Nestled in the hilly outskirts of Wuhan, the city at the heart of the coronavirus crisis, a Chinese high-security biosafety laboratory is now the subject of U.S. claims it may be the cradle of the pandemic.
The institute is home to the China Center for Virus Culture Collection, the largest virus bank in Asia and which preserves more than 1,500 strains, according to its website.
Founded in 1956, Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), was initially named as Wuhan Microbiology Laboratory. It was among the earliest national institutions established after the founding of the New China. In 1961, it became the South China Institute of Microbiology of CAS, and was redesignated as Wuhan Microbiology Institute CAS in 1962. In 1970, under the administration of the Hubei Commission of Science & Technology, it was renamed as Microbiology Institute of Hubei Province. In June 1978, it was returned to the administration of CAS, and adopted its current designation
The institute began building the lab’s current “national biosafety laboratory” in Wuhan in 2005 after the 2003 SARS outbreak, the website reads.
The modern building that houses the lab, near the Yangtze River in Wuhan, was completed in 2015 and received “recognition and authentication certificate for the critical protection equipment installation and commissioning,” the website reads.
It now houses research centers for 37 separate discipline groups, including a “new infectious disease research center.” It also boasts an Academic Commission with a graduate student office.
The complex contains Asia’s first maximum security lab equipped to handle Class 4 pathogens (P4) — dangerous viruses that pose a high risk of person-to-person transmission, such as Ebola.
The 300-million-yuan ($42 million) lab was completed in 2015, and finally opened in 2018, with the founder of a French bioindustrial firm, Alain Merieux, acting as a consultant in its construction.
The institute also has a P3 laboratory that has been in operation since 2012.
The 3,000-square-meter (32,000-square-foot) P4 lab, located in a square building with a cylindrical annex, lies near a pond at the foot of a forested hill in Wuhan’s remote outskirts.
On a recent visit, AFP saw no sign of activity inside. A poster outside the complex read, “Strong Prevention and Control, Don’t Panic, Listen to Official Announcements, Believe in Science, Don’t Spread Rumors.”
In March 2018, the US dispatched science diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, who issued two “sensitive” diplomatic cables about inadequate safety measures at the lab, the Washington Post reported, citing intelligence sources.
The first cable warned the experiments conducted in the lab on coronavirus in bats “represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic,” according to the report.
The cable, written by two US-China embassy officials, said there is a “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” according to the report.
On Thursday U.S. President Donald Trump said it was possible that China either could not stop the spread of the coronavirus or let it spread, as his rhetoric on Beijing toughened.
Speaking to reporters, Trump declined to say whether he holds Chinese President Xi Jinping responsible for what he feels is misinformation from China when the virus emerged from Wuhan, China, and quickly spread around the world.
Trump says the China trade deal he concluded with Xi now is secondary to what China did with the virus.
U.S. spy agencies believe the COVID-19 virus originated in China but was not manmade or genetically modified, the agency that oversees U.S. intelligence operations said on Thursday.
“The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in a statement, adding that U.S. spy agencies would “continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday lamented a lack of leadership by world powers and a divided international community in the fight against the coronavirus as he raised concern about inadequate support for poor countries.
Guterres’ remarks come after U.S. President Donald Trump reignited his war of words with China during an interview with Reuters on Wednesday. Trump said he believes China’s handling of the pandemic is proof that Beijing “will do anything they can” to make him lose his re-election bid in November.