According to most scientists, the new coronavirus was probably transmitted from an animal to humans. The market in the city was accused of selling allegedly live, wild animals.
However, the existence of a virological institute just a few kilometers away has fueled speculation for months that SARS-CoV-2 may have leaked from this sensitive facility.
According to press reports, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke this week of an “investigation” to test this theory, which is not yet based on anything very tangible.
Here are the main questions about the Wuhan Virology Institute:
What is the Wuhan Institute of Virology ?
According to the Washington Post, after several visits to the institute in 2018, the US Embassy in Beijing alerted US authorities about apparently inadequate security measures in a laboratory that was investigating corona viruses of bats.
The American broadcaster Fox News, which cited “several anonymous sources”, accused the laboratory of containing the most dangerous strains of known viruses, such as Ebola.
This very sensitive facility was built in collaboration with France to enable state-of-the-art research to react more quickly to the appearance of infectious diseases.
The laboratory was financed by China at a cost of around 43 million dollars. Scientists work there in absolute captivity. There are less than 30 P4s in the world, half of them in the United States.
According to its website, the Wuhan Institute of Virology also has the largest collection of virus strains in Asia, with 1500 different specimens.
Although P4 is always mentioned in the American press, less pathogenic germs such as corona viruses are theoretically tested in P3, a type of laboratory that the Institute also has.
During the hearing, the Institute refused to answer AFP’s questions. The French researcher working there also refused to speak, citing A non-disclosure agreement (NDA).
AFP is therefore not in a position to formally confirm that corona viruses were indeed tested in these laboratories before the epidemic.
Is this Lab the source of the coronavirus?
It’s impossible to say.
The Washington Post and Fox News are quoting anonymous sources. They’re expressing concern over the possible accidental release of the virus.
According to the TV station, “Patient Zero” at the source of the epidemic could have been a contaminated institute employee who then unwittingly spread the pathogen elsewhere in Wuhan.
Asked about this hypothesis, US President Donald Trump said he had “heard more and more of this story”. According to him, the US government is looking into all avenues.
According to an interview conducted by Mike Pompeo on Friday as the epidemic began to spread in China, “local authorities wondered if the Institute of Virology was the place of origin.
“We know that they did not allow scientists from around the world to go to that laboratory to tell us what happened there,” he said.
Several theories, more or less exuberant, have flourished on the Internet in recent months to incriminate this laboratory.
In February, the Institute issued a press release denying the rumors.
It also stated that it had already received samples of the then unknown virus circulating in Wuhan (later identified as SARS-CoV-2) on 30th December, sequenced its genome on 2nd January and then forwarded this information to the World Health Organization (WHO) on the 11th of January.
The WHO indeed reported that it had received the genome sequence from China on 11 January.
A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, rejected the US charge against the institute on Friday.
What do the scientists say?
According to many researchers, the new coronavirus probably originated from bats. However, they believe it passed through another species before being transmitted to humans.
Chinese scientists claim that this intermediate animal could be a pangolin, a small mammal that is threatened with extinction because it is exploited for its shell and meat.
However, studies published by other Chinese scientists in respected scientific journals claim that the first known patient did not visit the market in question in Wuhan.
“The origin of the epidemic is still an open question,” said AFP Filippa Lentzos, a biosafety researcher at King’s College London.
There is no evidence to support the hypothesis that the virus has leaked from the laboratory and there is “no real evidence” that the new coronavirus came from the Wuhan market, she said.