U.S. Embassy officials raised concerns about safety risks in a Chinese lab studying diseases in bats two years before the coronavirus outbreak.
In January 2018, officials warned that the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s work on “SARS-like coronaviruses in bats,” could result in human transmission and lead to an outbreak, The Washington Post reports.
The warnings about the risky studies being conducted in a lab with inadequate safety measures brings into question where the coronavirus actually originated from. China has stated the virus emerged from a Wuhan wet market, but some U.S. officials are skeptical. There is no evidence the virus was spread from the lab, also located in Wuhan.
A series of diplomatic cables indicate officials from the U.S. Embassy warned their superiors about the lab in 2018 saying there was a serious health threat that needed intervention. The communications were labeled “Sensitive But Unclassified.”
The first cable, obtained by The Washington Post, states: “During interactions with scientists at the Wuhan laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”
The note was drafted on Jan. 19, 2018 by two officials from the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with scientists at the lab.
“Most importantly,” the cable states, “the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”
The Chinese researchers were already receiving help from the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and other U.S. organizations, but the cables pushed for the United States to give the lab more support because the research was dangerous.
One U.S. official told The Washington Post that, “The cable was a warning shot. They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.”
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