed to nail down the virus’s origin once and for all. She’s dumbfounded by the portrayal of the lab by some media outside China, and the toxic attacks on scientists that have ensued.
One of a dozen experts appointed to an international taskforce in November to study the origins of the virus, 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.
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 said. 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.”