‘A lab leak isn’t 100% certain but it seems to be the only logical source of Covid’

Published by The Mail on Sunday (28th March, 2021)

A cluster of researchers from China’s secretive Wuhan laboratories fell sick with ‘Covid-like’ symptoms at least six weeks before the Beijing government admitted an outbreak of a new virus in their city, according to the leading US investigator looking into the start of the pandemic.

David Asher, who led State Department inquiries into Covid-19’s origins, told The Mail on Sunday that three scientists are believed to have become ill with the mysterious respiratory condition in the second week of November, 2019.

‘There are suspicions – for good reasons – of an initial cluster tied to Wuhan Institute of Virology in November and that people started to be hospitalised,’ he said. ‘Hard to conclude definitely it was Covid but it seems highly likely.’

According to ‘credible’ information from a well-connected foreign government, the wife of one researcher died later that month, Asher added. 

This is a clear sign of human transmission – yet Beijing did not confirm this crucial fact to the World Health Organisation until mid-January last year, by which time the coronavirus had spread across China and then started seeping around the planet.

‘By December, if not sooner, the Chinese had to know that they had a problem on their hands with a mysterious coronavirus spreading in Wuhan,’ said Asher, adding that there could also have been unidentified earlier clusters.

He said that as world experts on coronaviruses, the Chinese ‘must have known’ this was not normal flu. ‘If they had not covered up human-to-human transmission, many millions of people around the world would not have died,’ he added.

Asher, who served under Democrat and Republican presidents, has previously led US investigations into biological, chemical and nuclear proliferation in Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, as well as tracking the finances of Islamic State and drug cartel chiefs.

He added: ‘If the Chinese do not come forward with the truth, or we do not sort out this disaster, it is one of the greatest failures in the history of human society.

‘They were engaged in a shocking range of dangerous experiments into highly pathogenic, man-made versions of Covid-like viruses in Wuhan. 

‘A lab leak is not 100 per cent certain but it seems at this stage the only logical source of origin.

‘If there was an accident, it doesn’t mean you end relations with China but we must understand the nature of their society that let this happen, and impose new controls on bio-technology since we have seen how dangerous it can be to the world.’

Asher’s comments fuel fears that China may be covering up a lab accident, amid growing calls for this suggestion to be taken seriously. Initially, many top scientists dismissed the idea as a ‘conspiracy theory,’ pointing to some kind of natural transmission from animals. 

But Robert Redfield, a virologist and director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until earlier this year, tells a 60 Minutes documentary to be broadcast in the US tonight he believes the most likely origin ‘was from a laboratory escape’ in autumn 2019.

‘It’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect the laboratory worker,’ he said.

He believes suggestions of natural transmission for such a well-adapted disease make little biological sense. ‘I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human and at that moment in time the virus … became one of the most infectious viruses we know for human-to-human transmission.’

Wuhan is home to several important labs, including China’s only research centre with top-level biosecurity, where experts carried out risky experiments on bat coronaviruses that critics long feared might spark a pandemic.

Asher also pointed to work at the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, an adjacent lab run jointly by Wuhan Institute of Virology with Sinopharm, a state-owned firm thought to have been investigating a vaccine to combat all coronaviruses.

Intriguingly, Sinopharm chief executive Yu Qingming disclosed in an interview how China approved ‘conditional sales’ of his firm’s vaccine on February 25 last year, with senior managers given the jab in March.

Asher’s intervention follows a US State Department bulletin earlier this year that said in autumn 2019 ‘several’ Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers had ‘symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses’.

The document also accused the centre of carrying out ‘secret military activity’ and clandestine research, including animal experiments, on behalf of the People’s Liberation Army ‘since at least 2017’.

Washington sources indicate that the Biden administration, like the UK government, is less convinced by the lab leak hypothesis than the Trump administration, although both nations are dismayed by the WHO’s inquiry into the pandemic’s origins, which has ceded much control to Beijing.

Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, a member of the WHO team, admitted China had told them that ‘one or two’ researchers working in Wuhan and studying coronaviruses had become sick in the autumn – but then insisted this was normal. She denied this pointed to a lab leak, since Chinese officials told them that the scientists later tested negative for Covid-19.

Beijing, which is pushing unproven theories that the virus might have been imported on frozen food, claims the first confirmed case in Wuhan was on December 8, 2019.

Liang Wannian, head of the official expert Covid panel, said there was no evidence of the virus in Wuhan before that month.

Yet The Mail on Sunday has obtained a Chinese medical journal report, based on an interview with the scientist compiling official data on cases, which signals much earlier cases.

Professor Yu Chuanhua, professor of biostatistics at Wuhan University, told Health Times there were 47,000 cases on his database by late February. These included one suspected, but untested, fatality of a patient who fell ill on September 29, followed by two cases on November 14 and 21.

The interview took place on the day Chinese health authorities issued a silencing gag. The professor subsequently rang the journalist to retract this information, claiming the dates had been entered incorrectly. 

It is understood from US sources that the November 14 case closely matches the timing of the suspected death of the Wuhan researcher’s wife.

Asher declined to comment on any classified information.

An authoritative report in the South China Morning Post last March said that there were nine cases by the end of November, involving four men and five women aged between 39 and 79, with the first patient diagnosed on November 17.

This would imply about 50 people were already infected, mostly asymptomatic but with the symptomatic cases involving older people. Yet the WHO was not alerted until December 31 by alarmed Taiwanese officials.

An analysis by modelling experts at Southampton University suggested China could have cut cases by 95 per cent if action to contain the disease had been taken three weeks earlier – instead of pressing ahead with New Year festivities.

Another study by US researchers, which says the first case emerged in Hubei province between mid-October and mid-November 2019, concluded that such pandemics ‘permit only a narrow window for pre-emptive intervention’.

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