As questions abound about the original source of the COVID-19 outbreak the Washington Post has reported that it has acquired official documents that show that in 2018 the US Embassy in Beijing sent scientists to analyse the conditions at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which was studying, amongst other things, coronaviruses in bats. 

Two reports on the lab were sent back by to Washington in 2018. The reports detail the concerns of officials about safety and management issues at the lab. They also warn that the lab’s research into coronaviruses, combined with poor safety protocols, could lead to a dangerous “new SARS-like pandemic” if those animals ever escaped or were accidentally released.

According to the WP one of the reports states that the lab had a “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”

The Chinese government has said that COVID-19 first made the jump from animal to human at the Huanan Seafood Market, a wet market in Wuhan, but senior Chinese officials have also blamed the US for causing the virus and confusion remains as to the exact source.

The Chinese government recently imposed restrictions on the publication of any academic research within China on the origins of COVID-19, subjecting all papers on the topic to “additional scrutiny by central government officials”.

Speaking to the WP Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley, said that, whilst we don’t know for certain that the lab was the source of the current outbreak, “I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory. I think it’s a legitimate question that needs to be investigated and answered,” and that “To understand exactly how this originated is critical knowledge for preventing this from happening in the future.”

The Wuhan lab previously came under fire in 2013 when they genetically modified a virus called SHC014, which was found in bats in China, to show that the original virus could potentially infect humans. The work expanded our understanding of the ability of bat coronaviruses to infect humans, but it was also attacked by other researchers who argued that the lab had created a dangerous new virus.

In the case of COVID-19 research has indicated that it was not artificially created or modified but is rather a naturally evolved virus. Research published in Nature said that there was “strong evidence that SARS-COV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.”