Two State Department cables in 2018 warned that a new laboratory in Wuhan did not have enough trained personnel to operate it safely while it was studying SARS-like coronaviruses isolated from bats, according to the cables that were published on Friday after a Freedom of Information Act request.
A cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on January 19, 2018, notified Washington that China had opened the Wuhan Institute of Virology, its first Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory, and that the lab’s leadership considered it ready for research on class-four pathogens (P4) — the most virulent viruses that pose a high risk of person-to-person transmission.
However, the cable warned there was a “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” It also noted “a lack of clarity in related Chinese government policies and guidelines,” and that China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) had not given the lab permission to initiate research on highly contagious pathogens.
Despite these limitations, the lab was able to undertake productive research on SARS-like coronaviruses, the cable said.
It cited a five-year study that found that SARS-like coronaviruses isolated from horseshoe bats in a single cave contain all the building blocks of the pandemic SARS-coronavirus genome that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. The study also found that the SARS-like coronaviruses in bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like disease.
“WIV scientists are allowed to study the SARS-like coronaviruses isolated from bats while they are precluded from studying human-disease causing SARS coronavirus in their new BSL-4 lab until permission for such work is granted by the NHFCP,” it said.
The cable said the study was done with support from the U.S.’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institute of Health (NIH), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and several Chinese funding agencies.
A second cable, sent on April 19, 2018, from the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, also noted the “lack of trained staff.”
The cable said Wuhan lab officials “expressed strong interest” in the Global Virome Project (GVP) that aims to identify within ten years all of the planet’s viruses that have pandemic or epidemic potential and the ability to jump to humans.
“We hope China will be one of the leading countries to initiate the Global Virome Project” one official said. The cable noted that China was essentially working on its own Virome Project.
U.S. investigators have been looking into whether the coronavirus behind COVID-19 began from an accident or outbreak from the Wuhan lab, but have been barred from scientists and personnel who could provide answers.
Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), have also launched an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, including whether it originated from the Wuhan lab.
Their interim report found that unless Chinese Communist Party officials agree to cooperate, it would be impossible to determine how the outbreak began.
“While the broad consensus of the scientific and intelligence communities is that the virus is natural in origin, some experts have hypothesized that SARSCoV-2 leaked from the WIV through improperly handled material or infected staff,” said the interim finding.
“Until the CCP agrees to cooperate with the WHO, other countries, and the international scientific community, it will be impossible to gather the concrete evidence needed to prove, or disprove, this theory,” it said. “As a direct result of the CCP cover-up during the early stages of the pandemic, it is certain that this debate will continue.”