The U.S. government has evidence that researchers at a laboratory in Wuhan, China, became sick in fall 2019 with flu-like symptoms, raising concerns that they were infected with COVID-19 as the result of a lab accident, the State Department said Friday.
The agency said the government still does not know the true origins of the coronavirus, which has caused more than 2 million deaths across the globe.
The prevailing theory has been that the virus jumped from an animal to a human in Wuhan before spreading rapidly around the world.
But some U.S. officials and health experts have asserted that the virus could have accidentally leaked from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“The U.S. government does not know exactly where, when, or how the COVID-19 virus–known as SARS-CoV-2–was transmitted initially to humans. We have not determined whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, China,” a State Department fact sheet said.
The agency released previously undisclosed intelligence about the WIV, including that researchers at the lab became sick in the fall of 2019, just before Chinese authorities say the virus began to spread in Wuhan.
“The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
The State Department says that the intelligence “raises questions” about comments from WIV researcher Shi Zhengli, who has said publicly that there was “zero” COVID-19 infection among WIV staffers and students.
The fact sheet says the WIV began conducting experiments in 2016 on a coronavirus closely related to the virus currently spreading across the globe.
The State Department also says WIV has collaborated on “secret projects” with the Chinese military.
“Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military,” the fact sheet said.
“The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
The State Department criticized the Chinese Communist Party, saying that party officials have “systematically prevented a transparent and thorough investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic’s origin, choosing instead to devote enormous resources to deceit and disinformation.”
According to the fact sheet, CCP officials have prevented independent researchers from interviewing WIV researchers, including those who became sick immediately prior to the initial outbreak.
“The CCP’s deadly obsession with secrecy and control comes at the expense of public health in China and around the world,” the State Department said.
The World Health Organization sent a team of researchers this week to Wuhan to study the origins of the virus. Chinese authorities have delayed the fact-finding mission twice.
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