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.”
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.