US State Department cables from 2018 expressed concern about the lack of trained staff and unclear regulations at a Wuhan laboratory that has become the centre of unproven theories about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Redacted versions of the cables, released last Thursday following a freedom of information request by The Washington Post, showed US officials had flagged up their worries about the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
But the cables do not express any safety concerns about the coronavirus research being conducted at the Biosecurity Level 4 facility, which is at the heart of unproven claims that the virus accidentally leaked from there.
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One cable from the US consulate in Wuhan in April 2018 – following a visit by US officials in late March – said the lab opened up opportunities for expert exchange “especially in light of the lab’s shortage of trained staff”.
The other from January 2018 by the US embassy in Beijing said the lab was “limited by a shortage of the highly trained technicians and investigators required to safely operate a BSL-4 laboratory” and a lack of clarity in Chinese government regulations.
It said the lab welcomed more help from the US and others to improve its operations and training, and noted scientists were able to “undertake productive research despite limitations on the use of the new BSL-4 facility”, including into the origins of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).
US president Donald Trump’s administration has repeatedly accused Beijing of covering up its initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak, including delays in sharing information and punishing medical whistle-blowers.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed in early May that there was “enormous evidence” the virus may have leaked from the Wuhan lab, but has not made this evidence public.
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The institute has vehemently denied the claims.
The scientific consensus has been that the coronavirus came from the natural world, possibly from bats. But experts say they also cannot rule out the possibility that the virus leaked from the BSL-4 lab, which has the highest possible security rating.
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, tweeted early on Monday that while scientists could not exclude the possibility the virus came from a lab accident, the cables did not raise concerns about research being conducted at the institute.
“The supposedly worrisome work was actually presented as a success story in a lab that was coming online more slowly than everyone – including the US authors of the cable – expected or hoped,” she wrote.
“Nowhere does this say anything resembling concerns that they aren’t doing safe bat [coronavirus] CoV work, or these bat [coronavirus] CoVs are a huge risk to humanity.”
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This article Coronavirus: US State department cables show concerns over rules and training at Wuhan lab first appeared on South China Morning Post