U.S. Diplomats Warned about Safety Risks in Wuhan Labs Studying Bats Two Years before Coronavirus Outbreak

A scientist works in a lab researching coronavirus antibodies for in Beijing, China, March 30, 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

U.S. officials warned in January 2018 that the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s work on “SARS-like coronaviruses in bats,” combined with “a serious shortage” of proper safety procedures, could result in human transmission and the possibility of a “future emerging coronavirus outbreak.”

In a series of diplomatic cables, one of which was obtained by The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, U.S. Embassy officials warned their superiors that the lab, which they had visited several times, posed a serious health risk that warranted U.S. intervention. The officials were concerned enough about their findings to categorize the communications as “Sensitive But Unclassified,” in order to keep them out of the public eye.

“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” the cable reads.

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“The cable was a warning shot,” one U.S. official told Rogin. “They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.”

While China has stated the virus emerged from a seafood market in Wuhan, U.S. officials are skeptical of the claim, with the Wuhan Institute of Virology posting jobs in November and December of last year showing that they had been working on “long-term research on the pathogenic biology of bats carrying important viruses,” which had “confirmed the origin of bats of major new human and livestock infectious diseases.”

“The idea that is was just a totally natural occurrence is circumstantial. The evidence it leaked from the lab is circumstantial. Right now, the ledger on the side of it leaking from the lab is packed with bullet points and there’s almost nothing on the other side,” a U.S. official told Rogin.

While the facility is China’s first laboratory to achieve the highest level of international bioresearch safety, known as BSL-4, its work on bats — led by Shi Zhengli, the Chinese virologist nicknamed “Bat Woman” for her work with that species — is conducted at the lower protection level of BSL-2.

But the 2018 cable confirms that Shi — whose team published research in November 2017 revealing that horseshoe bats they had collected from a cave in Yunnan province were very likely from the same bat population that spawned the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003 — was then working on “SARS-like coronaviruses.” Shi’s team was also the first to reveal in February that the new outbreak was a bat-derived coronavirus.

“Most importantly, the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases,” the cable states. “From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”

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