China found Covid-like virus in 2013 and kept it stored in Wuhan labSource: The Times
As World Health Organisation scientists prepare to enter China on the trail of the coronavirus, an Insight investigation reveals that an almost identical virus had been stored in a Wuhan lab since 2013.
The world’s closest known match to the Covid-19 virus was found seven years ago by Chinese scientists in an abandoned mine where it was linked to deaths caused by a coronavirus-type respiratory illness.
An investigation by The Sunday Times has found evidence that China has failed to publicly share this crucial information about the sister virus to Covid-19, even though it is the strongest lead in the hunt for the origin of the pandemic.
The “new strain” of coronavirus, which was discovered in the mine in 2013, has been stored for years at a virology lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the Covid-19 pandemic started at the end of last year.
It was found after six men were struck down in 2012 with fever, coughs and pneumonia, half of them fatally, after working in the mineshaft. Four of the men tested positive for coronavirus antibodies. Two died before they could be checked.
After weeks of pressure from the World Health Organisation (WHO), China has agreed to admit the group’s scientists; over the coming days they will start work in China on identifying the source of the pandemic.
One of the questions they will investigate is whether the virus could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is alleged to have been carrying out high-risk experiments to increase the infectivity of coronaviruses in an attempt to understand the mechanisms that might cause a pandemic.
In recent years its researchers have collected hundreds of coronavirus samples from remote regions of China and brought them back to the city.
The institute has refused to discuss why it has not been open about Covid-19’s closest known relative and its links to the mine deaths.
Research on the origin of the virus is highly confidential in China: all academic and scientific papers on the subject have to be submitted to a committee reporting directly to the Chinese leadership before they can be published.
China has become particularly defensive about stories suggesting the country was responsible for the pandemic — especially after claims by Donald Trump that the virus was made in China.
Professor Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a fellow of America’s Infectious Disease Society, believes it is now unlikely that China will allow a transparent investigation of the origin of the pandemic.
“That’s unfortunate,” he said, “and that largely reflects the poor handling of the matter by the US president, who chose to push this in a way that made it unlikely that there could be an open investigation.”
The Wuhan Institute of Virology declined to comment last week.