The Chinese government has stepped up its aggressive resistance against efforts by Western scientists to probe Covid’s origins – and is accusing the US of spreading fake news about laboratories in Wuhan.
Ahead of US intelligence experts finalising a report demanded by President Joe Biden into the pandemic’s cause, which is expected on Tuesday, Beijing officials have demanded that Washington opens for public scrutiny a US military laboratory in Maryland.
In this tit-for-tat, it is understood that US analysts have obtained data and research by Wuhan laboratories in order to compare and examine genetic sequences on shared online databases.
‘A lot of the analysis is carried out on data clouds which are often based in the US,’ said one Washington source.
Two months ago, a leading US scientist revealed he had recovered deleted files from the Google Cloud to reconstruct partial genetic sequences of early cases in Wuhan that differed from the variants that spread to cause the pandemic.
‘Forgot protective measures’: A still from a video showing Tian Junhua, who studied samples from bats at Wuhan lab and co-authored a key early article in the pandemic identifying the genome of the new coronavirus
The data obtained by Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist in Seattle, confirmed that Covid-19 was circulating well before the outbreak emerged in a Wuhan market selling wild animals – and that Chinese laboratories had attempted to delete critical data.
But David Asher, former lead investigator for the State Department, fears US efforts are hampered by not offering rewards to potential whistleblowers and defectors, or to ensure agencies gain access to data outside of secretly-obtained intelligence.
Such data would include records and communications with China by the National Institutes of Health – America’s medical research agency – and EcoHealth Alliance, a charity run by British scientist Peter Daszak, which both funded cutting-edge work on bat coronaviruses at Wuhan Institute of Virology, the highest-security lab in China.
Asher said the intelligence services were ‘doing their best’ but were handicapped ‘if unable to even access all the information that might be available in the US.’
China, having controlled initial World Health Organisation efforts to investigate the disease origins in Wuhan, said last month it would not allow more inquiries after the public health body started to resist Chinese efforts to marginalise the lab leak idea.
There was international condemnation after the WHO’s heavily-controlled trip to Wuhan earlier this year concluded the lab leak hypothesis was ‘extremely unlikely.’
Peter Ben Embarek, a Danish food scientist who led the study, has since admitted the Chinese were unwilling to discuss the lab leak theory and would only co-operate if the report defined the lab accident hypothesis as ‘extremely unlikely’ rather than ‘unlikely’.
Beijing’s increasing aggression was highlighted by an article on Friday in the state-run Global Times newspaper accusing the US of running a campaign ‘to smear China as source of the coronavirus’ while ‘feeding the media with fabricated evidence’ and putting pressure with its allies on the WHO.
Ahead of US intelligence experts finalising a report demanded by President Joe Biden (pictured) into the pandemic’s cause, which is expected on Tuesday, Beijing officials have demanded that Washington opens for public scrutiny a US military laboratory in Maryland
Bizarrely, it even accused the US of ‘hyping’ the theory that China’s wildlife markets were the source of Covid – something first raised by Beijing disease experts before the theory was dismissed following scientific research. Tory MP Bob Seely, a member of the foreign affairs committee, said: ‘It speaks volumes that China is becoming so defensive and belligerent.
‘A responsible country would open its labs to get to the bottom of the greatest health crisis of this century.
‘We don’t know where Covid comes from – transmission from animals, sloppy lab procedures or experiments that manipulate viruses – but it’s clear China is nervous of the world finding out. Why? What’s it got to hide?’
Meanwhile the spotlight is also focusing on the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory after Embarek highlighted its move to a new location – a short distance from the market – in December 2019, just as cases began to emerge.
Researchers with Drastic, a group of online digital activists who have uncovered many facts seen as contradicting the official Chinese narrative, point out such a move of the biosafety level-2 laboratory would have been disruptive and taken several months to complete.
Employees line up for nucleic acid testing of Covid-19 in LIVAT Shopping Mall on August 11 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China
Embarek also noted the possibility of a researcher becoming infected while taking samples ‘falls under one of the probably hypotheses’, since this would be ‘where the virus jumps directly from a bat to a human’.
A leading researcher at the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory is Tian Junhua, who co-authored a key early article in the pandemic identifying the genome of the new coronavirus. According to the WHO report in March, the lab denied storage or activities involving bat coronaviruses before the pandemic. Yet Chinese media reported Tian bragging about visiting bat caves to collect samples and studying hundreds of virus vectors.
Documentary footage – disclosed by the MoS in May – shows Tian and his team without full protective clothing, despite admitting it was easy to be in contact with bat droppings. ‘It is highly risky here. I feel the fear. The fear of infections,’ he says.
Scientific papers show the team trapped and killed bats for ‘tissue samples of heart, liver, spleen, lung, kidney and brain’ although most of its work seems to have been around Wuhan rather than in the southern Chinese caves assumed to be the reservoir of viruses closest to Sars-Cov-2 (the strain of coronavirus that causes Covid).
Chinese media reports have described how Tian ‘forgot to take protective measures’ while speaking of bat blood and urine dripping on to the researcher’s head and skin –‘like raindrops on his body’, in the words of one report by state media outlet Xinhua.
Richard Ebright, a biosafety expert and professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University in the US, said the footage and reports exposed ‘reckless Indiana-Jones-style adventurism’ that raised serious concerns over accidental infection.
Intriguingly, Tian was labelled ‘Patient Zero’ on some Chinese social media when the disease began to rampage – and then disappeared from public view.