KEY POINTS

  • Factsheet focuses on illnesses, research, secret military activity at Wuhan lab
  • The WHO team arrived in China to probe the origins of the coronavirus
  • U.S. government said the probe demands transparent access to the research labs

Several researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) became sick in autumn 2019 even before the first case of COVID-19 was reported, the U.S. Department of State claimed as a World Health Organization team arrived in the Chinese city to probe the origins of the novel coronavirus.

The government fact sheet suggested the symptoms of the reserachers were similar to both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses, contradicting WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s claim that there was “zero infection” among the staff and students.

The State Department, however, acknowledged that the government does not know exactly where, when or how the COVID-19 virus was transmitted to humans in Wuhan more than a year ago. "The virus could have emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals, spreading in a pattern consistent with a natural epidemic," the statement noted.

"A laboratory accident could resemble a natural outbreak if the initial exposure included only a few individuals and was compounded by an asymptomatic infection."

The factsheet was released just days ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration and the exit of the Donald Trump, who had propped up conspiracy theories surrounding the origin of the coronavirus, even calling it the "Chinese virus".

Trump last year claimed to have seen evidence that COVID-19 originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but refused to give details. Both Trump and his secretary of state Mike Pompeo relied on a leaked 2018 cable that suggested that the WIV had "a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory." 

A team of experts from the World Health Organization arrived in China last week to investigate the origins of the coronavirus. They are currently undergoing a two-week quarantine in Wuhan.

The State Department said WHO investigators must have access to the records of the WIV’s work on the bat and other coronaviruses before the COVID-19 outbreak.

The pandemic suspected to have originated in a wet market in Wuhan more than a year ago has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States, the country that took the worst hit. The United States has the most number of COVID-19 cases in the world, recording over 23 million cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The U.S. document also pointed out that the Wuhan lab had become a focal point for international coronavirus research after the 2003 SARS outbreak and has since studied animals including mice, bats, and pangolins. “Starting in at least 2016 – and with no indication of a stop before the COVID-19 outbreak – WIV researchers conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar).”

While the WIV has a published record of conducting “gain-of-function” research to engineer chimeric viruses, the fact sheet added, it has not been transparent about its record of studying viruses similar to the COVID-19 virus, including “RaTG13." 

The document also mentioned “secret military activity” at the WIV. 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 WIV has “engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017,” the State Department claimed in the statement. 

Health workers at Wuhan's international airport as a World Health Organization team arrives to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic Health workers at Wuhan's international airport as a World Health Organization team arrives to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic Photo: AFP / NICOLAS ASFOURI