US officials warned of safety concerns at Chinese coronavirus lab in 2018: Report

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US officials sent two warnings about safety concerns at a Chinese coronavirus research laboratory in the city of Wuhan two years before the outbreak of the COVID-19, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

The warnings, contained in cables sent to Washington, stated that the laboratory was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats. They have fueled discussion in the US government about whether the Wuhan Institute of Virology could have been the source of the virus which has infected almost 2 million people worldwide and killed 127,000, even though there is no proof, according to the report.

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The Chinese government has said that the virus jumped from bats to humans at a seafood market in Wuhan, but the science supporting this is not conclusive, according to experts.

“Research by Chinese experts published in the Lancet in January showed the first known patient, identified on December 1, had no connection to the market, nor did more than one-third of the cases in the first large cluster,” the Washington Post said.

In January 2018, the US embassy in Beijing sent a group of expert diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Institute issued a statement about the last of these visits on March 27, 2018, although the institute has since removed the statement from its website, according to the newspaper.

China has recently imposed new policies to restrict the publication of coronavirus academic research, CNN reported on Monday, citing a central government directive and online notices published by two Chinese universities.

Read more: China uses propaganda to improve image in virus ‘war’

All announcements have since been removed from the internet, according to the report, which is the latest to question the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak following accusations it underreported cases and allowed flights to remain open during the key initial stages of the outbreak.

The US cables in early 2018 warned about safety and management weaknesses at the Wuhan laboratory and proposed “more attention and help”, the Washington Post said.

People wear protective face masks, following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, at Lujiazui financial district in Shanghai, China, March 19, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)
People wear protective face masks, following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, at Lujiazui financial district in Shanghai, China, March 19, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

Chinese researchers at Wuhan Institute were receiving support from the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and other U.S. organizations at the time, the Washington Post reported. The cables argued that the United States should give them more assistance, mainly because its research on bat coronaviruses was important but also dangerous, it added.

Read more: China restricts coronavirus research publications: Report

In their visits to the institute, the diplomats met Shi Zhengli, the head of the research project, who had been publishing studies related to bat coronaviruses for many years. Zhengli has become widely known around the world after she was profiled by the Scientific American. Zhengli, according to the American popular science magazine, is often known as “bat woman” by her colleagues due to her 16-year experience of her virus-hunting expeditions in bat caves.

The Scientific American reported that when the COVID-19 outbreak occurred, Zhengli tested her own lab’s records from the past several years to check for any mishandling of experimental materials, especially during disposal. The renowned virologist said she was relieved when the results showed that none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from the bat caves they visited, according to the magazine report.

“That really took a load off my mind,” Zhengli told the Scientific American. “I had not slept a wink for days.”

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