When Li-Meng Yan was asked to pop into her boss’s office on the final day of last year, she had no idea such a routine summons might be the start of events that would lead to her fleeing her family, her work and her country in fear for her life.
The Chinese-born virologist was based at a prestigious Hong Kong university, one of the world’s leading centres for researching infectious diseases and a key part of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) global epidemiology network.
Her professor asked her to find out what she could about a mysterious cluster of virus cases that had erupted in the Chinese city of Wuhan – and through her medical and scientific contacts she claims to have stumbled upon a cover-up of epic proportions.
Yet her evidence about human transmission was ignored, her claim that Beijing was deliberately distorting details of the origins buried, her warning they had already sequenced the genetic code of a deadly new coronavirus (crucial for developing diagnostic tests and vaccines) swept aside.
So, as the death toll rose, Dr Yan felt she had a moral and scientific duty to blow the whistle on how the Communist regime deliberately covered up the eruption of this devastating disease. ‘I realised this was an emergency for the world,’ she says.
‘I could not stay silent. I could see China was covering up the truth and I had to do something since I was a professional who could explain it.’
Now the brilliant 36-year-old scientist is in hiding in the US, and we spoke on Skype.
Details of how she secretly collated evidence in her laboratory at night, then finally even abandoned her husband to flee abroad when she learned the security net was tightening, make her story sounds like a movie thriller. She fears the disease may have been created on purpose, linked to ‘reckless’ experiments on bat coronaviruses carried out in military laboratories. Certainly, the origins of this mysterious virus remain clouded in confusion.
Yet one thing is incontrovertible: Dr Yan was a fast-rising Chinese scientist, based at a major laboratory with work published by leading academic journals, who suddenly fled to the US in April. And if her astonishing core claims are correct, they provide damning evidence into the extent of the Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up of the pandemic.
A bookish single child born to an engineer father and a teacher mother in Qingdao, she was inspired to study medicine by her grandfather, a doctor involved in China’s fight against leprosy. ‘He always told me you should help other people, so it was good to focus on science and knowledge,’ says Dr Yan.
She spent seven years studying for a medical degree in Changsha before moving to Guangzhou to gain a PhD from Southern Medical University in her planned specialism of ophthalmology – the treatment of eye disorders – then on to the University of Hong Kong for further research.
There, she met and eventually married a fellow researcher. Encouraged by his boss, a prominent virology professor, she switched specialisms five years ago to join their team at the university’s School of Public Health.
For five years she studied influenza, vaccines and later SARS-Cov-2 – the strain of coronavirus that causes disease – at this world-renowned unit. Then came that fateful summons at lunchtime on December 31 from Professor Leo Poon, the head of the public health laboratory sciences division who helped unravel the genetic code of the coronavirus behind the 2003 Sars epidemic.
‘He said he had been asked to investigate the virus in Wuhan for the Hong Kong government,’ she says. ‘I asked why and he said China was not even sharing the information with Hong Kong. So he wanted me to do a secret investigation.’ This request took place on the same day Taiwanese experts first alerted the WHO about a strange new respiratory disease in Wuhan.
Dr Yan says her professor had already confirmed from his own contacts that the outbreak involved a Sars-like virus. ‘I felt very alarmed,’ she says. She believes she was chosen as her first language is Mandarin, not the Cantonese more widely spoken in Hong Kong, and she had friends working in hospitals and laboratories across China after her studies in several leading medical universities.
She started approaching friends and contacts for information through WeChat, the Chinese messaging and social-media platform. One exchange I have seen shows a source confirming on December 31 ‘unknown Sars suspected appeared in Wuhan’.
Another well-placed contact in Beijing said he could not say anything in public or he would be ‘punished’, although he added later that ‘everyone laughed’ when officials publicly claimed there was no evidence of human transmission.
Dr Yan claims she quickly established there were family clusters of cases, which implied human transmission, and that Chinese scientists had sequenced the genome. This tallies with Chinese media reports I have seen that were later censored. The sequence was finally published on an open-access platform on January 10 by a Shanghai professor, whose laboratory was quickly shut down for ‘rectification’.
‘Based on my evidence and experience, I knew there was human transmission and more cases than the government was admitting,’ says Dr Yan. ‘They didn’t want public discussion. They had the genome sequence. But they were telling people not to worry.’
But soon her contacts began clamming up. Among 300 members of one WeChat group were doctors working in a Wuhan hospital. When asked about human transmission, one responded only with an emoji featuring a mask over the mouth. This coincided with the arrest of local doctors who were accused of spreading false rumours after attempting to warn people to take precautions. Even a close friend working as a doctor in Wuhan was too fearful to discuss the cases.
‘There were no isolation facilities – people were being treated in open wards among other patients,’ says Dr Yan. ‘There was no protection for medical staff but they could not talk about it. My friend was scared she might get infected and give it to her family.’
Dr Yan says on January 3, Prof Poon asked to be put in direct contact with her key Beijing source, who was saying the situation was ‘terrible’, and then asked her to resume normal research work.
Yet doctors were being told to only diagnose Wuhan victims with links to Huanan Seafood Market, which was blamed for the virus crossing over to humans through the wild animals on sale. ‘They wanted to say the disease came from the market,’ says Dr Yan.
On January 16, she says Prof Poon asked her to investigate racoon dogs as a potential host species, which she told him was strange considering they were rarely eaten in the region nor seen often in the animal markets.
‘He told me not to cross the red line or I would be disappeared,’ says Dr Yan. ‘This was the invisible line we all keep in our heads since our government is so sensitive about looking bad. Touch it and you are in trouble.’
Chinese public health officials who pointed the finger at the market on January 1 eventually admitted four months later that the virus did not erupt on the site after a series of studies challenged their claims. Dr Yan says she could see there was a cover-up with ‘terrible things’ happening.
‘The market was a smokescreen. I knew I had to somehow deliver a message to the world but I didn’t want to be disappeared before I could deliver my warning.’
The timing was significant. In public, officials downplayed the threat as millions of people began moving around the country for their Chinese New Year festivities and Wuhan held a mass banquet for residents. The WHO had also failed to alert the world properly.
Dr Yan says her first move was to contact Lu De, an anti-Communist Party YouTube broadcaster, who aired her claims on January 19. The next day China tripled its number of confirmed cases and admitted human transmission. Three days later, Wuhan was locked down.
She wrote up her notes for Lu De late at night after everyone had left the laboratory. ‘I was so nervous,’ she admits. ‘I did not dare send it by email so would take pictures of each page and send them.’
A few days later she also anonymously published information online that claimed Covid-19 was created in a laboratory rather than being a natural zoonotic outbreak (diseases that jump from animals to humans).
Dr Yan kept feeding information to Lu De about China’s continuing cover-up over the origins and extent of the crisis. But she feared he lacked the expertise to explain her concerns, while she could see her information was not reaching the wider world.
In April, the broadcaster suddenly warned Dr Yan that she was in danger, with security services closing in on his source. As a result, she tried to persuade her husband they must flee but he was furious over her actions, fearing Beijing’s power, and refused to join her.
‘We had been together for seven years. I thought we had a sweet married life, going to work together and living together, but I realised he was totally scared of the Communist Party.’
On April 28 she boarded a flight to Los Angeles with minimal luggage to avoid suspicion, knowing she would never see her parents again or be allowed to return to her birthplace. ‘I could hardly breathe I was so scared,’ she says.
When she landed, she begged US border officials not to send her back to China, explaining she had come to tell the truth about Covid-19 and her background. They allowed her to remain and she says she has briefed their intelligence agencies. Within hours of her departure, Chinese authorities ransacked her home and office, questioning her family and threatening her friends. Her parents have tearfully accused her of lying and betraying the nation. Dr Yan also says she was smeared on social media with fake accounts designed to destroy her reputation.
Although Dr Yan lacks first-hand evidence on the origins of Covid-19, she believes it is derived from the ‘Zhoushan viruses’, which were extracted from bats between 2015 and 2017. The virologist argues that studies published earlier this year indicate these viruses have similar genetic sequences to Sars-Cov-2 and could have provided the ‘backbone’ for construction of a virus that may even have been deliberately released.
It is known the scientists in Nanjing military laboratories carried out risky experiments such as injecting ground-up bat intestines containing Sars-like viruses into baby rat brains. ‘This is reckless,’ says one expert. ‘You could be injecting multiple viruses at once, risking re-combination on top of selection for a virus that can transmit across species.’
Yet even this Western scientist, who is very sceptical over China’s stance on the virus, does not believe this theory will turn out to be the source of this pandemic.
For its part, the University of Hong Kong insists that Dr Yan’s statement ‘does not accord with the key facts as we understand them’, saying that her claims have ‘no scientific basis but resemble hearsay’. And Prof Poon says: ‘Yan was a post-doctoral fellow in my lab. Her research had nothing to do with human-to-human transmission.’ He adds that all mainstream scientists have failed to find any solid evidence that Sars-Cov-2 was man-made.
Yet Dr Yan remains defiant. ‘My parents have told me not to harm my country. But I had to do this as a doctor and as a scientist. I have to tell the world about the cover-up. If I did nothing, how would I live with myself?’
By IAN BIRRELL