The US State Department has made sensational new claims about the origins of the coronavirus in China in the final days of the Trump presidency.
While admitting it has not been able to determine where the outbreak started, Washington has claimed it has “reason to believe” workers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill with Covid-like symptoms prior to the first known cases being detected in the city.
And while multiple experts across the globe have dismissed such a theory that the virus could have escaped from the lab, insisting Covid-19 shows all the signs of being a zoonotic disease, the US’s latest statement will undoubtedly bring further scrutiny on China amid allegations it tried to suppress information on the original outbreak in its infancy.
In a statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the US government released the information to “assist the vital work of the World Health Organisation (WHO)” as a team of scientists investigating the virus’s origins finally make their way to Wuhan after reluctance from Beijing.
Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, both Pompeo and President Donald Trump have made audacious claims or wildly speculated publicly about the origins of the virus. Trump repeatedly called Covid-19 the “China virus” during press conferences.
The statement released on Friday (local time) “urges” the WHO to pressure the Chinese government to answer questions about illnesses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), research being done there and the institute’s links to military research.
The State Department also released a “fact sheet” on the same day, which was titled “Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.
It goes on to say the Chinese government has “systematically prevented a transparent and thorough investigation of the Covid-19 pandemic’s origin, choosing instead to devote enormous resources to deceit and disinformation”.
Ten experts from the WHO have travelled to Wuhan, China, to investigate the origins of the coronavirus which has devastated the globe.
Sydney virologist Dominic Dwyer is among those experts and he too is interested in visiting WIV.
Initially, China tried to bar the experts from entering and in the past has tried to point at other countries being the first epicentre for the coronavirus.
On July 8, 2020, the United Nations says it received formal notice from the US to withdraw from the WHO.
Trump accused the WHO of an "alarming lack of independence" from China.
“That withdrawal becomes effective on July 6, 2021, and since the President’s announcement, the US government has been working to identify partners to assume the activities previously undertaken by WHO,” a statement from the State Department back in September says.
US government unable to pinpoint origin of Covid outbreak
The US State Department admitted in its release the government did not know the origins of the virus.
“The US government does not know exactly where, when, or how the Covid-19 virus—known as SARS-CoV-2—was transmitted initially to humans,” it says.
“We have not determined whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, China.”
The document contains “previously undisclosed” information, relating to three elements about the origin fo Covid-19, which the department believes should be subject to “greater scrutiny”.
The WHO has said it first learned of a new coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, on December 31, 2019, after a report said a cluster of cases had “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan.
The “fact sheet” also acknowledged Covid could have “naturally” emerged from human contact with infected animals “spreading in a pattern consistent with a natural epidemic”, but also suggested a laboratory “accident” could resemble a natural outbreak.
US has ‘reason to believe’ researchers fell sick in autumn
The US government says it has “reason to believe” several researchers working at the WIV became sick in the northern hemisphere’s autumn of 2019 before the first identified case of the coronavirus outbreak.
The document alleges the symptoms the researchers exhibited are “consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses”.
The US State Department did not elaborate on why the US government had “reason to believe” illness was circulating among researchers.
It has failed to provide further comment or evidence that has led its conclusion. Instead it referred to previous outbreaks caused by accident.
“Accidental infections in labs have caused several previous virus outbreaks in China and elsewhere, including a 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing that infected nine people, killing one,” it said.
The state department also points to the Chinese Communist Party preventing independent journalists, investigators and global health authorities from interviewing researchers at the institute.
Back in May, Trump, without giving details, said he had seen evidence the WIV was the source, appearing to echo speculation fuelled by US right-wing radio commentators about a secret lab.
Investigators ‘must’ have access to WIV’s Covid research
The department also pointed to research conducted at the WIV, particularly research pertaining to RaTG13, the bat coronavirus.
“Starting in at least 2016 – and with no indication of a stop prior to the Covid-19 outbreak – WIV researchers conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar),” the department said.
“The WIV has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses. But the WIV has not been transparent or consistent about its record of studying viruses most similar to the Covid-19 virus, including ‘RaTG13’, which it sampled from a cave in Yunnan Province in 2013 after several miners died of SARS-like illness.”
The department said the WIV became a “focal point” for coronavirus research following the SARS outbreak in 2003.
“WHO investigators must have access to the records of the WIV’s work on bat and other coronaviruses before the Covid-19 outbreak,” the department added.
“As part of a thorough inquiry, they must have a full accounting of why the WIV altered and then removed online records of its work with RaTG13 and other viruses.”
With Reuters and AAP
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