The World Health Organisation’s investigation into the origins of the pandemic needs to “explore all possible theories”, 10 Downing Street has said, following a report that three researchers at Wuhan’s virology lab were hospitalised with symptoms “consistent” with Covid-19 as far back as November 2019.
A US intelligence document obtained by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which provides details on the number of scientists affected, the timing of their illnesses and their hospital visits, has reignited speculation that the Covid virus was accidentally leaked from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
The theory, which was judged to be “extremely unlikely” by investigating WHO officials in February, has been dismissed by Chinese authorities – but a number of nations, including the US and the UK, have repeatedly expressed their concern over Beijing’s lack of transparency during the probe.
In response to the WSJ’s report, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said the WHO’s investigation into the origins of Sars-CoV-2, which is still ongoing, “must be robust, transparent and independent”.
It “needs to explore all possible theories on how Covid-19 made that jump from animals to humans and how it spread and that's vital to ensure we learn lessons from this crisis and prevent another global pandemic,” the No 10 official added.
Asked whether the report suggested the possibility of a leak of the virus from the lab, the spokesperson said: “We want to let the WHO investigation run thoroughly and be carried out properly and then make a judgment from that.”
According to the WSJ, officials familiar with the US intelligence report had varying responses to its findings, having been issued in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency. Some figures questioned the legitimacy of the intelligence, saying it had been provided by an international partner of the US and needed further investigation.
But another unnamed official said the information provided in the document had come from “various sources” and “was of exquisite quality”. The insider told the WSJ: “It was very precise. What it didn’t tell you was exactly why they got sick.”
The report said the said the lab workers fell sick “with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness”.
Chinese scientists and officials have consistently rejected the lab leak hypothesis, saying Sars-CoV-2 could have been circulating in other regions before it hit Wuhan, and might have even entered China from another country via imported frozen food shipments or wildlife trading.
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said that it was “completely untrue” that three members of staff at WIV had fallen ill.
“The United States continues to hype up the lab leak theory,” he said. “Does it care about traceability or is it just trying to distract attention?”
He also cited a March statement from WIV, in which the institute said it had “never dealt with Sars-CoV-2 before 30 December 2019”.
The disclosure of the US intelligence report comes ahead of a WHO meeting that is expected to discuss the next phase of an investigation into Covid-19’s origins.
Asked about the report, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said the organisation’s technical teams were now deciding on the next steps. He said further study was needed into the role of animal markets as well as the “lab leak” hypothesis.
The report also follows remarks made by Dr Anthony Fauci, chief Covid-19 adviser to the White House, that he was “not convinced” that the virus emerged naturally.
“I am not convinced about that, I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened,” he said earlier this month.
The White House declined to comment on the WSJ report, but said all credible theories should be investigated.
“We continue to have serious questions about the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, including its origins within the Peoples Republic of China,” a National Security Council spokesperson told The Independent.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, has also called for further investigation into the Wuhan lab leak theory. Dr Ghebreyesus said data on early Covid-19 cases had been withheld from investigators looking into the source of the virus, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the global pandemic began.