United States intelligence agencies are examining reports that researchers at a Chinese virology laboratory were seriously ill in 2019, one month before the first cases of COVID-19 were reported, according to US government sources who cautioned that there is still no proof the disease originated at the lab.
A still-classified US intelligence report circulated during former President Donald Trump’s administration alleged that three Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers became so ill in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, sources familiar with US intelligence reporting and analysis told the Reuters news agency.
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It remained unclear whether these researchers were hospitalised or what their symptoms were, said one of the sources, who all spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday it was “completely untrue” that three Wuhan lab members had fallen ill. The virus first appeared in Wuhan, China, and then spread worldwide.
“We don’t have enough information to draw a conclusion about the origins [of the coronavirus],” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a news briefing on Monday.
“We need data. We need an independent investigation. And that’s exactly what we’ve been calling for,” Psaki said.
Information about the researchers was published in the Wall Street Journal newspaper on May 23.
In a report written jointly with Chinese scientists and issued in March, a World Health Organization (WHO) team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that “introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway.”
The US intelligence community “hasn’t ruled out either theory”, one US source said. Intelligence reporting about possible November infections among the Wuhan Institute employees “can’t be dismissed”, the source added.
The hypothesis that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab has been promoted on some conservative websites, and by some Republicans in Congress. US intelligence agencies have not reached a determination.
The US State Department published a “fact sheet” on COVID-19 and the Wuhan lab on January 15, 2020, five days before Trump left office, based in part on information in the classified report, sources said.
The Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and defence intelligence components contributed to both the public fact sheet and classified report, the sources said. Both were assembled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The classified report is regarded as valid by current US government agencies, by experts investigating the origins of COVID-19, and by officials in President Joe Biden’s administration.
“We continue to have serious questions about the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, including its origins within the People’s Republic of China,” a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said.
In their own report on the origins of COVID-19 issued last week, Republican members of the US House of Representatives intelligence committee asserted that there was “significant circumstantial evidence” suggesting COVID-19 “may have been a leak” from the Wuhan lab.
Such evidence included information indicating “several researchers” at the lab got COVID-19 symptoms in late 2019, the report said.
Wang Yanyi, the head of the Wuhan lab, told China state broadcaster CGTN that the US claims in May 2020 were “pure fabrication“.
The WHO, which opened its annual ministerial assembly on May 24, has not announced any follow-up to the Wuhan mission but member states may raise concerns. US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra is due to address the week-long forum on Tuesday.