A Chinese research institute in the city of Wuhan - ground zero of the coronavirus outbreak - has again dismissed rumours suggesting it is linked to the public health crisis, saying it has been "badly hurt" by conspiracy theories circulating online.
"The rumours … have caused severe damage to our researchers who have been dedicated to working on the front line, and seriously interrupted the emergency research we are doing during the epidemic," the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which is affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in a statement.
Those rumours included that the new virus strain was "man-made", "leaked from the WIV lab", that "the WIV was taken over by the military", "a WIV researcher died from the leaked virus", "a WIV student is patient zero", and "a WIV researcher reported to authorities that the WIV chief was responsible" for the epidemic, the statement posted on its website on Wednesday said.
The institute runs the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, the only facility in China equipped to diagnose and research easily transmitted pathogens at the highest biosafety level of four.
It said it had first received a sample of the coronavirus on December 30 and responded quickly - completing the whole genome sequencing by January 2, which it submitted to the World Health Organisation on January 11.
The sample was added to China's national database on January 9, and by January 26 the institute had tested 4,000 samples, helping to diagnose patients, it said.
"Looking back on our hard work over the past month, we have nothing to be ashamed of or to regret," the statement said.
A prominent virologist with the institute has also been targeted by the rumours. Shi Zhengli's exploration of caves in Yunnan province discovered that another deadly coronavirus - which caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, epidemic in 2002-03 - had originated in bats. Her database of viruses found in bats provided evidence for the theory that the coronavirus at the centre of the ongoing epidemic was also linked to bats. The new virus strain was found to be 96 per cent identical to one found in bats.
The new coronavirus, which causes a disease known as Covid-19, has killed more than 2,100 people and infected over 74,000, mostly in China, since the outbreak began in December.
Shi and the institute have both previously denied suggestions that they were linked to the epidemic.
Among those making the claims is US Senator Tom Cotton, who has repeatedly said there were links to the institute because its "super laboratory", the biosafety facility, was researching human infectious diseases "just a few miles away" from the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market that many of the first virus patients had exposure to.
China's ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai has condemned Cotton's remarks as "crazy", "harmful" and "dangerous".
More rumours swirled online over the weekend, this time that WIV researcher Chen Quanjiao had reported the head of the institute, Wang Yanyi, claiming she had "sold experimental animals" to the live animal and seafood market and "leaked the virus" from the lab.
But Chen denied the claim, saying she was angry that her name had been used to fabricate information.
"The recent rumours about the institute have affected the researchers as they try to tackle key problems," Chen said in a statement on Monday.
International researchers also hit back at conspiracy theories that the coronavirus was engineered in a paper posted on the Virological scientific online forum on Monday. Scientists including top epidemiologists Ian Lipkin from Columbia University, Edward Holmes from the University of Sydney, and Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research said there were crucial genetic clues indicating that the coronavirus was not created in a laboratory.
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