Covid lab leak should not be ruled out, claims Chinese scientist

The possibility that the Covid virus leaked from a laboratory should not be ruled out, a former top Chinese government scientist has disclosed.

The view of virologist and immunologist Professor George Gao comes in stark contrast to that of the Chinese government, which has consistently dismissed any suggestion that the virus could have originated in a Wuhan laboratory. Prof Gao, formerly head of China’s Centre for Disease Control, told the BBC Radio 4 podcast Fever: The Hunt for Covid’s Origin: “You can always suspect anything. That’s science. Don’t rule out anything.”

Prof Gao is now vice president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China after retiring last year from the Centre for Disease Control, where he played a key role in the pandemic response and efforts to trace how it started. But the Chinese Embassy in the UK told the BBC: “The so-called ‘lab leak’ is a lie created by anti-China forces. It is politically motivated and has no scientific basis.”

The theory that the virus accidentally leaked from a laboratory resurfaced in February when the FBI’s director said this is where it “most likely” originated – although there was no consensus among US intelligence agencies on the question. The BBC reported that many scientists claimed the weight of evidence suggested that a natural origin – the virus spreading from animals to humans – was the most likely scenario.

The idea the virus infected someone involved in research designed to better understand the threat of viruses emerging from nature was another suggestion. Wuhan is home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of China’s top national laboratories known to have spent years studying coronaviruses.

Professor Gao told the BBC that some kind of formal investigation into the Wuhan institute had been carried out and “that lab was double-checked by the experts in the field”. Stressing that he had not yet seen the result, he said he had “heard” that the lab had been given a clean bill of health. Prof Gao added: “I think their conclusion is that they are following all the protocols. They haven’t found (any) wrongdoing.”

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Early in the pandemic, Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market and hospitals near it were the focus of searches for any potential explanation of the origination of the virus. An investigation into Covid’s origin by the World Health Organisation said it was “extremely unlikely” the virus had leaked from a lab.

Plans for a second phase of the investigation, involving audits of laboratories in the Wuhan area, were rejected by the Chinese government, the podcast added.

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