Covid: Wuhan lab leak is ‘feasible’, say British spies
Intelligence fears grow of Chinese cover-up
Sunday, May 30, 2021
By Larisa Brown, Diplomatic and Security Correspondent & Madeleine Spence
Reprinted from The Times (London)
British intelligence agencies now believe it is “feasible” that the global pandemic began with a coronavirus leak from a Chinese research laboratory.
In a significant sharpening of tension with Beijing, they are investigating a possible leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which Beijing angrily insists was not the source of the virus that has caused more than 3.5 million deaths and is still raging globally.
They do so as controversy grows about the alleged silencing of scientists who wanted an investigation of the lab-leak theory.
For the past 16 months — since China first confirmed that people were infecting one another with a new and deadly virus in the city of Wuhan — British, American and other western intelligence agencies have appeared to discount the possibility of the virology institute playing a role in the pandemic.
Western intelligence, including in Britain, at first considered there was only a “remote” chance that it had leaked from the laboratory, where research is conducted into bat-derived coronaviruses, including one closely associated with Covid-19. Now, however, there had been a reassessment, and a lab escape is thought “feasible”, sources revealed.
Last week Joe Biden ordered his intelligence agencies to investigate the leak theory — and other possible sources of the virus — and report to him within 90 days. British intelligence is working alongside the Americans.
U.S. diplomatic sources said there were concerns that if the origin could not be determined, “this could happen again and we are one wet market or bio lab away from the next spillover”.
MPs are demanding a fresh investigation. The Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, said: “The silence coming from Wuhan is troubling. We need to open the crypt and see what happened to be able to protect ourselves in the future. That means starting an investigation, along with partners around the world and in the WHO.”
The focus on the virology institute follows the emergence of new information about three researchers at the institute who fell ill in November 2019 — about the time the coronavirus is thought to have first circulated — and had to be treated in hospital.
This detail has fuelled public pressure on the US and other countries to find out more about what happened. Western intelligence sources emphasised how difficult this would be because of Chinese secrecy. “There might be pockets of evidence that take us one way, and evidence that takes us another way. The Chinese will lie either way. I don’t think we will ever know,” said a western intelligence source familiar with UK involvement in the investigation.
Agencies are believed to have few human intelligence sources in China. Gathering data there has focused on trying to recruit on the dark web, where Chinese employees can share secrets anonymously without fear of being caught.
Scientists who have been calling for an inquiry into the lab-leak theory claim that for the past year they have been silenced by colleagues and by scientific journals that support the prevailing theory that the virus jumped from animals to humans.
“Since the earliest days of the pandemic there were a small number of leading scientists who took it upon themselves to enforce this kind of orthodoxy,” said Jamie Metzl, adviser to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on human genome editing and senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank. “We were ostracised and called conspiracy theorists,” he added.
Metzl said that a statement in The Lancet in February 2020, signed by 27 prominent scientists, was “a form of scientific thuggery”. It strongly condemned “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”.
It was organised by Peter Daszak, the British-born president of the EcoHealth Alliance, an American agency that works closely with the virology institute and helps to fund it. Daszak, who is also a member of The Lancet’s Covid-19 commission, has repeatedly dismissed the lab-leak theory as “baloney”.
In January, Daszak was a member of the WHO delegation to Wuhan that concluded a laboratory leak was “extremely unlikely”.
The EcoHealth Alliance and his role are under scrutiny. Two American congressmen, James Comer and Jim Jordan, say that EcoHealth, which receives US taxpayer funding, granted $600,000 to the institute. “Under this grant,” they wrote, “EcoHealth and the [institute] conducted studies on emerging coronaviruses like Covid-19 — their potential for human-to-human transmission and the risk of a new pandemic. If US taxpayer money was used to develop Covid-19, conduct function research or assist in any sort of cover-up, EcoHealth must be held accountable.”
The Tory MP Bob Seely said there had been a “huge cover-up”, adding: “It seems people were trying to shut down the science early for questionable motives. Those scientists who have supported a cover-up will pay a high reputational price.”