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The Lowdown Hub

Wuhan: the questions China won’t answer about how Covid pandemic started

Beijing has always rejected a link between the pandemic and its virus lab in the city. Now pressure is intensifying on the regime to come clean

1. What really happened in the Wuhan laboratory?

The idea that the virus, which has killed more than 3.5 million people and wreaked havoc in the global economy, may have emerged from the internationally renowned Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), rather than through human contact with an infected animal, was once dismissed as a conspiracy theory.

When the idea of a laboratory leak was aired last year it was linked by some of its proponents with claims that the virus was a product of a Chinese biological-warfare programme, but no scientific or intelligence evidence was produced. China’s initial indication that the virus emerged from a Wuhan food market was seen as more plausible — and its subsequent efforts to transfer blame to some unidentified foreign source reinforced the assumption that the market was the source.

Since then, however, greater awareness of the WIV’s research into bat viruses — including one almost identical to the pandemic’s Sars-Covid-2 — has reawakened attention to the possibility that there was an accidental leak from the laboratory.

At the same time, China’s own efforts to show proof of another source for the virus have failed, and its increasingly shrill denials about the WIV have helped to boost suspicions that it is trying to cover up a laboratory leak.

“China’s ongoing cover-up since day one is only adding fuel to the fire,” said Jamie Metzl, adviser to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on human genome editing and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank. “Since the earliest days following the outbreak China has destroyed samples, hidden records, imprisoned citizen journalists.”

President Biden has given US intelligence agencies 90 days to try to penetrate this secrecy and find out how the virus emerged. They are appealing to western allies, including Britain, for help through a mixture of intelligence work and further scientific investigation. But experts are sceptical about their chances of finding a text message, email or document proving a lab leak — let alone a smoking test tube.