The Chinese government is under growing pressure to reveal the true origins of the coronavirus pandemic after US intelligence placed a Wuhan lab at the centre of the mystery.
American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill with Covid-like symptoms in autumn 2019 – weeks before the alarm was raised about the contagion ravaging the city.
He also claimed its scientists were experimenting with a bat coronavirus very similar to the one that causes Covid, and had worked on secret military projects.
The Mail on Sunday first revealed concerns about the secretive lab on April 5 last year – some 287 days ago. Now the new allegations from the top of the US administration come as investigators from the World Health Organisation (WHO) land in Wuhan to look into the pandemic’s origins.
Chinese government is under growing pressure to reveal the true origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Pictured: Researcher at a lab in Wuhan
American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill with Covid-like symptoms in autumn 2019. Pictured: Wuhan Institute of Virology
However, the team will be under the close scrutiny of Beijing officials and have no plans to visit the institute. They have also been accused of downplaying concerns that a leak was to blame.
Last night Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, called for full transparency, saying: ‘The secrecy surrounding Covid has cost millions of lives and destroyed people’s futures. It has to stop. It’s time we pushed for greater access from the WHO and joined others to sanction those keeping secrets.’
Mr Pompeo, who will leave office next week when Joe Biden succeeds Donald Trump in the White House, said: ‘Beijing continues to withhold vital information that scientists need to protect the world from this deadly virus, and the next one.’
The Wuhan site was one of just five laboratories in the world carrying out controversial ‘gain of function’ research, which artificially speeds up the evolution of viruses and, in some cases, enhances their ability to infect humans.
As The Mail on Sunday revealed last year, the scientists were manipulating corona–viruses sampled from bats in caves nearly 1,000 miles away – the same caves where Covid-19 is suspected to have originated.
In some cases they used a method of cloning that leaves no trace of lab engineering. This newspaper has also now unearthed minutes from a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party branch at the institute from November 2019 which warned that the lab was dealing with ‘highly pathogenic micro-organisms’ and states that ‘once the test tube containing the virus is opened it is like opening a Pandora’s Box’.
Matthew Pottinger, who stood down as Trump’s Deputy National Security Adviser this month, recently said the most ‘credible’ theory about the origin of this new coronavirus was that it escaped from a laboratory in China – and that the Wuhan institute was the most likely source.
The British Government has been cautious about speculating on the causes of the pandemic before the conclusion of the WHO investigation, which could take years.
The team will be under the close scrutiny of Beijing officials and have no plans to visit the institute. Pictured: Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli inside Wuhan lab in 2017
Yet critics have called the probe a ‘whitewash’ since its composition and access to data are dictated by the Chinese regime. Beijing has backed away from its original claim that the virus originated in Wuhan’s wet market, but no plausible alternative theory has yet emerged.
Many prominent scientists still think there was natural transmission from an animal. The US government does not believe the leak was deliberate, but was a catastrophic accident caused by poor safety procedures surrounding the high-risk experiments.
One of the leading Wuhan scientists, ‘Batwoman’ Shi Zhengli, admitted her first thought on hearing about the virus was to wonder if it was a leak from her lab.
A British security source said: ‘If the US claims can be substantiated, it would finally give the lie to the theory that a bat travelled 1,000 miles to infect a pangolin in a Wuhan wet market which then somehow jumped the species barrier to people – and just a few miles from the only laboratory in China which manipulates bat viruses to make them contagious to humans.’
In its statement released late on Friday, the US State Department said that it was ‘sharing new information’ about the lab, outlining its belief that ‘several researchers inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses.
Pompeo, pictured, claimed the institutes scientists were experimenting with a bat coronavirus very similar to the one that causes Covid
‘This raises questions about the credibility of WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s public claim that there was “zero infection” among the WIV’s staff and students.’
The statement added that the institute has ‘not been transparent’ about its work on bat coronaviruses, and that far from being a purely civilian lab, it had ‘collaborated on secret projects with China’s military [and] engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017’.
The statement criticised China’s clampdown on ‘doctors, scientists, and journalists who tried to alert the world’, and said vital data was still being withheld.
It concluded that the credibility of the WHO inquiry would suffer without unfettered access ‘to virus samples, lab records and personnel, eyewitnesses, and whistleblowers’.
Many experts now believe that the virus was brought into the Wuhan market by customers, rather than originating there. Despite intensive efforts, researchers have failed to find a clear ‘intermediate host’– an animal that would have allowed the virus to jump from bats to humans.
The WHO is still dismissive of suggestions the pandemic could have started with a lab leak. Peter Ben Embarek, head of the ten investigators who landed in Wuhan last week, insisted that Covid-19 ‘is clearly a natural virus’, and that the lab leak theory was ‘unlikely’ to be true.
He conceded his team would investigate the possibility of a leak, but his pre-emptive statement will fuel fears that the WHO, long criticised for its complacency and complicity with the Chinese regime, is engaged in a whitewash.
Lab we first spotlighted in April… and have been investigating ever since
Fear that the pandemic may have originated with a leak from a laboratory first erupted on April 5 last year after The Mail on Sunday revealed that a government source believed this explosive concept was ‘no longer being discounted’.
This senior figure pointed out: ‘Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is that laboratory in Wuhan.’
Since then, the story has taken off around the world, despite being dismissed as a conspiracy theory by the scientific establishment and those with links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Last April, we also exposed links between China and World Health Organisation boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and his body’s complicity in Beijing’s initial cover-up of the pandemic.
The issue was picked up instantly by Donald Trump, who later severed funding from America, the WHO’s biggest financial supporter.
The following week, we revealed that the US government was backing high-risk research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Again, this led to the termination of funding, sparking huge debate.
Fear that the pandemic may have originated with a leak from a laboratory first erupted on April 5 last year. Pictured: Researchers work in a lab of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in 2017
In May, we ran exclusive reports on a pair of landmark scientific studies that cast doubt on China’s claims that the new disease had erupted in a wild animal market. Later that month, the nation’s top scientist confirmed their theory was misplaced.
We have also obtained censored Chinese reports suggesting the disease started significantly earlier than claimed and disclosed how the head of biosecurity at the secretive Wuhan lab had confessed to serious safety concerns.
In recent weeks, we have disclosed how leading scientists closed ranks to dismiss ‘conspiracy theories’ over the idea of a lab leak, and revealed growing concerns over the Wuhan links of British scientist Peter Daszak, a member of the critical WHO inquiry into the origins of this pandemic.
We were also the first mainstream paper to set out the full theory of a Wuhan lab leak, the issue now being debated around the world.
Lab girl who has vanished from the face of the earth
A year-long hunt by The Mail on Sunday and Western intelligence officials for a Chinese lab researcher believed to be the world’s first Covid-19 patient has been thwarted by a suspected state cover-up.
Huang Yanling, who worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was named as Patient Zero in online reports that were widely shared inside China in the early weeks of the outbreak last February.
The revelation created a direct link between the pandemic and the lab suspected to have accidentally unleashed it while conducting dangerous experiments on bat coronaviruses.
Huang Yanling (left), who worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was named as Patient Zero in online reports that were widely shared inside China
The reports did not say when she contracted the virus or if she survived. However, they support the US State Department’s belief she was the first of several researchers at the controversial institute who fell ill with Covid-19 in the autumn of 2019, before it was officially acknowledged.
Chinese government and lab officials stepped in swiftly to deny the reports at the time and remove them from the internet, claiming Huang was safe and well elsewhere in China.
A post purporting to be from Huang appeared on WeChat, China’s equivalent of WhatsApp, telling colleagues and teachers at the institute she was alive and insisting the reports were false.
The message read: ‘To my teachers and fellow students, how long no speak. I am Huang Yanling, still alive. If you receive any email [regarding the Covid rumour], please say it’s not true.’
A separate post by her former boss, Professor Wei Hong Ping, claimed Huang left the institute in 2015 and had contacted him by phone to deny the reports.
A day later, a Chinese news agency made a vague claim to have spoken to her new employer without providing details.
Inexplicably, however, Huang has disappeared from social media and has not been heard from since being identified as Patient Zero, while her biography and research history have been scrubbed from the institute’s website.
Almost one year on, the only trace of the student researcher is a grainy picture of her salvaged from the institute’s website and circulated on the internet.
Wuhan team bitten by bats
Scientists at the Wuhan lab admitted being bitten while collecting samples in a cave which is home to coronavirus-infected bats.
One researcher said one animal’s fangs went through his rubber gloves ‘like a needle’.
Researchers in thin overalls and rubber gloves handle bats while gathering samples in a clip filmed by a Chinese television crew
Staff inside the top-secret facility were also shown handling bats without gloves and working on ‘live viruses’ without masks in apparent breach of strict World Health Organisation safety rules on PPE, according to footage captured by a Chinese TV crew and broadcast in 2017.
The revelations will raise further questions for the WHO team which is investigating the origins of Covid-19 following months of wrangling with Beijing over access to the Wuhan site.
In the days after the initial reports, bloggers and internet users in China suspicious of officials’ denials pleaded with Huang to make a public appearance to prove she was alive. ‘To stop this rumour spreading, Huang should just come forward and do a blood test,’ said one. Another posted: ‘No matter where you live, Huang, you will be found.’
China’s internet censors quickly stamped out discussion of Huang, and extensive enquiries within the country by The Mail on Sunday, including messages to her former colleagues, have failed to turn up any trace of her.
Huang remains an enigma, the only picture of her showing a woman in her 20s with long hair, peeking out from behind a colleague. Her name is included among the writers of three scientific papers issued by the Wuhan institute between 2013 and 2015, including research into staphylococcus bacteria.
Western governments and intelligence agencies are also understood to have tried and failed to locate Huang amid a ferocious crackdown on any challenge to China’s official narrative that the outbreak has no link to the Wuhan facility.
In its statement yesterday, the US State Department complained that the Chinese Communist Party had prevented investigators and global health authorities from interviewing researchers at the Wuhan institute ‘including those who were ill in the fall [autumn] of 2019’.
‘Beijing continues today to withhold vital information that scientists need to protect the world from this deadly virus and the next one,’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added.
China’s reluctance to produce Huang to quash the alleged rumours has fuelled the belief that she is either dead or is being held by the state to cover up the institute’s culpability for the pandemic. It has also generated lurid speculation about her fate, with some claiming Huang must have been hastily cremated. ‘Everyone on the Chinese internet is searching for Huang. Most believe she is dead,’ said one blogger.
In the same month that Huang was named as Patient Zero, a user of Chinese social-media platform Weibo, claiming to be a researcher in Wuhan, alleged the virus had leaked from the institute.
The lab denied the allegation and said the claim came from an overseas impostor posing as one of its researchers.
Pumping out propaganda and lies
China is aggressively promoting flimsy theories that Covid-19 originated outside the country as World Health Organisation experts begin their investigation in Wuhan into the pandemic’s source.
The country’s state-run media last week leapt on a report that a woman with symptoms of the virus has been traced to Milan in November 2019 as proof that the pandemic started abroad.
A leading Chinese scientist declared in the nationalistic Global Times: ‘Other countries potentially had Covid outbreaks before Wuhan and investigations should be carried out there as soon as possible.’
The news from Italy made headlines in many Chinese newspapers, drawing online comments such as ‘the world owes China an apology.’
The country’s state-run media last week leapt on a report that a woman with symptoms of the virus has been traced to Milan in November 2019 as proof that the pandemic started abroad. Pictured: Shi Zhengli, known as China’s ‘bat woman’ for her virus-hunting expeditions in bat caves, releases a fruit bat after taking blood and swab samples from it in 2004
Beijing leaders have made repeated attempts to divert blame for the pandemic by claiming it was introduced to China by foreigners. In March last year, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted suggestions that the US Army might have brought in the virus when its troops competed in the Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019.
Last November, Chinese scientists argued the virus may have originated in India in the summer of 2019 when a heatwave forced animals and humans to share the same water sources. A month later, a state-run newspaper claimed the virus might have been introduced to China in frozen meat imported from Australia, following earlier claims that people may have been infected by imported fish.
More recently, newspapers and TV stations have played up reports questioning the efficacy of Western Covid-19 vaccines as China struggles to gain international acceptance for its own home-grown versions.