A lab that researches bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, China had come under scrutiny by US officials two years before the current global outbreak, a report said Thursday.
Diplomats sent two “sensitive but unclassified” cables to Washington in 2018, sounding the alarm about the Wuhan Institute of Virology and asking for assistance to help the lab tighten its safety protocols, the Washington Post reported.
“The cable was a warning shot,” a US official told the paper. “They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.”
One of the cables warned that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.
In recent months, the cables have recirculated inside the US government and sparked a discussion about whether the novel coronavirus could have originated at the lab or another in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, according to the report.
A senior Trump administration official said the cables support the theory that the pandemic was sparked by a lab accident in Wuhan.
“The idea that it was just a totally natural occurrence is circumstantial. The evidence it leaked from the lab is circumstantial. Right now, the ledger on the side of it leaking from the lab is packed with bullet points and there’s almost nothing on the other side,” the unnamed official told the paper.
The intelligence community has provided no evidence to confirm that the virus originated in a lab, according to The New York Times. The Chinese government claims it emerged from a fresh-food market in Wuhan.
Scientists largely agree the virus came from animals. But the newly reported cables show officials were worried about the lab’s research posing a public health risk.
“The cable tells us that there have long been concerns about the possibility of the threat to public health that came from this lab’s research, if it was not being adequately conducted and protected,” Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley, told The Post.
There are similar concerns about the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab, Xiao said.
No extra assistance was provided by the US government to the labs in response to the cables.
Shi Zhengli, the head of the research project at WIV, and other scientists at the lab have denied that the virus originated there. Her team was the first to publicly report on Feb. 3 that the novel coronavirus was bat-derived.
The Chinese government must be transparent and answer questions about the Wuhan labs, Xiao said.
“I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory. I think it’s a legitimate question that needs to be investigated and answered,” he said.
“To understand exactly how this originated is critical knowledge for preventing this from happening in the future.”
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