U.S. intelligence findings recently declassified by the State Department provide fresh evidence for the theory that the COVID-19 pandemic likely began at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s sole high-security laboratory that has links to the country’s military.
The department, in a report made public this month by the outgoing Trump administration, disclosed for the first time that several workers at the Wuhan institute, where research on deadly viruses is conducted, were sickened in the autumn of 2019 with COVID-19-like symptoms.
The report also made public U.S. intelligence that the People’s Liberation Army conducted secret research on covert biological warfare at the institute. Chinese leaders have consistently denied any link between the lab and the outbreak of COVID-19 and have even promoted speculation that the United States or some other foreign source brought the virus to China.
“Accidental infections in labs have caused several previous virus outbreaks in China and elsewhere, including a 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing that infected nine people, killing one,” the report states.
“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 of SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses.”
“Based on my experience and understanding of the science, it’s hard to believe this is a naturally occurring phenomenon,” said Robert G. Darling, a medical doctor and expert on biological weapons formerly with the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
“I think somebody [in Wuhan] caught their experiment,” said Dr. Darling, now chief medical officer for Patronus Medical.
William Lang, a former associate chief medical officer at the Homeland Security Department, noted that the State Department report does not accuse China’s communist leadership of releasing the virus intentionally.
“But the circumstantial — and more than circumstantial — evidence of some relation to WIV is very strong,” said Dr. Lang, now with the health service WorldClinic.
Ms. Shi, the WIV scientist dubbed the “bat woman of China” for her work on bat coronaviruses similar to the one that causes COVID-19, co-authored a scientific study in 2015 that mentions the laboratory manipulation of bat viruses as part of studying how they infect humans.
The U.S. intelligence reports said Chinese authorities for more than a year have systematically prevented a thorough investigation into the origins of the pandemic and instead devoted “enormous resources to deceit and disinformation.”
A World Health Organization delegation to China was blocked from entering the country first in the spring of 2020 and again this month. Beijing then relented and permitted a team to visit. The investigators currently are in China.
The State Department report acknowledges that the U.S. government has been unable to determine “exactly where, when, or how the COVID-19 virus — known as SARS-CoV-2 — was transmitted initially to humans.”
The failure to find the host has led many virus experts and intelligence analysts to examine more closely the idea that the virus leaked from the Wuhan laboratory. Skeptics of China’s official version say Beijing authorities have actively tried to keep the world from knowing what happened.
“The Chinese government has destroyed all the evidence from the outbreak because they want to avoid saying it began from a laboratory leak,” said a U.S. official familiar with intelligence reports. “China is trying to sell a story to the world that it began as a naturally occurring event from a wet market in Wuhan.”
Chinese authorities have tried to get WHO investigators to identify a credible animal source during their inquiry.
“Instead of focusing on an animal host that probably doesn’t exist, the WHO team should be focusing on the labs and biosafety,” the official said.
The official said, “It is very likely this was PLA secret work that went awry.”
U.S. intelligence analysts noted that China’s military is engaged in covert development of biological weapons and initial research on such arms would include developing vaccines. At least 2,016 Wuhan lab researchers experimented with a virus called RaTG13, a bat coronavirus similar to the SARS-CoV-2, the report said.
“The WIV has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses,” the report said, using the term for synthetic viruses.
“But 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.”
According to the report, a laboratory accident could appear as a natural outbreak if those initially exposed were limited to a few people and spread more easily by those with a lack of initial symptoms.
“Scientists in China have researched animal-derived coronaviruses under conditions that increased the risk for accidental and potentially unwitting exposure,” the report said.
American virus experts who have conducted research at the institute denied those claims as a conspiracy theory. Many private virus experts originally dismissed reports that the institute was linked to China’s covert biological weapons program.
“Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military,” the report said. “The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
The report said the U.S. government “for many years” has publicly voiced concerns about China’s biological weapons work that Beijing has failed to fully document and has not shown that it had eliminated, despite the requirement to do so under the Biological Weapons Convention.
The report said the intelligence disclosures about the WIV “scratch the surface of what is still hidden about COVID-19’s origin in China.”
“Any credible investigation into the origin of COVID-19 demands complete, transparent access to the research labs in Wuhan, including their facilities, samples, personnel, and records,” the report said, as well as interviews with Wuhan researchers and access to worker health records.
China’s government blocked all efforts to interview researchers at the WIV, including those who became ill in the fall of 2019.
The detailed State Department report concluded that excessive Chinese government secrecy prevented international investigators from determining the origin of the pandemic.
Outside experts critical of China say the Trump administration findings only increase the skepticism of Beijing’s denials that the virus leaked from the laboratory through an infection of a worker or through a research animal that was sold illicitly to a wild animal market.
“That was a lie. And the Chinese government knew very early on that that was a lie,” said Jamie Metzl, a WHO adviser and a former Senate aide to President Biden.
“And so in the face of overwhelming evidence in May of last year, the Chinese government shifted its position,” he told the Toronto Sun last week.
China’s government instead sought to promote conspiracy theories. Beijing officials even floated the idea that the virus was first introduced to China by the U.S. Army. The U.S. government vehemently denied that charge.
The Chinese government later cited what it said were reports of an outbreak in southern Europe before it appeared in Wuhan at the end of 2019.
A more recent theory pushed by Chinese officials is that the virus was introduced into the country on frozen food packaging. Virus experts have dismissed that theory as highly unlikely.
Mr. Metzl, the WHO adviser, said in an email that U.S. intelligence reports “suggest the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was conducting secret animal research with highly contagious viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, without notifying the World Health Organization even after the pandemic began.”
He said WHO investigators must be given full access to the workers and labs at WIV, including notes, a list of all viruses studied both past and present, and all records.
“If the Chinese government fails to immediately change course, however, the Biden administration should bring allies and partners around the world together to demand an impartial and unrestricted international forensic investigation into the origins of COVID-19, with full access to all necessary records, databases, biological samples and key personnel,” he said.
Yan Li-meng, an exiled Chinese virology expert who believes the coronavirus was an engineered bioweapon, said the State Department report shows the WIV has been “lying from the beginning” about the virus origin.
She said the report bolsters her contention that the “backbone” virus behind SARS-CoV-2 was discovered by China’s military in the 2015 to 2017 time frame and that “its gain-of-function process involved humanized animal experiments.”
“Intelligence here shows researchers in WIV were sick last fall, while WIV has denied it in public,” she said. “Then it is important to investigate whether the patients were infected with the same original strain of SARS-CoV-2 or similar strains from the lab,” Ms. Yan said.
“If it turns out that the root cause does lead to WIV, that means that the international community and [China] need to know that and then work collaboratively to make sure that nothing like this, which has had mortality and economic impact of a scale unseen outside of wartime, ever happens again.”