The US government’s leading health research body has raised a series of bombshell concerns over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and the activities of a secretive Chinese laboratory that was investigating bat diseases.
The National Institutes of Health has asked if Covid-19 was linked to the deaths of three miners eight years ago and questioned whether the high-security laboratory in Wuhan possessed samples of the virus prior to the pandemic’s outbreak late last year.
The agency also demanded to know more about the ‘apparent disappearance’ of a scientist at the lab rumoured to be Patient Zero, and questioned if roadblocks were placed around the Wuhan Institute of Virology between October 14 and 19 last year.
The National Institutes of Health has asked if Covid-19 was linked to the deaths of three miners eight years ago and questioned whether the high-security laboratory in Wuhan possessed samples of the virus prior to the pandemic’s outbreak late last year. A lab worker is pictured above
The questions will fuel growing suspicions over China’s cover-up.
‘It seems NIH experts are not just discarding lab escape scenarios as conspiratorial theories any more,’ said one US-based biomedical expert.
The NIH is Washington’s key medical research body, headed by Francis Collins, one of the world’s top geneticists.
He was appointed by Barack Obama and reconfirmed in the post by Donald Trump.
NIH raised the concerns in a letter last month to EcoHealth Alliance, a charity trying to get US support restored for research with its long-term collaborators at the Wuhan Institute of Virology into zoonotic diseases that cross from animals such as bats to humans.
A $3.7 million (£2.8 million) grant to the charity – headed by British scientist Peter Daszak – was ended after The Mail on Sunday disclosed that the US was funding the controversial Chinese laboratory at the centre of global scrutiny.
The NIH letter, sent by Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research, said there were ‘serious bio-safety concerns’ over research at the Wuhan lab. This confirms a series of MoS revelations about its safety procedures.
Lauer said funding would be restored only if outside experts could probe the Wuhan facilities and records ‘with specific attention to addressing… whether staff had Sars-Cov-2 [the strain of coronavirus that causes disease] in their possession prior to December 2019’.
Mystery: An image believed to be of missing scientist Huang Yanling, top, China’s Patient Zero
He demanded a sample of their virus used to determine the genetic code and requested answers on ‘the apparent disappearance of Huang Yanling, a scientist/researcher who worked in the Wuhan Institute of Virology but whose lab web presence has been deleted’.
The young researcher was identified on social media as Patient Zero soon after the virus erupted in Wuhan. The institute denied she had come to any harm, insisting she had completed her studies and moved to another part of China.
The seven conditions for funding restoration in Lauer’s letter, according to a tweet by Daszak, sought explanations for a series of ‘out- of-ordinary restrictions’ on the lab’s facilities in mid-October that included ‘diminished cell phone traffic’ and roadblocks.
Lauer also said the agency needed to know why the Wuhan Institute ‘failed to note that the RaTG13 virus, the bat-derived coronavirus in its collection with greatest similarity to Sars-Cov-2, was actually isolated from an abandoned mine where three men died in 2012 with an illness remarkably similar to Covid-19’.
This is highly significant. There has been growing focus on six miners who fell ill – three eventually died after spending 14 days removing bat faeces in the Mojiang mine, about 1,000 miles from Wuhan.
A newly discovered master’s thesis from the Chinese doctor who treated them and sent tissue samples to the Wuhan Institute describes his patients as having fevers, dry coughs, sore limbs and headaches.
Shi Zhengli, a renowned Wuhan-based virologist known as Batwoman for her expeditions to gather samples in caves and cutting-edge research, told Scientific American magazine in June that these miners had died from a fungal infection rather than coronavirus.
Prof Shi revealed the existence of RaTG13 – which has 96 per cent genetic similarity to Sars-Cov-2 – in a paper submitted to the journal Nature on the same January day that China belatedly admitted human transmission. She has condemned the NIH’s ‘outrageous’ demands.
Other experts have questioned why more information has not been shared about this strain, which fuels the idea of zoonotic transmission.
It has since emerged that, unusually, its name appears to have been changed from a virus identified in a previous 2016 academic paper, obscuring links to the Mojiang mines.
‘The fact that Shi keeps trying to divert attention away from these dead miners and their potential link to the RaTG13 discovery and Covid-19 is concerning,’ said one leading Western expert.
Chinese officials originally sought to blame a Wuhan market selling wild animals as the source of the outbreak, but this was challenged by a series of scientific studies before being formally discounted three months ago. George Gao Fu, director of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, admitted no viruses were found in animal samples taken from the premises.
Some scientists have been puzzled by the range of unusual features on the spike protein that drive the high infectiousness of Covid-19 – including ‘insertions’ of a pangolin coronavirus sequence that allows the virus to bind tightly to human cells and a ‘furin cleavage site’ that makes it easier to enter human cells – since these features are not found on the most closely related coronaviruses.
Nikolai Petrovsky, professor of medicine at Flinders University in Adelaide, and head of a team of vaccine researchers, published a paper in May saying the new virus is ‘not typical of a normal zoonotic infection’ since it was ‘uniquely adapted to infect humans’ from the start of the pandemic.
‘We still haven’t been able to satisfactorily explain how the virus came to be so perfectly human adapted’, he said.
Leading the way: Some of the Mail on Sunday stories this year about the lab in the city where the outbreak began
Yesterday, he praised the NIH for challenging the Wuhan lab. ‘They’re doing the right thing: making reinstatement of funding conditional on assistance in a full investigation. Surely EcoHealth Alliance has nothing to lose and everything to gain by co-operating with this request?’
Previously leaked emails have shown the NIH severed funding to EcoHealth Alliance due to ‘allegations that the current crisis was precipitated by the release from Wuhan Institute of Virology of the coronavirus responsible for Covid-19’.
The decision caused a furore, with 77 US Nobel laureates asking NIH director Dr Collins to review the agency’s termination of funding, claiming it set ‘a dangerous precedent by interfering in the conduct of science’.
Daszak, a former Kingston University parasitologist who earns $402,000 (£307,000) a year running the EcoHealth Alliance charity, condemned NIH over its ‘outrageous’ conditions.
‘It makes a mockery of our basic process of biomedical research funding that conspiracy theories are being rehashed in this way,’ he tweeted.