Experts doubtful about transfer of deadly viruses to Wuhan lab

Source:Global Times Published: 2020/6/16 0:48:30

Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Virologists said China is always open to scientific collaboration and exchanges with foreign countries in accordance with the law regarding virus samples, after Canadian media reported that an official confirmed a Chinese-Canadian scientist sent two deadly viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Eric Morrissette, chief of media relations for Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), told CBC that they sent samples for the purpose of scientific research in 2019, "in response to a request from the Wuhan Institute of Virology for viral samples of the Ebola and Henipah viruses."

Qiu Xiangguo, a Chinese-Canadian scientist at Canada's National Microbiology Lab (NML), exported the Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology on March 31 last year via air transport, the media reports said. 

Although the virus shipments are not related to the outbreak of COVID-19 or research into the pandemic, some Chinese experts questioned the reports as China has a range of strict laws and rules regarding the sharing and importing of highly pathogenic viruses. 

Yang Zhanqiu, deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, told the Global Times on Monday that based on China's regulations, the sharing and transportation of Ebola and Henipah viruses must be agreed by the two countries' governments before shipment. Materials related to viruses like throat swabs and patient tissue and secretions, share the same standards.

Despite the Canadian media reports, the Chinese side has never officially disclosed any information about the alleged virus transfer from Canada.  

An immunologist with Peking University in Beijing who requested anonymity questioned the authenticity of the reports as it is extremely dangerous and unnecessary to have the shipment in terms of China's current scientific needs. 

"As viruses of the highest danger rating, the shipment could only be decided on and conducted by the health sector at central government level, with the highest standards of protection and transportation rather than normal air delivery," said the expert, noting that China has never had a case of Ebola infection or the need for prevention research, unlike Japan which was preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games at that time. 

Japan imported strains of Ebola and four other deadly viruses for scientific research in September 2019, the Japanese health ministry said, adding that they intended to use the samples to "validate tests under development," media reports said. 

China attaches great importance to biological safety, especially regarding cross-border virus shipment for scientific research. Unauthorized and illegal transport of highly pathogenic virus samples to China would bear criminal responsibility, said Yang, citing China's law on the prevention and control of infectious diseases.

There are multiple laws and regulations for lab safety and virus sample sharing, including the regulations on bio-safety for pathogenic microorganism laboratories; regulations on the transport of highly pathogenic microorganisms (viruses) or samples that can infect humans; the administrative measures and technical specifications for the storage institutions of pathogenic microorganisms (viruses); and some other protocols regarding national security and international affairs. 

In Canada, there are protocols like the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, the Canadian Biosafety Standard, and standard operating procedures of the NML, CBC reported. 

According to CBC, the PHAC said the NML routinely shares samples with other public health labs.

There was no reply from PHAC or the Wuhan Institute of Virology to the Global Times as of press time.

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