A Wuhan laboratory is the “most likely” source of the COVID-19 outbreak now ravaging the globe, according to a U.S. government analysis that catalogues the evidence and concludes that other explanations for the origin of the coronavirus are less credible.
The document, compiled from open sources and not a finished product, says there is no smoking gun to blame the virus on either the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, both located in the city where the first outbreaks were reported.
But “there is circumstantial evidence to suggest such may be the case,” the paper says. “All other possible places of the virus’ origin have been proven to be highly unlikely,” the document concludes. A copy of the report, compiled this month, was obtained by The Washington Times.
Chinese authorities have said the origin of the virus is unknown but initially stated that it came from animals at a “wet market” in Wuhan where exotic meat is butchered and sold. They said the virus may have jumped from bats to animals sold at the market last year and then infected humans. U.S. officials have grown increasingly sceptical of that version of events.
President Trump confirmed this month that “a lot of people” are investigating the origin. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether the virus escaped from a lab or was the result of a naturally occurring outbreak. “At this point, it’s inconclusive, although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural,” the general said on April 14, “but we don’t know for certain.”
The government analysis says the animal host explanation doesn’t hold up well because the first human diagnosis of COVID-19 was for a person who had no connection to the wet market.
According to reports from China, no bats were sold at the market. Meanwhile, a number of suspicious actions and a paper trail suggest that the virus escaped from one of the labs, though China is clamping down on the ability to pursue those leads.
“The most logical place to investigate the virus origin has been completely sealed off from outside inquiry by the CCP,” said the document, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
The party has taken draconian steps to control information about the virus since January. “A gag order to both places was issued on Jan. 1, 2020, and a major general from the PLA who is China’s top military microbiologist essentially took over the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] since mid-January.”
Labs face scrutiny Both of the labs under scrutiny in the report have conducted extensive research on bat coronaviruses, including those that have close molecular similarities to SARS-Cov-2, the full designation of the new pathogen.
Among the most significant circumstantial evidence identified in the report are the activities of Shi Zhengli, a leader in bat coronavirus research with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s only high-security, level four research laboratory.
Ms. Shi has been involved in bioengineering bat coronaviruses, and a medical doctor named Wu Xiaohua launched an online campaign to expose Ms. Shi’s work. Dr. Wu said she believes the coronavirus at the root of the pandemic is one of 50 viruses in a database Ms. Shi manages.
The document also points to a 2015 academic report in Nature Medicine by Ms. Shi and 14 other scientists who said that while researching the potential for bat coronaviruses to infect humans,
“we built a chimeric virus encoding a novel, zoonotic [animal-origin] spike protein … that was isolated from Chinese horseshoe bats.” The scientists said the “hybrid virus” allowed researchers to study the ability of the virus to “cause disease.”
Dr Wu stated in an internet posting that Ms Shi used laboratory animals to test the human-infecting virus, and one of those animals may have been the origin of the pandemic.
Dr Wu also asserted that the institute’s virus-carrying animals had been sold as pets, dead laboratory animals were not properly disposed of, and lab workers were known to boil and eat laboratory-used eggs.
“Wu’s charges of WIV management negligence are specific and have not been convincingly rebutted by WIV,” the analysis said. Ms Shi has worked closely with several U.S. virologists, and some American scientists have defended her and the institute from critics who point to her work with bat viruses as a needed focus of an investigation, the analysis says.
Ms Shi, in response to Dr Wu’s assertions, said in March on her social media account: “I promise with my life that the virus has nothing to do with the lab.” Another piece of circumstantial evidence cited in the paper is the mysterious disappearance of Huang Yanling. Those seeking the origin of SARS-CoV-2 suspect the laboratory worker is “patient zero,” the first known human infected with the virus.
“Huang worked at WIV but she is the only WIV employee whose biography, profile and picture have been deleted by WIV on its website, fueling speculation of foul play,” the report said.
The institute issued a firm denial. It said Ms Huang is healthy and has left the institute and moved to another province to work. “But Huang herself has never appeared in public and she has since disappeared,” the report said, noting that her whereabouts fueled widespread inquiries among Chinese on the internet.
China in March imposed restrictions on all publication regarding the origin of the virus. Yuan Zhiming, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, stated publicly this month that “there is no way this virus came from us.”
Edward Holmes, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, said there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans “originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.”
He said the bat virus kept at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was sampled from a different province and that the genome sequence divergence between that virus, RaTG13, and SARS-CoV-2 “is equivalent to an average of 50 years (and at least 20 years) of evolutionary change.” “Hence, SARS-CoV-2 was not derived from RaTG13,” he wrote in a piece for the Science Media Centre.
Scientific debate The Washington Times first reported in January that the virus might have been released or escaped unwittingly from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Several academic papers have since concluded that there is no evidence the virus was manufactured in a lab, though scientists debate whether it might have escaped.
France, which signed a deal in 2004 to help China create the level four institute, said this month that its experts believe the lab is not the source of the coronavirus spread. “We would like to make it clear that there is to this day no factual evidence corroborating the information recently circulating in the United States press that establishes a link between the origins of COVID-19 and the work of the P4 laboratory of Wuhan, China,” said a spokesman for French President Emmanuel Macron.
Chinese officials, after initially blaming the Wuhan wet market, later said the virus may have originated outside the country. They suggested that the U.S. Army or the CIA developed the virus and released it in China.
Mr. Trump and other U.S. officials have vehemently denied that accusation, which contradicts China’s initial assertions that the virus leapt from bat to human. Chen Wen, a senior Chinese diplomat in Britain, told the BBC on Friday that China has rejected international calls for an investigation into the virus.
He said the demands were politically motivated and an attempt to divert China’s attention to fighting the pandemic. Earlier that week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would seek an investigation at the annual meeting next month of the World Health Assembly, part of the World Health Organization.