Shi Zhengli, China’s Bat Virus Scientist, on the Middle of a Storm

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In less polarized times, Dr. Shi a symbol of China’s scientific progress, the “bat woman” at the forefront of research into new viruses.

She conducted expeditions in caves to collect samples of bats and guano to learn how viruses pass from animals to humans. In 2019, she was among 109 scientists elected to the American Academy of Microbiology for her contributions in this field.

“She’s an excellent scientist – extremely careful, with a strict work ethic,” said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, director of the Department of Human Virology at the University of Maryland Medical School.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology employs almost 300 people and is home to one of only two Chinese laboratories that have received the highest security level 4. Dr. Shi leads the institute’s work on emerging infectious diseases and over the years her group has collected over 10,000 bat samples from across China.

Under China’s centralized approach to scientific research, the institute is committed to the Communist Party, which wants scientists to serve national ends. “Science knows no borders, but scientists have a motherland,” said Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, in a speech to scientists last year.

Dr. However, Shi himself is not a member of the Communist Party, according to official Chinese media reports, which is unusual for civil servants of their status. She built her career at the institute, started as a research assistant in 1990 and worked her way up.

Dr. Shi, 57, received her Ph.D. from the University of Montpellier in France in 2000 and began studying bats in 2004 after the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed more than 700 people worldwide. In 2011, She made a breakthrough when she found bats carrying coronaviruses, which were similar to the virus that causes SARS, in a cave in southwest China.