ADVERTISEMENT

US Officials Wary Over Wuhan Lab Work in 2018 Were Ignored: Report

In 2018, US diplomats had warned about coronavirus experiments in Wuhan lab, but their warnings were written off.

Published
COVID-19
4 min read
US diplomats in 2018 had warned about coronavirus experiments in a lab in Wuhan, but their warnings were ignored by the political establishment in Washington.
i

US diplomats in 2018 had warned about coronavirus experiments in a lab in Wuhan, but their warnings were ignored by the political establishment in Washington, suggests a report by news portal Politico.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology’s research on bat viruses had already drawn the attention of US diplomats and officials at the Beijing Embassy in late 2017, prompting them to alert Washington that the lab’s own scientists had reported “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” But their warnings were ignored, the report claims.

ADVERTISEMENT

Trump's Public Claims On The Origin of Coronavirus

In its last days, former US President Donald Trump’s State Department on 15 January put out a statement with serious claims about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The statement said the US intelligence community had evidence that several researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory were sick with COVID-like symptoms in autumn 2019 – implying the Chinese government had hidden crucial information about the outbreak for months – and that the WIV lab, despite “presenting itself as a civilian institution,” was conducting secret research projects with the Chinese military.

The State Department alleged a Chinese government cover-up and asserted that “Beijing continues today to withhold vital information that scientists need to protect the world from this deadly virus, and the next one.”

In the spring of 2020, inside the US government, some officials began to see and collect evidence of a different, perhaps more troubling theory – that the outbreak had a connection to one of the laboratories in Wuhan, among them the WIV, a world leading centre of research on bat coronaviruses.

Why Did The Diplomats Become Suspicious of Wuhan Lab?

The Politico report states that in late 2017, top health and science officials at the US Embassy in Beijing attended a conference in the Chinese capital. There, they saw a presentation on a new study put out by a group of Chinese scientists, including several from the Wuhan lab, in conjunction with the US National Institutes of Health.

Since the 2002 outbreak of SARS – the deadly disease caused by a coronavirus transmitted by bats in China – scientists around the world had been looking for ways to predict and limit future outbreaks of similar diseases. To aid the effort, the NIH had funded a number of projects that involved the WIV scientists, including much of the Wuhan lab’s work with bat coronaviruses. The new study was entitled “Discovery of a Rich Gene Pool of Bat SARS-Related Coronaviruses Provides New Insights into the Origin of SARS Coronavirus.”

These researchers, the American officials learned, had found a population of bats from caves in Yunnan province that gave them insight into how SARS coronaviruses originated and spread. The researchers boasted that they may have found the cave where the original SARS coronavirus originated.

But all the US diplomats cared about was that these scientists had discovered three new viruses that had a unique characteristic: they contained a "spike protein” that was particularly good at grabbing on to a specific receptor in human lung cells known as an ACE2 receptor. That means the viruses were potentially very dangerous for humans—and that these viruses were now in a lab with which they, the US diplomats, were largely unfamiliar.

When they sat down with the scientists at the WIV, the American diplomats were shocked by what they heard. The Chinese researchers told them they didn’t have enough properly trained technicians to safely operate their BSL-4 lab. The Wuhan scientists were asking for more support to get the lab up to top standards.
ADVERTISEMENT

Washington Ignored Cable Warnings From Diplomats

The Politico report further states that the diplomats wrote two cables to Washington reporting on their visits to the Wuhan lab. More should be done to help the lab meet top safety standards, they said, and urged Washington to get on it. They also warned that the WIV researchers had found new bat coronaviruses could easily infect human cells, and which used the same cellular route that had been used by the original SARS coronavirus.

Taken together, those two points – a particularly dangerous groups of viruses being studied in a lab with real safety problems – were intended as a warning about a potential public-health crisis, one of the cable writers told me. They kept the cables unclassified because they wanted more people back home to be able to read and share them, according to the cable writer.

However, the report reveals, there was no response from State Department headquarters and they were never made public. And as US-China tensions rose over the course of 2018, American diplomats lost access to labs such as the one at the WIV.

How Washington Politicised The Warnings

Back in 2017, the US diplomats who had visited the lab in Wuhan had foreseen these very events, but nobody had listened and nothing had been done. “We were trying to warn that that lab was a serious danger,” one of the cable writers who had visited the lab said. “I have to admit, I thought it would be maybe a SARS-like outbreak again. If I knew it would turn out to be the greatest pandemic in human history, I would have made a bigger stink about it,” the Politico report quotes him as saying.

The report claims that despite having knowledge about the activities in the Wuhan lab, the officials only started taking it seriously by April 2020 – to substantiate an ongoing political rift with China.

As the internal information from the US government’s debate on activities in Wuhan lab spilt in the public domain, the report says, the discussion on the origins of the virus deviated from a scientific or forensic question to become a ‘hot political debate.’

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!
ADVERTISEMENT