New Delhi: The US has released “previously undisclosed information” about the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in China’s Wuhan and emphasised it won’t rule out that the virus escaped from the lab where “secret military activity is also undertaken”.
The latest report claims researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) had fallen sick in autumn 2019, much before the first Covid-19 case was officially recorded in December that year.
The statement, released Friday, just days before the exit of the Trump administration, implies that the existence of the virus was known much before the outbreak happened and could have originated in the Wuhan lab. This echoes US President Donald Trump’s May 2020 claim that he had seen evidence that Covid originated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
The statement by the US Department of State noted that it “has reason to believe that several researchers inside the 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”.
The first cases of Covid-19 were reported in Wuhan, China, only in December 2019.
“For more than a year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has systematically prevented a transparent and thorough investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic’s origin, choosing instead to devote enormous resources to deceit and disinformation,” the statement added.
While the US government said that the origin of the virus is still unclear, it also does not rule out the possibility that the virus may have escaped from a lab.
“The virus could have emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals, spreading in a pattern consistent with a natural epidemic. Alternatively, a laboratory accident could resemble a natural outbreak if the initial exposure included only a few individuals and was compounded by asymptomatic infection,” noted the statement, adding that Chinese researchers have studied animal coronaviruses in conditions that “increased the risk for accidental and potentially unwitting exposure”.
What the fact sheet says
In a factsheet enclosed within the statement, the US government identified three areas of concerns — illnesses, research and secret military activity within the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The state department’s claims that WIV researchers had fallen sick in autumn 2019 contradicts virologist Shi Zhengli’s claim that there were “zero infections” of SARS-CoV-2 or other SARS illnesses at her lab. Zhengli heads a group that studies bat coronaviruses at the institute.
The statement noted that the Chinese government “prevented independent journalists, investigators, and global health authorities from interviewing researchers at the WIV, including those who were ill in the fall of 2019”.
The US government also found that since 2016, WIV was conducting research and experiments on a bat coronavirus called RaTG13, which has a 96.2 per cent similarity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“The WIV has not been transparent or consistent about its record of studying viruses most similar to the COVID-19 virus, including ‘RaTG13,’ which it sampled from a cave in Yunnan Province in 2013 after several miners died of SARS-like illness,” said the statement.
It urged the World Health Organization to look into why the WIV “altered and then removed online records of its work with RaTG13 and other viruses.”
The statement pointed out that several “secret” military projects were also carried out at the WIV. It added that WIV “collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military”, including laboratory animal experiments, since at least 2017.
“The United States and other donors who funded or collaborated on civilian research at the WIV have a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV,” read the statement.