China Refutes Wuhan Lab Leak Theory as Researchers' Illness Fuels Debate About COVID-19 Origin

China is standing behind a March report that said it was unlikely that the coronavirus originated at its Wuhan Institute of Virology and is continuing its attempt to shift attention to the United States' Fort Detrick.

On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that three researchers from the Wuhan lab were hospitalized in November 2019, according to a U.S. intelligence report obtained by the newspaper. The report follows a State Department fact sheet issued in former President Donald Trump's final days that said researchers had gotten sick in fall 2019 and comes as scientists are pushing for additional investigations into the coronavirus's origin.

Asked about the Journal's story during Monday's briefing, Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, pointed reporters to a statement the lab issued in March. In it, he said, the lab stated that personnel were not exposed to the virus before December 30—the date China reported cases to the World Health Organization (WHO)—and a "'zero infection' record" was maintained among staff and graduate students.

"I've read it, it's a complete lie," Yuan Zhiming, director of the Wuhan institute's National Biosafety Lab, told the state-run Global Times, speaking of the intelligence report. "Those claims are groundless. The lab has not been aware of this situation, and I don't even know where such information came from."

The pandemic sparked memories of the 2003 SARS epidemic, when China faced heavy criticism for its response, including a significant lack of transparency. The epidemic also raised concerns about China's ability to be truthful this time around, and while Chinese officials received high remarks from the WHO for their response, many haven't been eager to take the officials' remarks at face value.

China has vehemently rejected criticism that it wasn't transparent about the coronavirus and has pushed back on claims an origin report from a China-WHO joint mission was flawed because of research limitations. The report, which was issued in March, found that a lab leak was unlikely and said the more likely origin story involved a zoonotic spillover.

china wuhan lab leak coronavirus researchers ill
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian takes a question at the daily media briefing in Beijing on April 8, 2020. Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Officials in China have used the report to further the message that the lab was cleared as the origin site for the virus, but WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the mission did not find the source and that further research was necessary to reach "more robust conclusions."

A group of 18 scientists cited Ghebreyesus' comments in a letter, published in the journal Science, that urged researchers to keep all options on the table. They took issue with researchers on the China-WHO joint mission for not giving "balanced consideration" to lab and zoonotic spillover theories and wrote that both should be taken seriously until there's sufficient data to say otherwise.

"The chokehold on public consideration of an accidental lab incident as a possible pandemic origin has just been broken," Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an adviser to the WHO, told Newsweek. "Following publication of the Science letter, it will be irresponsible for any scientific journal or news outlet to not fully represent this viable hypothesis."

China, meanwhile, stands by the validity of the China-WHO joint mission's research. Zhao said this past Friday that members "went to every place they asked to see and met everyone they wanted to meet."

Instead of focusing on their country, Chinese officials have pushed the unfounded theory that America was the potential starting point for the virus. Pointing to Fort Detrick in Maryland, Zhao said there are "real concerns" about America's biological lab.

It's far from the first time China has attempted to shift the focus of the origin to other parts of the world, and it has called for an investigation into Fort Detrick despite not offering any evidence of its origin theory.

"What is the real purpose for the U.S. to continue to play up the so-called lab leak theory?" Zhao said Friday. "Does it really care about the origin tracing of the virus or just want to divert attention?"

One of the biggest proponents of the Wuhan lab leak theory is former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He recently said China's "cover-up" of the outbreak was reminiscent of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant accident in Russia and called on China to disprove the lab leak theory.

Metzl said the Trump administration's politicization of the lab leak theory was why it was dismissed as a fringe hypothesis so early on and why scientists were more vocal about a zoonotic spillover. He welcomed the calls for additional research.

While finding that the origin of the outbreak could help prevent future pandemics, experts have told Newsweek it's possible the world will never know the true origin.

"It's using the best scientific method with one hand tied behind your back. You're doing a retrospective analysis and investigation, much like the fossil men trying to find the origin of mankind," Jon Andrus, former deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization, previously told Newsweek.

"If we were able to determine [the origin] with clear certainty, then we would learn from it, but that's very challenging," he said.

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