- As questions persist over the exact origin of the novel coronavirus outbreak, newly-reported diplomatic cables show that US officials sounded the alarm about possible safety breaches at a Wuhan lab.
- The diplomats and scientists were particularly worried about the biosafety of the lab’s research on coronaviruses in animals like bats as early as January 2018.
- They specifically warned that sloppy safety protocols surrounding the handling of contagious viruses in the lab “represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.”
- While there is no evidence to suggest that the virus was deliberately created in a lab as a bioweapon, the diplomatic cables shine more light on the theory that the virus leaked out of a lab by accident.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
As questions persist over the exact origin of the novel coronavirus outbreak, newly reported diplomatic cables show that US officials sounded the alarm about possible safety breaches at a Wuhan lab studying coronaviruses in animals.
In the cables, obtained by Washington Post national security columnist Josh Rogin, US officials raised concerns about safety issues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2018, two years before the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The lab, which holds a level four biosafety research certification, the highest possible rating, was conducting research on coronaviruses in bats.
After multiple visits to the lab from a US diplomat in Wuhan and a science diplomat at the US Embassy in Beijing in early 2018, the officials were concerned about safety issues with the lab’s research, they sent two “sensitive but unclassified” cables back to Washington, DC sounding the alarm and asking for assistance to help the lab tighten its safety protocols.
“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,” said a cable dated from January 19, 2018, according to the Post.
The diplomats and scientists were particularly worried about the biosafety of the lab’s research on coronaviruses in animals like bats, and warned that sloppy safety protocols surrounding the handling of contagious viruses in the lab “represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.”
To be clear, the novel coronavirus is transmitted from animals to humans, and there is no evidence to suggest that the virus was deliberately created in a lab as a bioweapon. But the newly-reported diplomatic cables shine new light on the theory that the virus may have leaked out of the lab by accident or through biowaste, infecting the surrounding population.
Like the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that originated in southern China in 2002, the novel coronavirus (scientifically termed 2019-nCoV) began with animal-to-human transmission.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology had previously published research locating the same cluster of bats believed to have transmitted SARS to humans in 2002. And the lab’s research was first to report that the novel coronavirus originated in bats in February 2020.
In the cable, the diplomats said the WIV’s researchers’ work on coronaviruses in bats “strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases,” adding, “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.”
While such research is important to fully understand animal-to-human transmission of coronaviruses, the cable raised concerns that the highly dangerous research could cause more harm than good without immediate intervention to improve the lab’s safety protocols.
“The cable was a warning shot,” an official told the Post. “They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.”
As Rogin noted, researchers have previously raised concerns about the safety of so-called “gain-of-function” studies that increase the strength or contagion of dangerous pathogens and raise the risks of disease outbreaks.
While the Chinese government claims the novel coronavirus was first transmitted to humans in a Wuhan wet market, there are still many unanswered questions about the virus’ origins. Those questions have been compounded by the Chinese government’s obfuscations, lack of transparency with other nations, and moves to crack down on research surrounding the virus and silence those who first spoke out.
Chinese diplomats have inflamed tensions with the US and hindered progress on solving the problems surrounding the virus by spreading conspiracy theories of their own, including one claiming that the US Army deliberately brought the coronavirus to Wuhan.
As the Post’s David Ignatius and others have noted, the argument that the virus entirely originated in the Wuhan Seafood Market has some still-unresolved inconsistencies.
In addition to the fact that the market did not sell bats (although it’s possible that some of the other animals had connections with bats), research published in The Lancet in January showed that neither the first known human patient to be infected nor 14 out of 41 first cluster of patients had any connection to the market.
Ignatius also noted that another lab, the Wuhan department of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was conducting research on animal coronaviruses right next to the Wuhan Seafood Market, and holds only a level two biosafety certification as opposed to the WIV’s level four rating.
“I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory. I think it’s a legitimate question that needs to be investigated and answered,” University of California Berkeley researcher Xiao Qiang told the Post of the evidence that the virus may have originated in a lab. “To understand exactly how this originated is critical knowledge for preventing this from happening in the future.”