Did this Chinese government lab in Wuhan leak the coronavirus?

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This file photo from, 2017 shows workers inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, The facility is among a handful of labs around the world cleared to handle Class 4 pathogens (P4) - dangerous viruses that pose a high risk of person-to-person transmission. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 17 April 2020

Did this Chinese government lab in Wuhan leak the coronavirus?

  • Opinion piece in Washington Post suggests US officials were concerned about experiments in a Wuhan lab
  • Trump and Pompeo said they would investigate reports the Chinese mishandled the COVID-19 virus

WASHINGTON: The news that US Embassy officials had been tipped off about experiments at a Chinese virus research facility in Wuhan, Hubei Province, has fueled public concerns that the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) may have originated from Chinese biological experiments.

According to an opinion column published April 14 in the Washington Post, US embassy officials visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology in January 2018 to investigate reports that China was experimenting with bats and that the Wuhan lab was inadequately staffed.

Prior to the reports surfacing, both US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said they were investigating reports that COVID-19 was the result of secret Chinese government experiments, and not of contamination from an open animal or “wet” market in Wuhan.

The Washington Post reported that the embassy officials sent cables to the US warning of “safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab” and had “proposed more attention and help.”

The cable also warned that “the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic,” the newspaper claimed.

Trump and Pompeo said they would investigate reports the Chinese mishandled the COVID-19 virus and mentioned the possible role of the Wuhan Institute for Virology.

"We are still asking the Chinese Communist Party to allow experts to get in to that virology lab so that we can determine precisely where this virus began," Pompeo told Fox Business on Friday. "It’s not political.  This is about science and epidemiology." 

In a national radio interview earlier this week, he said: “We know they have this lab. We know about the wet markets. We know that the virus itself did originate in Wuhan. So, all those things come together.

"There’s still a lot we don’t know, and this is what the president was talking about today. We need to know answers to these things.”

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READ MORE: Questions over COVID-19 origins fuel US-China blame game

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a reporter on Thursday that it appeared the rise of COVID-19 was “natural” and “organic,” contradicting some claims that China may have engineered the virus.

However, that does not rule out the possibility that it could have emerged accidentally from the laboratory where diseases in bats were being studied — a theory US intelligence agencies are now looking into, NBC News reported.

The Wuhan Institute for Virology, where studies of viruses and pandemics are conducted by the government, was founded in the 1950s, just a few years after the Chinese Communist Party gained power and at a time when Cold War tensions with the West were running high. The Institute — part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences — has had numerous name changes over the years.

China first publicly reported cases of a new strain of pneumonia on Dec. 29, 2019, saying that it had originated in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. It then confirmed these cases as a newly discovered coronavirus (COVID-19) on Jan. 7, 2020.

The first American case of COVID-19 was reported on Jan. 19 in Snohomish, Washington. The 35-year-old man had returned from a visit to his family, who live in Wuhan, four days earlier.

Trump and Pompeo have both been critical of the World Health Organization (WHO) for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Trump has suspended US payments to the WHO pending a government reevaluation.

“The WHO failed to investigate credible reports from sources in Wuhan that conflicted directly with the Chinese government’s official accounts,” Trump said on April 14. “There was credible information to suspect human-to-human transmission in December 2019, which should have spurred the WHO to investigate, and investigate immediately.” He added that the WHO should be held “accountable.” 

Trump said failures at the WHO might have allowed China to cover up the true origins of the virus, and accused the WHO of having “a dangerous bias towards the Chinese government.”

The president ordered the immediate cessation of US funding to the WHO while his administration investigates the suspicions. Pompeo has also questioned the accuracy of data released by the Chinese government, including the veracity of “the numbers of deaths and the numbers of cases” inside of China.

American scientists expressed divergent reactions to claims that the virus may have come from the Wuhan lab. Some do not rule out a bioterrorist attack. Others are highly skeptical of this theory.

In March, China began a high-profile PR campaign to defend itself against concerns regarding its handling of the virus, including the publication of a book titled “A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combating COVID-19.”

Trump has many times hinted, even though subtly, at the possibility of retaliating against China. But experts believe Trump’s options against China are limited.

Officials at the State Department declined to comment on the story. Officials at the Wuhan Institute for Virology did not return repeated telephone inquiries or emails seeking a response.


Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

Updated 7 min 59 sec ago

Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

  • Young volunteers tackle tough terrain, pandemic myths in isolated northern region

JAKARTA: A group of tech-savvy young locals in Indonesia’s northern North Halmahera regency is spreading awareness about the dangers of COVID-19 in remote corners of the archipelago at a time when bureaucracy has impeded a rapid response to the pandemic.

The Relawan Merah Putih, or Red and White Volunteers, includes a multimedia expert, university students, lecturers, civil servants and a web developer in Tobelo, the main city of North Halmahera in North Maluku province, about 2,500 km from the capital Jakarta.

The city is located on Halmahera island, part of the Maluku Islands, Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands on the northeastern part of the sprawling archipelago.

Stevie Recaldo Karimang, a 28-year-old freelance photographer and videographer, told Arab News that he set up the group after social restrictions introduced to counter the pandemic put him out of business. 

He quickly developed a website on the pandemic and created online flyers and audiovisual materials that he and 31 other volunteers distributed on social media platforms and messaging apps to educate the public about the pandemic soon after the first cases in Indonesia were confirmed in Jakarta in early March.

“We translated the information we took from the national COVID-19 task force into the market language spoken here, which is a mixture of Indonesian and the local dialect, to make it more understandable for the locals,” Karimang said.

The group also used a drone to issue public warnings against mass gatherings.

“The drone helped to remind people not to form a crowd when social restrictions were enforced. We attached a flashlight to the device to catch the crowd’s attention, and we were able to dismiss such gatherings.”

But the volunteers shifted their efforts to rural areas after the first coronavirus case in North Maluku province was confirmed on March 23.

Jubhar Mangimbulude, a microbiology expert at Halmahera University and the group’s adviser, said the team had visited 30 isolated villages out of 196 townships in the regency, which is home to 161 million people.

“We reached one village after hours of driving over rough terrain. We have to use four-wheel-drive vehicles because along the way we may have to cross a river where the bridge is damaged,” he told Arab News.

Mangimbulude said that many villagers were unaware of the pandemic and only knew from TV that a dangerous virus was spreading quickly and infecting people. He was glad to find that no COVID-19 cases had been detected among the villagers.

But he acknowledged that misinformation was rife and said that he had to debunk myths about “how alcohol could be used to prevent the disease.”

“The villagers heard that the virus can be killed with heat in one’s body, and since drinking alcohol can warm the body, they encouraged their children and elders to drink a local alcoholic beverage made of fermented sugar palm fruit,” Mangimbulude said.

Fellow volunteer Oscar Berthomene, a local civil servant, said that the group was able to move faster than the regency administration whose bureaucracy slowed down the response to the pandemic.

“I have support from my supervisor, and we were able to help their activities with cars to allow them to move around,” he told Arab News.

The regency has about 18 percent of the 953 cases in the province, which make up about 1.5 percent of the national total of 62,142 as of Saturday.