The U.S. quality newspaper – The Washington Post – has obtained documents showing that the United States government was concerned about safety years ago in a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus first broke out. They feared that one of the experiments – including on coronaviruses in bats – might get out of hand and that a dangerous virus would spread all over the world.
First of all, an important observation. Conspiracy theories that identify a failed experiment in a Chinese laboratory as the cause of the current pandemic have been around for some time, and there is no hard evidence for it. Nor is this provided by these documents.
Yet another concern: The Washington Post journalist Josh Rogin is an authority with very good contacts within the United States Department of State, but his story was published in the Opinion section of the renowned newspaper.
Nevertheless, the documents are fascinating reading material. They report on a number of visits that diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing made to a research center in the city of Wuhan. The first one dates from January 2018, and the research center was the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). It worked with some of the most dangerous biological organisms in the world. Three years earlier, the lab had become the first in China to be subject to the strictest international safety regulations.
The last visit took place at the end of March 2018, and the institute itself issued a press release about it. This was removed from the WIV’s site last week but has been archived on the internet.
What the diplomats discovered was so troubling that they twice sent a warning to Washington. Josh Rogin was able to get hold of the former, which talks about the lab’s work on coronaviruses in bats and their potential transmission to humans. This posed a danger to a new SARS-like pandemic, according to diplomats.
They noted, ‘that the lab is severely short of well-trained technicians and researchers who are required to operate the laboratory with a high level of safety’. The Chinese researchers at the WIV worked with American organizations and asked for extra help. The diplomats advised the U.S. to give it too, especially since the lab’s research on coronaviruses in bats was necessary but also dangerous.
The head of the research project – Shi Zhengli – had already published a lot on the subject. ‘The researchers showed, among other things, that several SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor used by the SARS coronavirus. This discovery strongly indicates that SARS-like coronaviruses can be transmitted from bats to humans and cause SARS-like illnesses in them.’
The study was supposed to prevent another SARS-like pandemic by anticipating how it would break out. However, many other scientists in 2015 already wondered whether Shi Zhengli’s team was taking unnecessary risks.
According to well-informed sources, the aim of the diplomats was to sound the alarm because they were seriously concerned about security in the IPH. “It was a warning shot,” it says. “They begged everyone to pay attention to what was going on.”
However, the United States government never assisted. Yet, warnings from two years ago have started circulating again in recent months, as the administration discussed whether the lab could be at the root of the pandemic and what the consequences would be.
It also looked towards the lab of the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This has a lower security level, but the Chinese government is also shielding that institute from investigating where the new coronavirus comes from.
The role of the Chinese government is strange to say the least. The original story that the new virus would come from a fish market in Wuhan does not seem very convincing. Chinese experts stated in the medical journal The Lancet that the very first patient identified on December 1 had no connection whatsoever with that market. Like more than a third of patients in the first large group of infected individuals. Also, no bats are sold on the market.
China, meanwhile, keeps all possible information about the origin of the virus under lock and key. The U.S. has still not received samples from the very first patients in China, and the Shanghai lab that first published the virus’s genome on January 11 was silenced. Several doctors and journalists have already disappeared without a trace.
To this day, there is no evidence that the new coronavirus was intentionally ‘made’ in a lab. Most scientists agree that it is of animal origin, but that does not rule out the possibility of it being created in a laboratory, accidentally or otherwise. However, there is no hard evidence for that either. The documents surfaced only point to the potential danger in the WIV’s Chinese lab.
The WIV itself categorically denies that the new coronavirus originated in its laboratory. On February 3, it was the first to report that the virus came from bats. Further research will have to show whether the IPH actually has anything to do with it.