Three workers at China’s secretive Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is suspected by some to be the origin of the global COVID-19 pandemic, sought hospital care in November 2019, months before China admitted to the virus outbreak, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.
Citing an undisclosed US intelligence report, the newspaper provided new details on how many researchers were taken ill, when they were ill, and their trips to the hospital.
Asked to respond, China’s foreign ministry pointed out that a team of World Health Organization investigators had in February concluded that the virus was unlikely to have started with a leak from the Wuhan lab.
“The US continues to hype the lab leak theory,” the ministry told the WSJ. “Is it actually concerned about tracing the source or trying to divert attention?”
Though a US National Security Council spokeswoman would not comment on the WSJ report, she noted that Washington continues to have “serious questions about the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, including its origins within the People’s Republic of China,” Reuters reported.
The US is working with the WHO to evaluate the virus origins in a way “that is free from interference or politicization,” she said.
“We’re not going to make pronouncements that prejudge an ongoing WHO study into the source of SARS-CoV-2, but we’ve been clear that sound and technically credible theories should be thoroughly evaluated by international experts,” the spokeswoman said.
The coronavirus was first detected in the Wuhan region of China, with authorities there insisting it likely spread to humans from produce at an animal market. Since it was first detected in late 2019 the virus has killed at least 3,470,000 people around the world.
Determining how the virus that causes COVID-19 first began spreading among humans is seen as vital to preventing future outbreaks.
The eventual report from the WHO team of international investigators drew no firm conclusions and called for further investigation.
Critics question the transparency around the first mission, called for in a resolution passed last May by WHO member countries, and insist that far more investigation in China was needed.
They charge that the mission was heavily orchestrated by Beijing and that the report focused disproportionately on theories favored by China.
At the time of the release of the WHO report, Reuters cited one member of the WHO team as claiming that Chinese officials refused to hand over raw data on initial COVID-19 cases.
While the international and Chinese experts provided no clear answers on the origins of the pandemic, they ranked a number of hypotheses according to how likely they believed they were.
The report said the virus jumping from bats to humans via an intermediate animal was the most probable scenario, while it dismissed a theory involving the virus leaking from a laboratory as “extremely unlikely.”
For every area investigated it basically said more study was needed.
Except one: the lab-leak theory — a US favorite under former president Donald Trump that has always been flatly rejected by China.
However, after the report was released, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisted all theories remained on the table.
In particular, he said, the probe into Wuhan’s virology labs was not “extensive enough” and that he was prepared to launch a fresh investigation.
Even as all sides stress the urgency of solving the mystery of the origin, there seems to be little progress toward the next steps.
A WHO team is currently reviewing the report recommendations and “will prepare a proposal for the next studies that will need to be carried out,” a spokesman said in April. But he did not say when the proposal would be presented to Adhanom or a new mission could be expected.
While the WHO and countries worldwide agree further investigation is needed, there is disagreement over what the next phase of inquiry should entail and where it should take place.
It took more than a year after COVID-19 first surfaced in Wuhan in December 2019 to get the international expert team to China, and Beijing appears intent on seeing the next phase focus elsewhere.
“We hope that other relevant countries will cooperate closely with WHO experts in a scientific, open, transparent and responsible manner, as China has done,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on March 31.