Hong Kong’s top university has dismissed as hearsay and distanced itself from allegations by a virologist it formerly employed that Beijing covered up the coronavirus outbreak in December.
Yan Limeng, who was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong’s school of public health, had also told a Fox News interview that HKU had failed to act on her findings that the virus could spread among humans.
The virologist said she had uncovered evidence that the Chinese authorities were aware of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus in late December, which she said she then passed to her superiors at the university but was asked to keep quiet.
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In a statement late on Saturday, HKU confirmed that Yan was a postdoctoral fellow who had left the university.
“HKU notes that the content of the said news report does not accord with the key facts as we understand them,” it read. “We further observe that what she might have emphasised in the reported interview has no scientific basis but resembles hearsay.”
HKU also clarified that Yan had not conducted any research on that topic at the university from December to January.
Yan said she was one of the world’s first scientists to study the new virus from the end of December, when her supervisor Professor Leo Poon Lit-man, the HKU school’s division head, asked her to secretly investigate developments in mainland China.
She then obtained on December 31 what she called first-hand information from a scientist friend working for the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, who claimed there was human-to-human transmission because of the existence of clusters within families.
Yan claimed that when she told Poon about possible human-to-human transmission, he had asked her to stay silent and be careful.
December 31 was also the day that HKU microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung informed health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee of the outbreak in Wuhan, noting its pandemic potential and its similarity to Sars, which was transmitted between humans.
The possibility of human-to-human transmission had also been discussed by researchers across the border by then, but there was no official confirmation yet.
Also on December 31, the Centre for Health Protection in Hong Kong announced for the first time that it was monitoring a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, the source of the original outbreak, in response to a report from the mainland’s National Health Commission.
The centre said at the time that an investigation by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission showed that no obvious human-to-human transmission had been observed.
Beijing did not confirm human-to-human transmission until January 20, when the country’s leading infectious disease expert Zhong Nanshan acknowledged the phenomenon in an interview with state media CCTV.
Yan said she had fled to the United States and claimed the Chinese government was trying to damage her reputation over what she claimed to have unearthed.
She was targeted in a cyberattack designed to silence her, the academic said, adding she felt her life was in danger and that she would never be able to return home.
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