U.S. Embassy officials warned about safety risks at a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan researching infectious diseases, including coronaviruses from bats, sending warning cables back to the United States two years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the two “Sensitive but Unclassified” State Department cables, obtained by the Washington Post, warned in January 2018 about biosecurity and management problems at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s first level four biosafety lab, located just miles from the Wuhan wet market to which most, but not all, of the earliest COVID-19 cases were traced. The warnings followed repeated visits by U.S. science diplomats sent by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The cable was authored by two U.S. Embassy officials after their visit to the WIV lab, and it noted the potential threat posed by coronaviruses in bats.
“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” the cable stated. “Most importantly, the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”
One U.S. official said, “The cable was a warning shot,” and, “They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.”
The report by the Washington Post‘s Josh Rogin said the U.S. did not send the Wuhan labs further help, but the cables became a topic of conversation again over the past two months during the debate over the specific origins of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China.
“The idea that it was just a totally natural occurrence is circumstantial. The evidence it leaked from the lab is circumstantial,” one senior Trump administration official said. “Right now, the ledger on the side of it leaking from the lab is packed with bullet points and there’s almost nothing on the other side.”
Concerns have also been raised about the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a biosafety level two lab also in fairly close proximity to the Wuhan wet market.
The World Health Organization concluded the COVID-19 virus first appeared in Wuhan, the massive capital of China’s Hubei province, and an investigative report in February found “early cases identified in Wuhan are believed to have acquired infection from a zoonotic source” in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Gao Fu, the director of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, claimed “the origin of the new coronavirus is the wildlife sold illegally in a Wuhan seafood market.”
[ Read more: Taxpayer-funded animal experiments tied to Chinese ‘wet markets’ and Wuhan laboratory]
Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told the Washington Examiner that “bat coronaviruses are present in nature in multiple parts of China — including Hubei province,” and so “the first human infection could have occurred as a natural accident, with a virus passing from bat to human, possibly through another animal.”
The professor also said, “Bat coronaviruses are collected and studied by laboratories in multiple parts of China — including Wuhan Municipal CDC and Wuhan Institute of Virology,” and “the first human infection also could have occurred as a laboratory accident, with a virus accidentally infecting a laboratory worker.”
Ebright further noted: “There also is clear precedent for this: the second, third, fourth, and fifth entries of the SARS virus into human populations occurred as a laboratory accident in Singapore in 2003, a laboratory accident in Taipei in 2003, and two separate laboratory accidents in Beijing in 2004.”
The Washington Post reported the Chinese government is still stonewalling on basic questions about the coronavirus’s origins, while blocking efforts to determine any potential breaches at the Wuhan labs. The report also noted Beijing still has not given U.S. medical experts samples of the coronavirus collected from the early cases.
The New York Times reported Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, suspects the coronavirus may have originated in one of the Wuhan laboratories, but the intelligence community has reportedly not reached a conclusion in this matter.
The cable mentioned meeting with Shi Zhengli, the head of the coronavirus research effort at WIV, known as “bat woman” among her colleagues for her more than a decade and a half of research related to infectious diseases in bats.
In February, Zhengli’s research team concluded based on full-length genome sequencing of the recent novel coronavirus outbreak that “the sequences are almost identical and share 79.6% sequence identity to SARS-CoV,” and the novel coronavirus “is 96% identical at the whole-genome level to a bat coronavirus.”
In March, Zhengli told Scientific American that she originally “wondered if [the municipal health authority] got it wrong” and remembered asking herself, “Could they have come from our lab?” But the magazine said she “breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves.”
The Daily Mail reported last week that Gao Yu, a recently freed Chinese journalist from Wuhan, said he had spoken to Shi and claimed, “Her institute finished gene-sequencing and related tests as early as January 2 but was muzzled.”
A bipartisan group of senators last week called on China to ban all of its wet markets. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, also called for closing these wildlife markets down, saying, “What we are going through right now is a direct result of that.”
The Lancet, a medical journal, published a study from Chinese researchers concluding that most, but likely not all, early cases of the novel coronavirus could be tied to the Wuhan wet market.
Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas, among others, have speculated the novel coronavirus may have originated from an accidental lab escape.
There is well-documented evidence that China tried to cover up the spread of the coronavirus, muzzled whistleblowers, misled the World Health Organization, and attempted to block outside health experts. At least one study indicated that if the Chinese government had acted more quickly, the coronavirus’s global spread would have been greatly reduced.
Reports show Chinese doctors knew around late December and early January that human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus was almost certainly occurring, and the Chinese government silenced medical professionals who attempted to go public. Yet the WHO tweeted on Jan. 14 that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.”