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The chance that COVID-19 originated from a laboratory can’t be ruled out, the former head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) said.
George Gao, who headed China CDC during the COVID-19 pandemic, also claimed Chinese officials have investigated the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to find out whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was leaked from the lab.
He claimed experts had found no “wrongdoing” in the lab, but gave scant details of the search.
According to BBC Radio 4, Gao said “you can always suspect anything” regarding the possible origin of SARS-CoV-2. “That’s science. Don’t rule out anything,” he said.
Commenting on WIV—the center of speculation featured in most lab leak theories—Gao said the lab was “double-checked by the experts in the field.”
“I think their conclusion is that they are following all the protocols. They haven’t found [any] wrongdoing,” the former director of China CDC said.
It’s the first time a Chinese official confirmed that an official COVID-19 investigation was carried out at the lab.
But the alleged investigation, which Gao said was organised by some “government” department, didn’t involve the China CDC, he confirmed, without naming the department responsible.
More than three years have passed since SARS-CoV-2 caused a global pandemic that resulted in some 7 million deaths, but the world is still none the wiser regarding the origin of the virus.
One theory is that the virus originated from bats, but views differ on how it became transmissible among humans.
Some believe the virus was passed on to humans by some sort of intermediary animal hosts, while others believe it more likely leaked from a lab, particularly the WIV, which has been researching bat viruses and is located in the centre of Wuhan, where the pandemic began.
The Chinese regime has repeatedly dismissed the theory that the virus was leaked from the WIV, but its lack of transparency has fuelled more suspicion.
A group of World Health Organisation (WHO)-led experts were given a guided tour to WIV and other Wuhan locations in January 2021, more than a year after the beginning of the initial COVID-19 outbreak.
Following the four-week visit, the team said that the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal and that “introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway.”
But the findings were questioned, with critics noting that the Chinese communist regime had a significant role in their investigation and accused them of again engaging in a cover-up.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later told reporters that investigations were being hampered by the lack of raw data from the earliest COVID-19 cases. The U.N. body called for a further probe and urged China to share raw data, but the requests were dismissed by Beijing.
In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau believes the virus most likely came from a lab.
The U.S. Department of Energy reportedly came to the same conclusion, while other U.S. government agencies either remain undecided or support the theory that the virus came from animal hosts.
Gao is one of the five people that the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic wants to question about the origin of the virus. The committee has also requested access to Dr. Shi Zhengli, director of WIV’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases; Drs. Ben Hu and Huang Yanling, researchers at the institute; and Dr. Chen Wei, a general in the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army who took over the lab in February 2020.
In one of the lab leak theories, Huang was speculated to be “patient zero” and died from COVID-19, owning to the lack of personal information in her WIV profile. The WIV later released a statement saying Huang had left Wuhan in 2015 and had been alive and well. It’s unclear where Huang has been living and she has not given any media interviews or released any statement.
Last month, Gao told a London summit on preparing for pandemics that there has been “no evidence which animals [were] where the virus comes [from]” after an international group of scientists said they found links between raccoon dogs and COVID-19 in Wuhan.
Ren Ruihong, former head of medical assistance at the Chinese Red Cross, told Radio Free Asia that Gao’s comments were in line with Beijing’s official rhetoric that the virus was “spread to China from the United States.”
Katabella Roberts contributed to this report.