Wuhan lab head calls virus leak claims ‘pure fabrication’

US officials have pushed the theory that the virus, which first appeared in Wuhan, emerged from the virology lab there.

wuhan institute
Lab director says it has 'three strains of live viruses', but none is genetically very close to SARS-CoV-2 [Hector Retamal/AFP]

Claims promoted by the Trump administration that the global coronavirus pandemic originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the central Chinese city are a “pure fabrication”, the institute’s director has said.

US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have repeatedly said they suspect the virus that was first detected in Wuhan was somehow released from the laboratory.

Scientists think the new coronavirus, which first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and has killed more than 340,000 people worldwide, originated in bats and could have been transmitted to people via another mammal.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the US intelligence community have said the virus appears to be natural in origin. 

The lab’s director told state broadcaster CGTN that the US claims that the coronavirus may have leaked from the institute were “pure fabrication”.

In the interview filmed on May 13 but broadcast on Saturday night, Wang Yanyi said the centre has “isolated and obtained some coronaviruses from bats” while conducting “source tracing of SARS”, the strain behind another virus outbreak nearly 20 years ago, preceding the pandemic. 

Wang said the lab has “three strains of live viruses”, but said none is genetically very close to SARS-CoV-2, with the closest reaching only 79.8 percent similarity.

Furthermore, Wang said the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is too different from the virus that causes SARS to be studied as part of the previous research into that virus.    

“We know that the whole genome of SARS-CoV-2 is only 80 percent similar to that of SARS. It’s an obvious difference,” said Wang. “So, [in the research on SARS] they didn’t pay attention to such viruses which are less similar to the SARS virus.”

‘We didn’t even know the virus existed’

The Wuhan lab has said it first received samples of the then-unknown coronavirus that causes COVID-19 on December 30, with scientists at the lab determining the viral genome sequence on January 2 and submitting information on the pathogen to the World Health Organization on January 11.

Wang said in the interview that before it received samples in December, their team had never “encountered, researched or kept the virus”.

“In fact, like everyone else, we didn’t even know the virus existed,” she said. “How could it have leaked from our lab when we never had it?”    

Conspiracy rumours that the biosafety lab was involved in the outbreak had swirled online for months before Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought the theory into the mainstream in April by claiming that there is evidence the pathogen came from the institute.

The US and Australia have called in recent weeks for an investigation into the origins of the pandemic.

Chinese scientists have said the virus first emerged at a market selling live animals in Wuhan, though officials in Beijing more recently cast doubt about its origins.

Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi on Sunday blasted what he called efforts by US politicians to “fabricate rumours” about the pathogen’s origins and “stigmatise China”.

He said China would be “open” to international cooperation to identify the source of the novel coronavirus, as long as any investigation is “free of political interference”.    

The WHO has said Washington offered no evidence to support the “speculative” claims about the Wuhan lab.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies