Three researchers from a Wuhan laboratory studying Covid-19 fell ill a few weeks before the virus emerged as a mysterious disease.
The staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) were so sick that they had to be hospitalized for treatment in November 2019, according to a previously unpublished US intelligence report.
The report submitted by the Wall Street Journal, has fueled calls for a broader study of the theory that the initial outbreak was caused by a leak in the laboratory.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has denied that a leak was to be blamed, despite a group of senior scientists saying the origin of the virus is still unclear and the theory must be taken seriously until rigorous data-driven research proves otherwise.
Last year, then-US President Donald Trump pushed the theory forward, claiming he saw evidence that the coronavirus came from the Wuhan lab without providing evidence.
Covid-19 appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and quickly spread around the world. It infected more than 167 million people and killed nearly 3.5 million people to date.
Many countries are currently struggling with devastating second or third waves, while others, including the UK, are emerging from lockdowns due to mass vaccination campaigns and the threat of mutated variants.
At the beginning of January 2020, Dr. Shi Zhengli, known as the “bat woman” for her research on bat coronavirus, identified the mysterious disease as a novel coronavirus and denied allegations of a virus leak.
Some experts have speculated that a virus caught from the wild could use laboratory experiments to test the risks of human overflow and then escape via an infected employee.
Joe Biden’s top coronavirus advisor recently said he was “not convinced” that the virus developed naturally and called for further investigation into its origins.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said the “What was going on in China” investigation must continue until investigators “have a best understanding of what happened”.
The Wall Street Journal said the U.S. intelligence report provided new information about the number of researchers affected, the timing of their illnesses, and their hospital visits.
It took place on the eve of a World Health Organization (WHO) decision-making body meeting to discuss the next phase of an investigation into the origins of Covid-19.
A US National Security Council spokeswoman did not comment on the journal’s report, but said the Biden administration continued to have “serious questions about the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, including its origins in the People’s Republic of China.”
She said the White House is working with WHO and other member states to support an expert-led assessment of the origins of the pandemic “that is free of interference or politicization”.
“We will not make any statements anticipating an ongoing WHO study on the source of SARS-CoV-2, but we were aware that sound and technically credible theories should be thoroughly evaluated by international experts,” she said.
The Journal said current and former officials familiar with the information about the laboratory researchers had a number of views about the strength of the report’s supportive evidence, with an undisclosed person saying that “further investigation and additional confirmation” is needed be.
The United States, Norway, Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries in March raised concerns about the WHO-led Covid-19 origin study and requested further investigation and full access to all relevant human, animal and other data on the early stages of the disease Outbreak.
According to a source familiar with the effort, Washington is keen to ensure greater cooperation and transparency from China.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Sunday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry found that a WHO-led team, after visiting the virology institute in February, concluded that a laboratory leak was extremely unlikely.
“The US continues to exaggerate the laboratory leak theory,” the department responded to a request for comment from the journal.
“Is it really about finding the source or diverting attention?”
Earlier this month, Dr. Fauci asked at an event held by the Poynter Journalism School in Florida if he was confident that Covid-19 had developed naturally. Fox News reported.
He said, “No, actually. I am not convinced of that.
“I think we should keep investigating what was going on in China until we do our best to find out what happened.”
Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, added: “Surely the investigators say that it was likely emergence from an animal reservoir that infected individuals, but it could have been something else and we need it to find out .
“So, you know, that’s why I said I am totally in favor of any investigation into the origin of the virus.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci, the virus likely “evolved naturally and then species jumped” rather than being “artificially or deliberately manipulated”.
Earlier this month, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee released a report claiming there was “significant evidence” that there was a leak in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The report claims the US government may have funded or collaborated with the research that led to the leak.
Republicans wrote, “However, international efforts to discover the true source of the virus have been hampered by a lack of cooperation from the People’s Republic of China.”
In mid-May, 18 leading scientists said the laboratory leak theory must be taken seriously.
The scientists wrote in a letter: “More research is needed to determine the origin of the pandemic.
“Theories about accidental release from a laboratory and zoonotic spillage both remain viable.
“We have to take hypotheses about natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have enough data.”
The scientists said the World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into the origins of the virus failed to “balance” the theory that it may have been a laboratory incident.
In its final report, co-authored with Chinese scientists, a WHO-led team who spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus was likely transmitted from bats to humans by another animal and that a laboratory leak is “extremely unlikely” as the cause.
The Donald Trump administration had suspected that the virus could have escaped from a Chinese laboratory, which Beijing denies.
A US State Department leaflet published towards the end of the Trump administration states: “The US government has reason to believe that several researchers within the WIV became ill with symptoms in the fall of 2019 prior to the first identified case of the outbreak with both Covid matched -19 and common seasonal diseases. “
It was not said how many researchers. According to one of the team’s investigators, Reuters reported in February, China refused to provide raw data on early Covid-19 cases to the WHO-led team in order to investigate the causes of the pandemic. This could make efforts to understand the beginning of the outbreak difficult.