America points finger at China lab
Published by The Mail on Sunday (17th January, 2021)
(Written with Glen Owen, Political Editor)
The Chinese government is under growing pressure to reveal the true origins of the coronavirus pandemic after US intelligence placed a Wuhan lab at the centre of the mystery.
American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill with Covid-like symptoms in autumn 2019 – weeks before the alarm was raised about the contagion ravaging the city.
He also claimed its scientists were experimenting with a bat coronavirus very similar to the one that causes Covid, and had worked on secret military projects.
The Mail on Sunday first revealed concerns about the secretive lab on April 5 last year – some 287 days ago. Now the new allegations from the top of the US administration come as investigators from the World Health Organisation (WHO) land in Wuhan to look into the pandemic’s origins.
However, the team will be under the close scrutiny of Beijing officials and have no plans to visit the institute. They have also been accused of downplaying concerns that a leak was to blame.
Last night Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, called for full transparency, saying: ‘The secrecy surrounding Covid has cost millions of lives and destroyed people’s futures. It has to stop. It’s time we pushed for greater access from the WHO and joined others to sanction those keeping secrets.’
Mr Pompeo, who will leave office next week when Joe Biden succeeds Donald Trump in the White House, said: ‘Beijing continues to withhold vital information that scientists need to protect the world from this deadly virus, and the next one.’
The Wuhan site was one of just five laboratories in the world carrying out controversial ‘gain of function’ research, which artificially speeds up the evolution of viruses and, in some cases, enhances their ability to infect humans.
As The Mail on Sunday revealed last year, the scientists were manipulating corona–viruses sampled from bats in caves nearly 1,000 miles away – the same caves where Covid-19 is suspected to have originated.
In some cases they used a method of cloning that leaves no trace of lab engineering. This newspaper has also now unearthed minutes from a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party branch at the institute from November 2019 which warned that the lab was dealing with ‘highly pathogenic micro-organisms’ and states that ‘once the test tube containing the virus is opened it is like opening a Pandora’s Box’.
Matthew Pottinger, who stood down as Trump’s Deputy National Security Adviser this month, recently said the most ‘credible’ theory about the origin of this new coronavirus was that it escaped from a laboratory in China – and that the Wuhan institute was the most likely source.
The British Government has been cautious about speculating on the causes of the pandemic before the conclusion of the WHO investigation, which could take years.
Yet critics have called the probe a ‘whitewash’ since its composition and access to data are dictated by the Chinese regime. Beijing has backed away from its original claim that the virus originated in Wuhan’s wet market, but no plausible alternative theory has yet emerged.
Many prominent scientists still think there was natural transmission from an animal. The US government does not believe the leak was deliberate, but was a catastrophic accident caused by poor safety procedures surrounding the high-risk experiments.
One of the leading Wuhan scientists, ‘Batwoman’ Shi Zhengli, admitted her first thought on hearing about the virus was to wonder if it was a leak from her lab.
A British security source said: ‘If the US claims can be substantiated, it would finally give the lie to the theory that a bat travelled 1,000 miles to infect a pangolin in a Wuhan wet market which then somehow jumped the species barrier to people – and just a few miles from the only laboratory in China which manipulates bat viruses to make them contagious to humans.’
In its statement released late on Friday, the US State Department said that it was ‘sharing new information’ about the lab, outlining its belief that ‘several researchers inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses.
‘This raises questions about the credibility of WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s public claim that there was “zero infection” among the WIV’s staff and students.’
The statement added that the institute has ‘not been transparent’ about its work on bat coronaviruses, and that far from being a purely civilian lab, it had ‘collaborated on secret projects with China’s military [and] engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017’.
The statement criticised China’s clampdown on ‘doctors, scientists, and journalists who tried to alert the world’, and said vital data was still being withheld.
It concluded that the credibility of the WHO inquiry would suffer without unfettered access ‘to virus samples, lab records and personnel, eyewitnesses, and whistleblowers’.
Many experts now believe that the virus was brought into the Wuhan market by customers, rather than originating there. Despite intensive efforts, researchers have failed to find a clear ‘intermediate host’– an animal that would have allowed the virus to jump from bats to humans.
The WHO is still dismissive of suggestions the pandemic could have started with a lab leak. Peter Ben Embarek, head of the ten investigators who landed in Wuhan last week, insisted that Covid-19 ‘is clearly a natural virus’, and that the lab leak theory was ‘unlikely’ to be true.
He conceded his team would investigate the possibility of a leak, but his pre-emptive statement will fuel fears that the WHO, long criticised for its complacency and complicity with the Chinese regime, is engaged in a whitewash.