Mike Pompeo pushes new claim of China hiding virus origin
The US yesterday claimed staff at a Chinese virology laboratory became sick with a Covid-like illness in autumn 2019, months before the coronavirus spread widely from Wuhan. In a long-awaited document from the State Department, the Trump administration called for an investigation as it published dubious new accusations that a possible “laboratory accident” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) may be the source of the global pandemic. The claims, which came as the outgoing Trump administration fired parting shots at its rivals, were dismissed by analysts who noted the lack of evidence suggesting the disease came from anything other than a naturally occurring event. In a statement late on Friday night claiming to reveal previously “undisclosed information”, the State Department said it “has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” The statement also said that staff at the lab had been carrying out research on a bat coronavirus similar to the SARS-CoV-2 strain that subsequently spread globally and that the lab had collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. Some experts were nonplussed by the announcement. “Zero details given,” noted Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research, rating the statement as “an F”. The fact that Wuhan was home to the world’s leading coronavirus research facility before it became known as ground zero for the global pandemic has led to fevered but unfounded speculation that the virus could have originated in the lab. While Mr Pompeo’s statement offered little beyond insinuation, and no hard evidence that the outbreak began in the lab, the State Department was on firmer ground when it accused the Chinese Communist Party of systematically preventing an investigation into the pandemic’s origin. “The CCP has prevented independent journalists, investigators, and global health authorities from interviewing researchers at the WIV, including those who were ill in the fall of 2019,” it said. A World Health Organisation team that travelled to China this week to investigate the origins of the coronavirus found itself at the centre of a propaganda battle, caught between a Chinese government determined to extol its leadership in fighting the virus and an outgoing US administration eager to shift blame away from its own contentious pandemic response. Landing in Wuhan on Thursday after months of delay, the 13 members of the WHO investigative team were whisked away for two weeks’ quarantine before their politically fraught task of attempting to definitively identify the origins of the coronavirus begins in earnest. Since emerging from the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, the death toll from COVID-19 has now surpassed two million, raising the stakes for questions over where the virus came and how the early response was handled. The Chinese Communist Party has launched a propaganda campaign portraying itself as a global leader against the pandemic, seeking to reshape the narrative about where and when the pandemic began, while covering up early missteps which may have facilitated its global spread. In the US, where more than 393,000 Americans have died amid a disastrous pandemic response, President Donald Trump has repeatedly sought to blame Beijing for what he calls the Chinese virus. Ever since the outbreak, Chinese authorities have attempted to control the narrative over the origins of the pandemic, claiming it existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan and at times promoting baseless conspiracy theories, including that the virus was a US military biological weapon. They have also restricted access to foreign journalists trying to report on the impact and origins of coronavirus. In December, a BBC team which visited Yunnan to investigate a mystery illness that killed three mine workers in 2012 reported being tailed by plainclothes officers in unmarked cars, and having their route blocked by a “broken-down” lorry, which they were told had been placed across the road a few minutes before their arrival. Yunnan, and the cave systems within its rolling jungle, is the site of major coronavirus research. WIV senior virologist Professor Shi Zhengli has become known as “China’s Batwoman” for her work there to predict and prevent virus outbreaks. Prof Shi, her lab and the Chinese government have dismissed allegations that the virus might have leaked from the facility. But when she emailed the BBC telling them she would welcome WHO researchers to the WIV, the news organisation later received a call from the lab’s press office, saying she had been speaking in a personal capacity and her answers had not been officially approved. Instead the arrival of the WHO investigative team to Wuhan was stymied by months of delays and sensitive diplomatic negotiations. When visa issues blocked the arrival of the team earlier this month, speculation grew that Beijing was deliberately delaying the team’s arrival. A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman sought to allay concerns, blaming the delay on a “misunderstanding”. “There’s no need to over-interpret this,” she said. But the frustration of WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was clear when he issued a rare public rebuke, saying on Tuesday he was “very disappointed” that China had not authorised the entry of the team. On Wednesday, China recorded its first coronavirus death in eight months as infections topped 138 new cases, the highest one-day jump since early March 2020, intensifying pressure on Chinese authorities to appear in control. Then as the WHO team departed for Wuhan on Thursday, the investigators hit a final snag, as two of the 15 experts were barred from boarding their flight after they tested positive for antibodies during a layover in Singapore. Mr Pompeo meanwhile continued rehashing allegations against the WHO first aired by President Trump, saying on Monday that the organisation “was corrupted by China’s influence, and bought cheap”. Insisting they must “do their actual jobs with transparency and accountability”, he repeated previous threats by President Trump to withdraw funding from the organisation, writing “we won’t keep wasting taxpayer $$$ to subsidize Chinese influence operations.” By the time the WHO team is released from quarantine, the Trump administration will have left office, removing one source of pressure on the investigators. But another source will remain however, as Chinese authorities maintain a keen interest in controlling the outcome of the WHO investigation, finally underway more than a year after the global pandemic began.