Two years before the current novel coronavirus pandemic took over the world, U.S. Embassy officials sent two cable warnings to Washington about inadequate safety at a Chinese research facility in the city of Wuhan.
The cables obtained by The Washington Post were labeled “Sensitive But Unclassified” and detailed observations inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The WIV had become China’s first laboratory to achieve the highest level of international bioresearch safety in 2015.
However, the second cable obtained by The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin warned about the safety and management weaknesses of the lab, specifically pertaining to the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission.
“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” the Jan. 19, 2018, cable read.
“Most importantly, the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases
“From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”
Despite the cables calling for extra assistance from the United States for these labs, none was provided.
This was not the first instance of people questioning the risks taken by the WIV’s Shi Zhengli and her research team. Other scientists questioned the safety of the research in a 2015 Nature article.
National Review also found job postings from November and December 2019 that showed the lab had been working on “long-term research on the pathogenic biology of bats carrying important viruses.”
There is currently no conclusive evidence that the virus was engineered in a lab.
Medical experts on the ground indicated at the time that the Huanan Seafood Market had been the only major common denominator among those individuals admitted to Wuhan hospitals with the first known cases of the virus.
Virologists and medical researchers suggest that the novel coronavirus is more than likely a zoonotic virus, having originated in bats and spread to other animals within the market before making the jump to humans.
Research scientist Xiao Qiang, however, told The Post that even though the virus likely came from animals, there is no evidence that it also didn’t come from a lab that spent years testing bat coronaviruses in animals.
“The cable tells us that there have long been concerns about the possibility of the threat to public health that came from this lab’s research if it was not being adequately conducted and protected,” he said.
Officials had similar concerns about the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab, but the Chinese government still refuses to allow outside sources to investigate if either lab was involved.
“The idea that it was just a totally natural occurrence is circumstantial. The evidence it leaked from the lab is circumstantial,” a Trump administration official told The Post.
“Right now, the ledger on the side of it leaking from the lab is packed with bullet points and there’s almost nothing on the other side.”
Xiao said knowing how the virus originated is not about blame. The Chinese government needs to be transparent in order for scientists around the world to understand the virus.
“I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory. I think it’s a legitimate question that needs to be investigated and answered,” he said. “To understand exactly how this originated is critical knowledge for preventing this from happening in the future.”