Health

Three Wuhan Lab Workers’ 2019 Illness Raises Concerns

Editor’s note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

Three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China became sick with a flu-like illness and sought hospital care in November 2019, according to a U.S. intelligence report obtained by The Wall Street Journal.

The report, which was previously undisclosed, will likely add to growing concerns about whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from the lab, the newspaper reported.

Several researchers at the lab became sick at the end of 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness,” the newspaper reported. Public health officials have expressed concerns about the number of researchers who were sick, the timing of their illnesses, and the fact that they had to seek hospital care for their symptoms, the newspaper reported.

At the same time, officials who are familiar with the U.S. intelligence report expressed various views about the strength of the report’s research to The Wall Street Journal. Some said the supporting evidence was weak, some said it was strong, while others said it was potentially significant and needed more investigation.

Importantly, the report doesn’t explain why the researchers got sick or what their diagnosis was, the newspaper reported. COVID-19 and other seasonal illnesses share similar symptoms, though it could be concerning if several members of the same team sought hospital care before the pandemic was identified.

In January, the Trump administration released a fact sheet from the State Department that said several Wuhan researchers were sick, but it didn’t say they were hospitalized. China reported the first COVID-19 case in Wuhan on Dec. 8, 2019, according to CNN.

The Wuhan National Biosafety Lab, which is part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, issued a strong denial of the U.S. intelligence report on Monday, CNN reported.

“I’ve read it. It’s a complete lie,” Yuan Zhiming, PhD, director of the biosafety lab, told Global Times, a state-run news outlet.

“Those claims are groundless,” he said. “The lab has not been aware of this situation, and I don’t even know where such information came from.”

China’s Foreign Ministry also rejected the report and accused the U.S. of “hyping up the lab leak theory,” CNN reported.

“Through field visits and in-depth visits in China, the experts unanimously agreed that the allegation of lab leaking is extremely unlikely,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the ministry, said on Monday.

The World Health Organization looked into the origins of the pandemic and concluded this year that the risk of a lab accident was “extremely low,” CNN reported. Peter Daszak, PhD, a disease ecologist in the U.K. who worked on the World Health Organization team, told CNN in February that there was “really still no evidence” that the pandemic started in a lab. He said the lab was “very well-run” and the researchers didn’t show evidence of COVID-19 antibodies.

Even still, the World Health Organization investigation has been criticized for having a lack of access to original data and samples and for being deferential to China during the visit, CNN reported. Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee received a classified briefing about the lab last week, and intelligence officials told The Wall Street Journal and CNN that the lab theory still needs investigation.

At an event in mid-May, Anthony Fauci, MD, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was “not convinced” the novel coronavirus developed naturally. Fauci was asked whether he was still confident that the virus has developed naturally.

“I am not convinced about that. I think that we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we find out to the best of our ability what happened,” he said during the “United Fact of America: A Festival of Fact Checking” event, which was hosted by the Poynter Institute and PolitiFact.

“Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out,” Fauci said. “That’s the reason why I said I’m perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus.”

Sources:

The Wall Street Journal: “Intelligence on Sick Staff at Wuhan Lab Fuels Debate on Covid-19 Origin.”

CNN: “New information on Wuhan researchers’ illness furthers debate on pandemic origins.”

PolitiFact: United Facts of America Day 2: Dr. Fauci talks about misinformation.”


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