Virus may have escaped from lab 'doing risky experiments'

New evidence has emerged that the coronavirus ravaging the globe may have escaped from a poorly equipped lab in Wuhan, China, where researchers were conducting risky viral disease experiments in the years leading up to the pandemic.

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.

Researchers in the Wuhan lab. Picture: US EPA
Researchers in the Wuhan lab. Picture: US EPA

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," the New York Post reported.

The Wuhan lab was receiving aid from US organisations, including a laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch, but the cable suggested the US should provide additional support because the research was so dangerous.

The cables were meant to "sound the alarm" about safety conditions in the lab - and the embassy officials were calling for more support of the lab to help fix its problems, sources said.

Appearing on Nine's Today this morning, Home Affairs Minister Mr Dutton was asked about reports overnight that US intelligence now believes the virus escaped from a Chinese lab - something not long ago widely dismissed as a "conspiracy theory".

"The US is saying they've got documentation which demonstrates that the virus had a particular path or origin," Mr Dutton said, adding that he hadn't personally seen the evidence.

"I think they'll detail all of that information but I do think there will be a reset about the way in which the world interacts with China. We do want more transparency."

Mr Dutton said there had been more than 60 Australians who had died and "every one of those cases involves a tragedy of somebody very close to you being lost".

"All of those families would demand answers and transparency, I don't think it's too much to ask. It would certainly be demanded of us if Australia was at the epicentre of this virus making its way into society," he said.

There's no evidence to suggest the coronavirus currently cutting its way across the globe was engineered in a lab - but that does not exclude the possibility it escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology or another similar laboratory miles away in the Chinese city.


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was investigating the origins.

"What we do know is we know that this virus originated in Wuhan, China. We know there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology just a handful of miles away from where the wet market was," he said.

"There is still lots to learn. You should know that the United States government is working diligently to figure it out."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Picture: AP
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Picture: AP

The Wuhan Institute of Virology was launched in 1978 after a series of other research institutes in the city merged to form the current lab, according to its English-language website.

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.

 

A farmer feeds crayfish to be sent to restaurants in Wuhan. Picture: Getty
A farmer feeds crayfish to be sent to restaurants in Wuhan. Picture: Getty

It now houses research centres for 37 separate discipline groups, including a "new infectious disease research centre." It also boasts an Academic Commission with a graduate student office.

Workers in protective gear catch a giant salamander that was reported to have escaped from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. Picture: AP
Workers in protective gear catch a giant salamander that was reported to have escaped from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. Picture: AP

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