28 May 2021

Covid-19 origin: China hits back as US revisits Wuhan lab-leak theory

1:26 pm on 28 May 2021

China has denounced US efforts to further investigate whether Covid-19 came from a Chinese laboratory.

Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, Hubei province.

Recent reports in the US attributed to intelligence sources say three members of the Wuhan Institute of Virology were admitted to hospital in November 2019 suffering from Covid-like symptoms. Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden has said he expects to release the results of an intelligence report on the origins of the virus.

China's foreign ministry accused the US of "political manipulation and blame shifting".

It has rejected any link between Covid-19 and a virus research lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Covid-19 was first detected in Wuhan in late 2019. Since then, more than 168 million cases have been confirmed worldwide and about 3.5m deaths reported.

Chinese officials linked early Covid-19 cases to a seafood market in Wuhan, leading scientists to theorise that the virus had first passed to humans from animals.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it is "extremely unlikely" that the virus spread from a lab leak, following a visit to Wuhan earlier this year to investigate the origins of the coronavirus outbreak.

WHO virologist Marion Koopmans, who was part of that field visit, told the BBC that if the US authorities had any information they should share it.

But recent US media reports have suggested growing evidence the virus could instead have emerged from a laboratory in China, perhaps through an accidental leak.

Why is this dispute happening now?

In a statement on Wednesday, President Biden said he had asked for a report on the origins of Covid-19 after taking office, "including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident". On receiving it this month, he asked for "additional follow-up".

Biden said the majority of the intelligence community had "coalesced" around those two scenarios, but "do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other".

He said he had now asked agencies to "redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion".

On Thursday, Biden told reporters he planned to release the report "unless there's something I'm unaware of".

President Joe Biden talks to reporters during the first news conference of his presidency in the East Room of the White House on 25 March 2021 in Washington, DC.

Us President Joe Biden is promising to release the results of a new probe into the origins of Covid-19. Photo: AFP / 2021 Getty Images

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau then voiced his support for efforts made by the US and other countries to better understand the origins of the virus.

Wednesday's announcement angered Chinese officials.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it showed the US "does not care about facts or truth, and has zero interest in a serious science-based study of origins".

"Their aim is to use the pandemic to pursue stigmatisation, political manipulation and blame shifting. They are being disrespectful to science, irresponsible to people's lives and counter-productive to the concerted efforts to fight the virus," he said.

The spokesman also said US intelligence agencies had a "dark history" of spreading misinformation.

A statement from the Chinese embassy in the US, which did not directly refer to Biden's order, said "smear campaigns and blame shifting are making a comeback".

Theory pushed by Trump

Speculation about the Wuhan Institute of Virology - one of China's top virus research labs - began last year and was propagated by former US president Donald Trump.

US state department cables came to light in April 2020 that showed embassy officials were worried about biosecurity there.

Earlier this year, WHO issued a report written jointly with Chinese scientists on the origins of Covid-19 which said the chances of it having started in a lab were "extremely unlikely".

It said the virus had probably jumped from bats to humans via another intermediary animal, but that more research was needed.

A WHO spokesperson on Thursday reiterated to the BBC that further studies were needed "in a range of areas, including on the early detection of cases and clusters, and the potential roles of animal markets, transmission via the food chain and the laboratory incident hypothesis".

The laboratory theory has received increased public attention in the US amid recent reports attributed to intelligence sources that say three members of the Wuhan Institute of Virology were admitted to hospital in November 2019, several weeks before China acknowledged the first case of the new disease in the community.

President Biden's chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci has maintained he believes the virus was passed from animals to humans, though he conceded this month he was no longer confident Covid-19 had developed naturally.

 Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases,  prepares to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee

Dr Anthony Fauci is having second thoughts on the cause of the pandemic. Photo: AFP

Biden's order for further investigations came the day after Xavier Becerra, US secretary for health and human services, urged the WHO to ensure a "transparent" investigation into the virus's origins.

"Phase 2 of the Covid origins study must be launched with terms of reference that are transparent, science-based and give international experts the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak," he said.

While there is still no evidence to suggest it is man-made, Facebook on Thursday said that in light of the ongoing investigations and in consultation with public health experts it would "no longer remove the claim that Covid-19 is man-made from our apps".

"We're continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge," it said.

- BBC

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