Britain’s intelligence agencies — along with other Western European security services — are assisting a new American investigation to try to establish the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, according to officials on both sides of the Atlantic.
The central focus of the investigation is on the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China as suspicions mount that the novel bat-derived virus roiling the world, and which has led to at least four million deaths, may have leaked from its lab, a claim Beijing has furiously denied.
British officials briefed London newspapers Sunday that the thesis the virus escaped from the lab is “plausible” and “feasible,” a turnaround from British intelligence’s skepticism for most of the past 18 months of the possibility that the pandemic may have been triggered by a lab leak. Other Western intelligence agencies were also skeptical last year of the leak theory, seeing it as being only a remote possibility.
But last week, U.S. President Joe Biden instructed American intelligence agencies to investigate the leak theory and report back within three months. Biden’s order came after U.S. intelligence discovered more details about three researchers at the Wuhan lab who fell ill in November 2019, several weeks before the first identified case of the outbreak — and more than a month before China informed the World Health Organization of “cases of pneumonia” of an “unknown cause” had been detected in Wuhan.
The researchers were hospitalized with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but also with common seasonal respiratory illnesses, according to a U.S. intelligence report first publicly disclosed by The Wall Street Journal.
The new details have added to circumstantial evidence supporting the theory that the virus may have spread to humans after a leak from the Wuhan lab, say Western officials.
A WHO-led team report earlier this year ruled the lab-leak theory “extremely unlikely,” and favored the prevailing theory that the coronavirus most likely originated in a Wuhan wet market, jumping from an animal, likely a bat or pangolin, to humans. But the WHO inquiry has come under mounting criticism from some prominent Western scientists — as well as Western governments, who say the Chinese authorities blocked the WHO team during a four-week visit to Wuhan in January.
Eighteen of the world’s top epidemiologists and geneticists wrote a letter to the journal Science calling for an independent inquiry into the lab leak theory.
British intelligence officials confirmed to Britain’s Sunday Telegraph that British security agencies are cooperating with the new American probe. “We are contributing what intelligence we have on Wuhan, as well as offering to help the American to corroborate and analyze any intelligence they have that we can assist with,” an official was quoted as saying.
They added: “What is required to establish the truth behind the coronavirus outbreak is well-sourced intelligence rather than informed analysis, and that is difficult to come by.”
Intelligence officials on both sides of the Atlantic say the probe will include using artificial intelligence systems to help data mine everything from Chinese social media comments to intercepted phone and electronic communications in China. Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, also known as GCHQ, the eavesdropping spy agency and the country’s largest intelligence service, will be key in Britain’s collaboration with the U.S., British officials told VOA.
With few on-the-ground intelligence sources in China, Western intelligence agencies are believed to be trawling the so-called “dark web” to unearth information posted and shared there anonymously by Chinese scientists and officials secretly critical of the Communist government.
British lawmakers are welcoming the redoubled effort to identify the origins of the pandemic. “The silence coming from Wuhan is troubling. We need to open the crypt and to see what happened, to be able to protect ourselves in the future,” Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons’ foreign affairs committee said on Sunday.
China’s authorities have denied there was any leak from the Wuhan lab, which conducts research on viruses and receives some funding from the U.S. government. Last year, Chinese propagandists blamed the coronavirus outbreak on a U.S. Army sports delegation which visited Wuhan and touted several conspiracy theories subsequently discredited by prominent virologists and epidemiologists.
Last week, China’s Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party daily tabloid newspaper, condemned Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, for saying he supported investigating multiple theories of the virus’ origins, including probing whether it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Fauci said it was important to increase efforts to unearth why, where and how the pandemic began because knowing the origin could help prevent future outbreaks of coronaviruses. “I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened,” he said.
The Global Times accused Fauci of attempting “to hype the old and groundless narrative that the virus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan.” It said the leak theory “is a blatant lie, a conspiracy created by U.S. intelligence agencies and media outlets to slander China, and China has denied it.”