China has denied entry to a team of World Health Organisation (WHO) experts who were due to arrive in the country to investigate the origins of the coronavirus.
The news comes amid growing suspicions of a cover-up in the country where Covid-19 is believed to have originated at the end of 2019, although its origins remain bitterly contested as China remains determined to control the narrative.
The head of the World Health Organisation says he was ‘disappointed’ that Chinese officials have not finalised permissions for the arrival of the team of experts.
A year after the outbreak started, WHO experts were due in China for a highly politicised visit to explore the origins of the coronavirus, in a trip trailed by accusations of cover-ups, conspiracy and fears of a whitewash.
The WHO said China granted permission for a visit by its experts, with a 10-person team expected to arrive this week – but before most could even begin their journeys they faced roadblocks, with Beijing yet to grant them entry.
Pictured: Workers in protective suits walk past the Hankou railway station in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, April 2020. Wuhan is believed to have been where the Covid-19 outbreak, that sparked the global pandemic, began. The first case was reported on December 31, 2019
The WHO’s emergencies director Michael Ryan said Tuesday that the problem was a lack of visa clearances, adding that he hoped it was a ‘logistic and bureaucratic issue that can be resolved very quickly.’
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a rare critique of Beijing, says members of the international scientific team have begun over the last 24 hours to leave from their home countries to China as part of an arrangement between WHO and the Chinese government.
‘Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalised the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China,’ he said at a news conference Tuesday in Geneva.
‘I am very disappointed with this news, given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute,’ Tedros told reporters in Geneva, in a rare rebuke of Beijing from the UN body.
He added that he has ‘been in contact with senior Chinese officials’ and that he had ‘once again made it clear that the mission is a priority for the WHO.
‘I have been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure of the earliest possible deployment. We’re eager to get the mission under way as soon as possible,’ he said.
Earlier this week Chinese authorities had refused to confirm the exact dates and details of the visit, a sign of the enduring sensitivity of their mission.
Covid-19 was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, before seeping beyond China’s borders to wreak global havoc, costing over 1.8 million lives and eviscerating economies.
But its origins remain bitterly contested, lost in a fog of recriminations and conjecture from the international community – as well as obfuscation from Chinese authorities determined to keep control of its virus narrative.
An international expert team has set off for China to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, but Beijing has yet to provide the necessary access. Pictured: A TV grab taken on January 5, 2021 showing WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a press briefing on Covid-19, during which he criticised China for not allowing the team entry
The WHO team has promised to focus on the science, specifically how the coronavirus jumped from animals – believed to be bats – to humans.
‘This is not about finding a guilty country or a guilty authority,’ Fabian Leendertz from the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s central disease control body who will be among the team to visit, told AFP new agency in late December.
‘This is about understanding what happened to avoid that in the future, to reduce the risk.’
But doubt has been cast over what the WHO mission can reasonably expect to achieve and the state pressure they will face, raising fears that the mission will serve to rubber stamp China’s official story, not challenge it.
The upcoming visit will not be the first time Covid-19 has brought WHO teams to China. A mission last year looked at the response by authorities rather than the virus origins, with another in the summer laying the groundwork for the upcoming probe.
Visitors attend an exhibition on the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Wuhan Parlor Convention Center that previously served as a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients in Wuhan
But this time the WHO will wade into a swamp of competing interests, stuck between accusatory Western nations and a Chinese leadership determined to show that its secretive and hierarchical political system served to stem, not spread, the outbreak.
It is unclear who the experts will be able to meet when they arrive in Wuhan to retrace the initial days and weeks of the pandemic.
Inside China, whistleblowers have been silenced and citizen journalists jailed, including a 37-year-old woman imprisoned last week for four years over video reports from the city during its prolonged lockdown.
Outside, responsibility for the virus has been weaponized.
From the outset, US President Donald Trump used the virus as political bludgeon against big power rival China.
He accused Beijing of trying to hide the outbreak of what he dubbed the ‘China virus’ and repeated unsubstantiated rumours it leaked from a Wuhan lab.
Trump then pulled the US out of the WHO, accusing it of going soft on China, a nation with which he was also engaged in a bitter trade war.
Critics say that blizzard of accusations sought to divert attention from Washington’s bungled response to a crisis which has so far killed more than 355,000 Americans.
Without them, said one, ‘a lot of these situations that we had in January 2020 would not have played out the way it did.’
‘It is the geopolitics that… put the world in this situation,’ Ilona Kickbusch, of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, told AFP.
China has since deftly reframed its version of events, hailing its ‘extraordinary success’ in curbing the pandemic within its borders and rebooting its economy.
Beijing now says it will ride to the rescue of poorer nations, promising cheap vaccines and seeding doubt that the virus even originated in China.
People use phones to film and photograph fireworks in the sky during a celebration on New Year’s Day at a park in Wuhan, Hubei province, January 1 2021
Chinese doctors were recording at least DOUBLE the number of coronavirus cases that Beijing was reporting to the world in February, leaked documents revealed in December
China under-reported its coronavirus cases and deaths by up to half during the early stages of the pandemic, leaked documents revealed in December.
Beijing has long been accused of under-reporting its coronavirus numbers, but the data gives an idea of the scale of the problem for the first time.
For example, on February 10 China reported 2,478 new cases of the virus across the entire country – but leaked data shows that, on the same date, Hubei province alone logged 5,918 cases.
Meanwhile on March 7, Hubei was officially reporting a cumulative death toll of 2,986, but documents show it actually stood at 3,456.
The official figures, which were reported across the world, downplayed the severity of the outbreak at a time when world leaders were trying to devise their own response strategies – leaving many unprepared for what was to come.
China was able to use the figures and its authoritarian powers to lock down hard and early, all-but wiping the virus out and meaning its economy has grown this year, while under-prepared western democracies have seen their economies devastated.
On February 10, China reported a total of 2,478 cases in its daily report, which was published around the world. Leaked documents show the total was 5,918 in Hubei province alone
On February 17, the province of Hubei reported 93 new deaths to the public. In fact, documents show that it was 196
Other discrepancies revealed in the data include February 17, when Hubei officially reported 93 deaths from the virus while the documents show a toll of 196.
On March 7, Hubei officially reported 83 cases, but 115 are recorded in the leaked papers.
Another report also records the deaths of six health care workers from coronavirus by February 10, which were never publicly disclosed.
Data also suggests that the number of cases recorded in 2019, when the virus first emerged, was 200.
Until now, China has only publicly acknowledged 44 cases in 2019 – which it reported to the WHO as ‘a pneumonia of unknown etiology’ on January 3.
The documents, comprising 117 pages, were handed to CNN by a whistleblower inside the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which was at the epicentre of the outbreak.
The whistleblower described themselves as ‘a patriot’ who was ‘motivated to expose a truth that had been censored, and honor colleagues who had also spoken out.’
Alongside the true case and death tolls, the documents reveal for the first time that Hubei was in the midst of a major flu epidemic at the time coronavirus struck.
By March 7, Hubei had officially logged 2,986 deaths from the virus, but leaked documents show that toll was actually 3,456
On March 7, Hubei province – where epicentre Wuhan was located – reported 83 new infections to the public. Leaked documents give a figure of 115
The province was reporting up to 20 times the normal number of seasonal flu cases in December 2019, centered in the cities of Yichang and Xianning.
Wuhan, where coronavirus would first emerge, was third worst-affected.
Data also shows that a large number of flu cases, including in Wuhan, were diagnosed as ‘unknown cause’ – dating a far back as December 2.
Researchers told CNN that it is possible some of these were mis-diagnosed coronavirus cases, but there is no way to know for sure because the data is simply not available.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, at Johns Hopkins University which has been at the forefront of tracking the virus, said: ‘They were only testing for what they knew.’
China claims it has done studies looking for cases of coronavirus in Wuhan before December 2019, but has been unable to find any.
While there is no suggestion that the outbreaks are linked, the flu epidemic likely left health officials stretched and unprepared for the emergence of a new illness.
The documents also reveal a shambles among China’s early testing regime, which contributed to the cases being under-reported.
According to the data, nucleic acid tests which were initially used to diagnose the virus only worked between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the time.
Documents also reveal Hubei province was in the midst of a flu epidemic when coronavirus emerged, with hospitals under-funded and staff demoralised (file image)
That meant scientists were often forced to use other methods – such as scans of the lungs – to diagnose patients they were sure had the virus, but whose tests kept coming back negative.
But because of the way China’s reporting system worked, only those cases which had been confirmed by the test were publicly reported.
All other cases were marked down as ‘suspected’ or ‘clinically diagnosed’.
While bureaucrats would have been aware of both figures, and may have been aware of the problems with testing, they chose only to report cases with a positive test – at least initially.
China did start adding ‘clinically diagnosed’ cases to its totals in mid-February, but by then the virus had already spread far beyond its own borders.
Yanzhong Huang, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specilaises in Chinese public health, told CNN: ‘It was clear they did make mistakes.
‘Not just mistakes that happen when you’re dealing with a novel virus, also bureaucratic and politically-motivated errors in how they handled it.
‘These had global consequences.’
The early testing regime also suffered huge delays, with the average time taken from the onset of disease to diagnosis being 23 days.
That meant China’s official daily totals were lagging three weeks behind reality, while at the same time hampering its own ability to respond to the crisis.
Internal documents also show that Hubei health authorities were under-funded and suffering staff motivation issues when the pandemic struck.
And while Beijing boasted that it had massively invested in early-stage detection of infectious diseases in 2003 during the SARS epidemic, in reality the system was slow, under-funded, and weighed down with bureaucracy.
The world must investigate all the mounting evidence Covid leaked from a Wuhan lab, writes IAN BIRRELL
By Ian Birrell for the Mail on Sunday
It is a year since the world learned of a deadly new respiratory disease stalking the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Yet we still know little about how and why the virus spread with such devastating consequences.
It can almost certainly be traced to bats. But we do not know how this pathogen – having evolved an extraordinary ability to infect, causing such damage to different bodily organs – made the jump into human beings.
At last, a World Health Organisation investigation is under way into the origins of the coronavirus, but it is accused of meekly pandering to China’s agenda by recruiting patsy scientists and relying on Beijing’s dubious data.
Now there is growing clamour from experts around the world that no stone should be left unturned during this inquiry – and that it must include one key element of a hunt which has all the hallmarks of a thriller novel.
It is a year since the world learned of a deadly new respiratory disease stalking the central Chinese city of Wuhan, writes Ian Birrell. Pictured: Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli, who was dubbed ‘Batwoman’, at the Wuhan Institute of Virology
Why did China build a virus lab in Wuhan?
Chinese officials decided to build the Wuhan Institute of Virology after the country was ravaged by an outbreak of SARS in 2002 and 2003.
SARS, another kind of coronavirus, killed 775 people and infected more than 8,000 globally in an epidemic that lasted about eight months.
It took the Chinese 15 years to fully complete the project, which cost a total of 300million yuan (£34million). The French helped design the building.
Its crown jewel is a four-storey lab with the highest biosafety level of P4.
It’s the most advanced laboratory of its type in China.
Construction of the lab was finished in 2015 and it officially opened on January 5, 2018, after passing various safety inspections.
Describing the significance of the P4 lab, China Youth Online billed it as the ‘aircraft carrier of China’s virology’. The state-run newspaper said it ‘is capable of researching the deadliest pathogens’.
One researcher, Zhou Peng, told state news agency Xinhua in 2018: ‘We are proud to say that we are already at the forefront in the field of studying the immunity mechanism of bats, which carry viruses for a long time.
‘Bats carry viruses but are not infected [by them]. [They] provide hope for mankind to study how to fight viruses.’
This centres on a cave filled with bats, a clutch of mysterious deaths, some brilliant scientists carrying out futuristic experiments in a secretive laboratory – and a cover-up of epic proportions that, if proven, would have huge consequences for the Chinese Communist Party and the global practice of science.
So what, precisely, is this theory on the origins of this pandemic?
It must be stated clearly that it is just a theory, albeit one based on crumbs of evidence teased out by a few courageous scientists and some online detectives.
New diseases have emerged throughout human history. Most experts believe Covid to be a ‘zoonotic’ disease that spilled over naturally from animals to humans.
They think it was most likely ‘amplified’ by an intermediate species – similar to how Chinese people’s consumption of civet cats sparked the 2002 Sars epidemic.
Yet at the same time, Beijing’s actions from the outset – covering up the outbreak, blaming a wild animal market that it has since admitted wasn’t at fault, barring outside investigators, burying data and silencing its own experts – have served to fuel suspicions.
Last week, leaked documents exposed how the Chinese government, under orders from President Xi Jinping, is strictly controlling all research into the origins of Covid while promoting fringe theories suggesting it came from outside China.
And it is an uncomfortable coincidence that Wuhan – a city buzzing once again, with busy shops, packed restaurants and many people without masks on the streets celebrating New Year – is home to the world’s top coronavirus research unit as well as ground zero to a pandemic from a strange new strain.
The clues start with an abandoned copper mine in Mojiang, a hilly region in Yunnan, southern China, where bats roost in a network of underground caves, cracks and crannies.
Days after three Chinese miners who had been clearing bat droppings inside caves died, Zhengli went to investigate
Two weeks ago, a BBC reporter was prevented from reaching this remote site after being trailed by police for miles along bumpy tracks, then blocked by a lorry and confronted by men at roadblocks saying their job was to stop him.
The previous month, a team of US journalists had also been tailed by plainclothes police who barred their access.
One research team recently managed to take some samples at the mine, but reportedly had them confiscated.
The reason for such secrecy goes back to the end of April 2012 when a 42-year-old man clearing bat droppings in these underground caverns turned up at a nearby hospital with a bad cough, high fever and struggling to breathe.
Within a week, five colleagues had similar symptoms. Three later died, one after doctors spent more than 100 days fighting to save his life – yet the two youngest spent less than a week in the hospital and survived. Sound familiar?
We have since learned from a detailed masters thesis, which included medical reports and radiological scans, that these miners suffered a viral pneumonia, attributed to Sars-like coronaviruses originating from horseshoe bats.
One leading US health body pointed out last year that they had ‘an illness remarkably similar to Covid-19’.
Little wonder a prominent vaccine scientist told me: ‘This is about as close to a smoking gun as exists.’
Intriguingly, a second thesis three years later also highlighted these cases.
It was written by a student of Oxford-trained virologist Professor George Gao Fu, who is now head of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which is leading their response to the pandemic.
So the Chinese authorities must have known about the dead miners.
Yet they quickly tried to blame the wildlife market in Wuhan as Covid’s source, until challenged by respected studies revealed in this newspaper.
Following the miners’ deaths, Shi Zhengli, a Wuhan-based virologist known as Batwoman for her expeditions to gather samples in such caves and a member of the team that traced the origin of Sars to bats, went to investigate.
‘The mine shaft stank like hell,’ she told Scientific American magazine, explaining how her colleagues spent a year discovering new coronaviruses in samples taken from the blood and faeces of bats.
The miners, she claimed, died from a fungal infection.
‘The mine shaft stank like hell,’ she told Scientific American magazine, explaining how her colleagues spent a year discovering new coronaviruses in samples taken from the blood and faeces of bats. The miners, she claimed, died from a fungal infection.
Another expert noted how the miners who died were treated with anti-fungal medications, while those surviving were given other drugs.
‘So in addition to the fact that the cases were more Sars-like than fungal-like, this treatment story argues against a fungal [cause],’ he said.
‘It is very odd that Shi Zhengli would assert these cases were fungal.’
Prof Shi examined samples in her Wuhan lab, a few miles from the infamous market. Studies later found the virus in sewage, but it was not detected in animals.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology is the first laboratory with the highest global bio-safety level in China.
It specialises in the study of bat-borne viruses and is spearheading China’s drive to assert itself in bio-technology.
Leaked diplomatic cables reveal that US officials who visited the lab two years ago warned about safety weaknesses and the risks of a new Sars-like epidemic emerging from the site.
The lab’s own safety chief also publicly admitted concerns over flawed security systems.
The institute has carried out experiments on bat coronaviruses since 2015 – including research that can increase their virulence by combining snippets from different strains.
Some viruses were injected into special ‘humanised’ mice that had been created for use in labs with human genes, cells or tissues in their bodies.
These controversial experiments artificially force the evolution of viruses so as to boost our understanding of diseases and their transmissibility.
They help researchers develop new drugs and vaccines.
The Wuhan scientists were working with prominent Western experts and supported financially by the National Institutes of Health, the most important US funding body – although this relationship was ended on safety grounds after being revealed by The Mail on Sunday.
Some scientists argue this type of pathogen research is too risky since it could trigger a pandemic from a new disease.
As a result, there was a moratorium on such work by the US for four years under the Obama administration.
Other critics have warned that the Wuhan Institute was constructing ‘chimeric’ coronaviruses – new hybrid micro-organisms that show no sign of human manipulation.
Now the big question is whether they took samples from the coronavirus that killed the Yunnan miners and, back in their laboratory more than 1,000 miles away, created a new virus that somehow leaked out into their own city.
Leaked diplomatic cables reveal that US officials who visited the lab two years ago warned about safety weaknesses and the risks of a new Sars-like epidemic emerging from the site
As leading experts have suggested, it would have been a logical step to create chimeric viruses by combining properties from different samples.
Many scientific breakthroughs have emerged from such speculative endeavours.
One medical professor suggested to me that the miners may have died after being exposed to very high doses of coronaviruses while working in deep shafts filled with bats and their droppings.
But the Wuhan scientists then struggled to prove causality in their lab as their samples were too weak to infect human cells.
‘This would have stopped them publishing a major finding of a new Sars-like virus infecting humans.
The possibility is they might then have tried modifying the virus to make it better able to infect human cells in a bid to establish the missing link.’
This is, it must be stressed, unproven speculation.
And it is understandable why China wants to comprehend as much as possible about bat viruses that emerge in their country.
Yet as experts say, there are many unanswered questions centring on Beijing’s reluctance to come clean about the miners’ cases, viruses and samples held in their labs.
The Wuhan Institute has even taken key databases offline.
Key to all this is the enigmatic Batwoman, Prof Shi. First, she published a genetic sequence for Sars-Cov-2 – the strain of coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – which, despite close analysis of other novel features, ignored its most surprising characteristic.
This is ‘the furin cleavage site’, a mutation not found on similar types of coronavirus that allows its spike protein to bind so effectively to many human cells.
The lab’s own safety chief also publicly admitted concerns over flawed security systems
Then, last January, Prof Shi and two colleagues published a paper in Nature that revealed the existence of a virus called RaTG13 that was taken from a horseshoe bat and stored on their premises, the biggest repository of bat coronaviruses in Asia.
This paper, submitted on the same day China admitted to human transmission, caused a stir in the scientific world since it revealed the existence of the closest known relative to Sars-Cov-2 with more than 96 per cent genetic similarity.
It underlined that such diseases occur in nature – yet although closely related, it would have taken RaTG13 several decades to evolve in the wild into Sars-Cov-2 and was too distant to be manipulated in a laboratory.
Other experts wondered why there was so little information about this new strain. One reason soon became clear: the name had been changed from that of another virus called Ra4991 identified in a previous paper – but, unusually, not cited in the Nature piece.
This obscured a direct link to the dead miners, which was only confirmed when Nature sought publication of an ‘addendum’ following complaints.
The Wuhan team also admitted it had eight more Sars viruses from the Yunnan mine that have not been disclosed.
Some scientists say these new details raise many fresh issues – including a 20-point critique put on her blog by an Indian microbiologist called Monali Rahalkar.
Many high-profile experts, however, still dismiss the idea of a lab leak as a conspiracy theory.
Yet David Relman, one of the world’s leading experts in this field, points out that scientists could easily have combined a ‘furin cleavage site’ from one viral ancestor with the backbone of Sars-Cov-2 taken from another.
‘Alternatively, the complete Sars-Cov-2 sequence could have been recovered from a bat sample and viable virus recreated from a synthetic genome to study it before that virus accidentally escaped,’ wrote Relman, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University’s medical school, in a recent paper.
The former US government adviser on bio-security told me he raised the issues out of frustration with scientists who seemed discomforted by the idea.
‘This perplexing story does not add up – the possibility of a lab accident cannot be discounted,’ he said.
There have also been questions over the apparent disappearance of a young woman researcher who worked in the laboratory.
It has been suggested she might have been patient zero of this pandemic, although this has been denied by the Chinese authorities.
Even if the miners’ link was eliminated, it would not rule out the possibility of an accident causing this pandemic.
Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, said Wuhan scientists have shown in publications that they have sampled hundreds of bats and people living near bat caves in their search for Sars-related viruses.
‘Even if the precursor to Sars-Cov-2 was not from these miners or the Mojiang mine, did they find other viruses that are very closely related that we do not yet know about?’ she asked.
It sounds like the plot from a science-fiction film: an engineered virus leaking from a high-tech lab to cause global chaos.
Yet there are plenty of precedents, including two researchers infected with Sars in a Beijing virology lab in 2004.
Studies also show accidents with deadly pathogens are common in labs where people are working with microscopic viruses.
Prof Shi admitted she never expected an outbreak in a city so far from the home of the bats she studied.
She said her first thought on hearing coronaviruses might be the culprit was to wonder: ‘Could they have come from our lab?’
She then frantically rushed back to Wuhan to check her records for any possible mishandling of materials – which proves she believed such a leak was a possibility.
There is also another lab in Wuhan with a lower level of bio-security, 500 yards from the animal market.
A study posted by two Chinese scientists in February on a site for sharing research – then pulled two days later – enigmatically claimed 605 bats were kept here, describing how some attacked, bled and urinated on a researcher.
‘It is plausible that the virus leaked,’ the paper concluded.
Perhaps this theory will unravel as we find out fresh facts.
Or scientists will uncover an alternative explanation for the path of Covid-19 from bats to humans.
Equally, it is possible we may never discover the truth about the origins of this virus.
But at this stage the only certainty is that we all do science – and indeed, investigative reporting – a disservice if this idea is discarded without being properly disproved and devoid of evidence.
We owe this to a world dislocated so terribly by this pandemic.