Researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became so ill in November 2019 that they required hospital treatment, the Wall Street Journal has reported as the international community continues to probe Covid-19’s origins.
According to a US intelligence report cited by the paper, three staff members from the institute became so ill that they required hospital care weeks before Beijing acknowledged the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
One source told the Wall Street Journal that the intelligence was provided by a foreign ally and could be significant but required further verification. Another person familiar with the matter described the information as coming from various sources, adding that the intelligence was of “exquisite quality” and “very precise.” However, the individual acknowledged that the intelligence did not reveal why the researchers fell ill. Notably, a State Department document issued during the final days of Donald Trump’s administration said several researchers from the institute became sick in the fall of 2019 with symptoms associated with Covid-19, as well as more common seasonal illnesses.
According to the Journal, President Joe Biden’s administration hasn’t disputed the claim that Wuhan researchers fell ill weeks before the Covid-19 outbreak was made public. But one administration official told the paper that Trump’s government had “put spin on the ball” by interpreting the intelligence as clear evidence that the virus came from the laboratory. Several other current US officials said the information was “circumstantial” but worthy of further investigation.
China’s Foreign Ministry issued a response to the report on Monday, insisting that there were no reported Covid-19 cases among staff and students at the virology institute.
The previously undisclosed report comes amid growing debate over how the pandemic began.
Beijing has strenuously denied that the laboratory played any role in the international health crisis. In March, a team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report after visiting Wuhan which effectively ruled out the possibility that the pandemic was the result of a laboratory accident. The team did not identify the origin of the virus, but said that the introduction of the disease through an intermediate host followed by zoonotic transmission – from animals to humans – was “likely to very likely.” The report also said it was possible that the virus was introduced to residents in Wuhan through the food supply.
The Chinese city reported the first cases of the illness on December 31, 2019, and shut down a market that authorities initially believed was linked to the disease’s spread.
Following the release of the WHO’s findings, 14 nations, including the US and UK, issued a joint statement expressing concerns that the investigation was not thorough enough. The states called for “transparent” further analysis of the outbreak that is “free from interference” and “unimpeded.”
During the early months of the pandemic, Washington accused China of not doing enough to contain the virus and even suggested the disease may have leaked from the Wuhan lab. The Trump administration never provided evidence for the claim, however.
China’s Foreign Ministry noted the WHO’s conclusion that a lab leak was highly unlikely and accused Washington of continuing to “hype the lab leak theory.”
“Is [Washington] actually concerned about tracing the source or trying to divert attention?” it said in a statement to the Journal.
The WHO is scheduled to outline the next phase of its investigation into Covid-19’s origins, with the new report potentially fueling speculation that the lab-leak theory requires further consideration.