Chinese government researchers isolated more than 2,000 animal viruses, including deadly bat coronaviruses, and carried out scientific work on them just three miles from a wild animal market identified as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several Chinese state media outlets in recent months touted the virus research and lionized in particular a key researcher in Wuhan, Tian Junhua, as a leader in bat virus work.
The coronavirus strain now infecting hundreds of thousands of people globally mutated from bats believed to have infected animals and people at a wild animal market in Wuhan. The exact origin of the virus, however, remains a mystery.
Reports of the extensive Chinese research on bat viruses likely will fuel more calls for Beijing to make public what it knows about such work.
“This is one of the worst cover-ups in human history, and now the world is facing a global pandemic,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said last week. Mr. McCaul has said China should be held accountable for the pandemic.
A video posted online in December and funded by the Chinese government shows Mr. Tian inside caves in Hubei province taking samples from captured bats and storing them in vials.
“I am not a doctor, but I work to cure and save people,” Mr. Tian says in the video. “I am not a soldier, but I work to safeguard an invisible national defense line.”
Chinese officials have said the virus likely spread from wild animals to people at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, not far from the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national center for China’s bat virus research.
Wuhan is finally stirring back to life after a harsh crackdown on travel and street activity was imposed in late January. The city’s bus, subway and train systems started to run again over the weekend. Shops downtown were operating with some restrictions Monday, although customers were scarce.
But British news accounts also reported over the weekend that some of the stalls at China’s so-called “wet” wild animal markets, as they reopen, have begun once again selling bats and scorpions and resumed questionable practices such as slaughtering small animals right at the site.
Chinese officials refused to provide samples of its coronavirus strains to U.S. researchers shortly after the outbreak became public and did not allow international disease specialists to visit Wuhan for weeks.
The Chinese video “Youth in the Wild — Invisible Defender” records researchers engaged in casual handling of bats containing deadly viruses.
The seven-minute film boasts that China has “taken the lead” in global virus research and uncovered over 2,000 viruses in the past 12 years, the time since the outbreak of the bat-origin virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
The deadly virus behind the current pandemic is called SARS Coronavirus-2 and also has been traced to bats.
Prior to China’s discoveries, an estimated 2,284 types of viruses had been found in the previous 200 years, the video says.
Chinese state media outlets revealed that Mr. Tian once failed to wear protective gear in a cave and as a result came into contact with bat urine. To avoid contracting a disease, he self-quarantined for 14 days — the same recommended period for people exposed to the new COVID-19 strain.
Mr. Tian works for the office of decontamination and biological disease vector prevention and control within the Wuhan CDC. According to a May 2017 report by the Wuhan Evening News, Mr. Tian has gathered thousands of bats for research work on bat viruses since 2012.
“Bats have a large number of unknown viruses on their bodies,” he said. “The more thorough our research on bats is, the better it will be for human health.”
The researcher also has gathered viruses from ticks, mice and wasps.
After the incident exposing him to bat urine, Mr. Tian said, he kept a safe distance from his wife. “As long as I am not getting sick during the incubation period of 14 days, I can be lucky to get away with it,” he said.
The Wuhan report said the collection of research samples was difficult, dangerous and hard to fund.
Shenzhen News, a publication of the Guangdong Communist Youth League, described in December how Mr. Tianshuttled through caves and jungles looking for viruses in bats and ticks, called “vector organisms,” in the quest to develop vaccines. The report said the nearly 2,000 viruses discovered in China over the past 12 years nearly doubled the total number of known viruses.
A search of the Wuhan CDC website since the novel coronavirus outbreak contains no reference to Mr. Tian or his work. He has co-authored at least two scientific studies on the Wuhan virus and its impact.
Efforts to reach Mr. Tian were not successful.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not return an email seeking comment.
A State Department official said the reports about Mr. Tian and his role in working with bat viruses are concerning.
“He lives and works at Wuhan’s CDC, a few hundred yards away from the Huanan wet market,” the official said. “He is among the small team in Wuhan that has contributed to China’s obsession in recent years with virus hunting and research.”
Some U.S. and international scientists have dismissed reports linking the new virus to one of China’s research labs. They insist the virus jumped naturally to humans and then began spreading from person to person.
But others say a growing body of evidence indicates the virus may have been under study in a Chinese laboratory and escaped, either through an infection of a worker or through an infected lab animal.
Biosecurity researcher Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University professor at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, said the coronavirus behind the pandemic is 96.2% similar to a bat virus discovered by the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2013 and studied at the Wuhan CDC. The virus could have jumped naturally from animal to human but also could have escaped from the lab, he said.
“Bat coronaviruses are collected and studied by laboratories in multiple parts of China — including Wuhan Municipal CDC and Wuhan Institute of Virology,” he told The Washington Times. “Therefore, the first human infection also could have occurred as a laboratory accident.”
Until the recent outbreak, all but two coronaviruses in China were studied at biosafety level-2 (BSL-2) facilities — not the high-security BSL-4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — “which provides only minimal protections against infection of lab workers,” he said.
“Virus collection, culture, isolation or animal infection at BSL-2 with a virus having the transmission characteristics of the outbreak virus would pose high risk of accidental infection of a lab worker, and from the lab worker, the public,” he said.
Mr. Ebright said the Chinese video shows Wuhan CDC workers under Mr. Tian’s direction with inadequate personal protective equipment and unsafe practices, including exposed faces and wrists and a lack of goggles or face shields.
Such practices “would pose substantial risk of infection with a virus having transmission properties similar to those of the outbreak virus,” he said.
Mr. Ebright said the 2017 news report and 2019 video suggest several possibilities of accidental infection. They include accidental exposure in caves or field laboratories by those without proper protection, accidental infection during transit from caves or field laboratories, accidental infection inside the Wuhan CDC lab because of poor security, and accidental infection during shared work between the Wuhan CDC and the Wuhan Institute of Virology because of inadequate security at the CDC.
Kenneth Plante, associate director at the World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, said he doubted the new virus came from a laboratory.
“There’s a lot of conspiracy theories that this came out of a biocontainment facility and things of that sort,” he said last week. “But these viruses are closely related to bats. The actual mechanism of the reemergence of this virus was actually hypothesized back during the original SARS coronavirus,” he said.
But Steven W. Mosher, a China specialist with the Population Research Institute, said China for years has been doing research, detailed in scientific journals, on horseshoe bat coronaviruses that could be harmful to humans.
“They write about collecting SARS-like coronaviruses from horseshoe bats and proving that, like the SARS virus itself, some of these other naturally occurring coronaviruses could infect human beings directly,” Mr. Mosher said. “They write about genetically engineering new and deadly viruses capable of infecting human lung tissue — just like the Wuhan flu does.”
Mr. Mosher called the Chinese government to disclose the research to help health officials cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
“China claims that the deadly virus did not escape from its biolab,” Mr. Mosher said. “Fine. Prove it by releasing the research records of the Wuhan lab.”