China has vehemently denied a Wall Street Journal report citing US intelligence that several staff at a key virus lab in Wuhan fell ill shortly before the first patient with Covid-like symptoms was registered in the city on December 8, 2019.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it was “completely wrong” that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) fell ill in the fall of 2019. The report, based on “previously undisclosed” US intelligence, lab workers said. the staff had fallen ill “with symptoms compatible with both Covid-19 and a common seasonal illness”.
“The United States continues to exaggerate the ‘lab leak’ theory … Does it care about traceability or is it just trying to distract?” Zhao said. He also cited a March statement from WIV, in which the institute said it had “never treated Sars-CoV-2 before December 30, 2019”.
The Wall Street Journal report was released on the eve of a key meeting of the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, which is expected to discuss in detail the next phase of an investigation into the origins of Covid- 19.
Separately, CNN reported Monday, citing people with knowledge of the intelligence, that the intelligence community “still doesn’t know what the researchers were really sick of.” “At the end of the day, there is still nothing definitive,” one of the people who saw the information told CNN.
Shi Zhengli, who heads the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at WIV, said earlier this year that all staff have tested negative for Covid-19 antibodies and there has been no staff turnover within the coronavirus team.
International experts investigating the origins of the coronavirus said in February, following their trip to China, that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus had spread from a laboratory leak in the city of Wuhan .
Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO chief of mission, said at the time that work to identify the origins of Covid-19 pointed to a “natural reservoir” in bats, but it was “little likely ”that this will happen in Wuhan.
The organization’s chief executive, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, however, said in March that “all assumptions remain on the table” after 14 countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, made a joint statement expressing their concerns about the findings of the WHO team.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said Monday that the organization’s technical teams are now deciding next steps. He said more study was needed on the role of animal markets as well as the laboratory leak hypothesis.
In Washington, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council said the Biden administration continued to have “serious questions about the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, including its origins in the People’s Republic of China” .
She said the US government was working with the WHO and other member states to support an expert-led assessment of the origins of the pandemic “without interference or politicization.”
The theory of laboratory leaks has been around since last year. In January 2020, as China tried to contain the spread of the virus, rumors began to spread amid the rush for answers. The conservative US website Washington Times, for example, alleged that the coronavirus “could come from a lab linked to China’s biological warfare program.”
But what many virus experts saw as a matter of pure science quickly turned into a diplomatic row, amid mounting tensions between China and the United States. Three weeks after the Washington Times report, Republican Senator Tom Cotton raised the laboratory leak theory, while admitting he had no evidence to support it.
In March 2020, Lijian alleged on his Twitter account that the coronavirus was an “American disease” that could have been brought to China by members of the US military who had visited Wuhan a few months earlier. He did not provide any evidence to support his theory either.
Soon after, several American allies called for an independent investigation into the origin of Covid-19. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for example, reiterated his country’s call in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September.