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Inside the Chinese lab central to the search for the coronavirus' origin

The institute is the focus of speculation and conspiracy theories — some emanating from the White House — about whether the virus leaked from the facility.
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WUHAN, China — Cloistered off a major thoroughfare, the Wuhan Institute of Virology could pass for a college campus, its red brick buildings distinguishable from their busy surroundings only by a long, imposing driveway lined with cameras, with a security guard standing sentry.

On the neatly manicured grounds beside a small man-made lake is a newer structure with silver sidings and few windows. This, the institute's BSL-4 lab — the first in China to receive the highest level of biosafety clearance — stands at the center of an international firestorm of recrimination over China's role in the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, NBC News became the first foreign news organization to be granted access to the institute since the outbreak began, meeting with senior scientists working to pinpoint the origins of the virus. The Wuhan institute and its scientists have become the focus of intense speculation and conspiracy theories — some emanating from the White House — about China's alleged efforts to downplay the outbreak's severity and whether the virus leaked from the facility.

During the roughly five-hour visit, which included a tour of the BSL-4 lab, where technicians clad in bubblelike protective suits handled small vials and other equipment while sealed inside a thick-walled glass enclosure, Wang Yanyi, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said she and others felt unfairly targeted. She urged that politics not cloud investigations into how the coronavirus spilled over into humans.

Wuhan Institute of Virology
Scientists at work in the BSL-4 lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The technicians were trained in Lyon, France, and at least two of them trained in the U.S. in Galveston, Texas, according to the lab.Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

"It is unfortunate that we have been targeted as a scapegoat for the origin of the virus," she said. "Any person would inevitably feel very angry or misunderstood being subject to unwarranted or malicious accusations while carrying out research and related work in the fight against the virus."

The first clusters of a pneumonia-like illness were reported in December in Wuhan, a sprawling city of 11 million people that hugs the Yangtze River in China's central Hubei province.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, founded in the 1950s, is a prominent research facility that enjoyed an even more elevated profile after it opened the BSL-4 lab in 2015. These days, scientists at the lab are focused on the coronavirus, but normally, work at the facility includes research on some of the most dangerous known viruses, including the Ebola, Nipah and Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever viruses.

It is partly because the Wuhan institute is equipped to study the world's highest-risk infectious agents and toxins — including those, like the latest coronavirus, that are believed to have originated in bats — that it is entangled in accusations that it had something to do with the outbreak.

During a White House event on April 30, President Donald Trump referred to a possible link. When asked whether he had seen evidence that suggested that the virus originated at the Wuhan lab, Trump responded: "Yes, I have."

“I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that,” he said when declining to give specifics.

Image: The Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
An internal State Department cable from 2018 raised concerns by U.S. Embassy officials in China over the safety and training of staff members at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.Janis Mackey Frayer / NBC News

The White House has shown no credible proof to back up claims that the coronavirus was either manufactured at or accidentally leaked from the lab, and neither have any other sources. But Trump continues to fuel the blame, often through racist rhetoric, by regularly referring to the pathogen as the "China virus," the "Wuhan virus" or "kung flu."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeated similar claims, also without providing proof.

In April, current and former U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News that the U.S. intelligence community was examining whether the virus emerged accidentally from the Wuhan lab. Spy agencies had ruled out that the coronavirus was man-made, the officials said at the time.

Democrats in Congress who have asked administration officials to provide information about any such associations say their requests have been ignored.

The White House declined to comment for this article.

‘Zero evidence’

At the beginning of the tour of the institute, a guard took the team’s temperatures and checked bags and equipment. In the facilities, workers wore regular clothes and facemasks, which have become ubiquitous in China during the pandemic.

Trees dot the hilly landscape along the path leading to the institute’s BSL-4 lab, which NBC News was given access to — although not in to the germ-free inner area.

During separate 50-minute interviews accompanied by a representative of the government, Wang and Yuan Zhiming, vice director of the institute, strongly denied that the virus could have originated at the institute. They also said scientists at the facility obtained their first samples of the coronavirus after the disease had begun to spread among the public.

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"I have repeatedly emphasized that it was on Dec. 30 that we got contact with the samples of SARS-like pneumonia or pneumonia of unknown cause sent from the hospital," Yuan said. "We have not encountered the novel coronavirus before that, and without this virus, there is no way that it is leaked from the lab."

Wang said none of the institute's scientists contracted the virus, which she said made it extremely unlikely that the pathogen could have escaped from the facility.

NBC News was not able to verify her statements on when the lab first received live samples of the virus or whether any of its scientists were sickened by it.

Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York City-based nonprofit dedicated to studying and preventing pandemics, worked with the Wuhan institute for 16 years until the U.S. government cut funding this year. He also rejected the idea that the virus could have leaked from the lab.

"The fact that they published the sequence so quickly suggests to me that they weren't trying to cover up anything," he said.

Image: Janis Mackey Frayer tours the Wuhan Institute of Virology with Dr. Yuan Zhiming, Director of Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory.
NBC News' Janis Mackey Frayer tours the Wuhan Institute of Virology with Yuan Zhiming, Director of Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory.NBC News

There is "absolutely zero evidence that it escaped from a lab," he added.

In May, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, told National Geographic that he discounted the idea that the virus had accidentally escaped from a lab.

Yuan said that regular health checks are conducted for the facility's personnel but that so far the institute has not encountered positive tests for the virus or its antibodies, which would suggest that a person had the virus at some point.

Wang and Yuan also challenged an internal State Department cable from 2018 that raised concerns by U.S. Embassy officials in China over the safety and training of staff members at the institute.

The partially redacted contents of the cable were leaked this year and were subsequently released following a freedom of information request by The Washington Post. The cable noted "a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory," but the identity of the person who raised the concerns was not revealed.

Wang disputed the conclusions. She said U.S. officials did visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but in March 2018 — about two months after the Jan. 19, 2018, cable was sent. She added that the officials did not tour any of the labs at the facility and that they did not discuss biosafety procedures.

Wang's and Yuan's comments echo those of other Chinese officials who insist that instead of being criticized, China should be praised for efforts to contain and now identify the virus. But the arguments are undermined by the Chinese government's history of exerting control over scientific data and what many critics see as the country's lack of transparency during the pandemic.

The State Department did not respond directly to Wang and Yuan’s claims that U.S. officials had not visited the lab before the January cable. A spokesperson did say the “Chinese government has yet to sufficiently share data or samples, with the international community.”

“We still don't have the answers we need about a virus that has left 700,000 dead,” they said. “For the world to have those answers, Beijing must provide open and transparent access to full information needed to allow for a complete understanding of the origins of the virus.”

Wang said the institute will "fully support" the World Health Organization, which has dispatched a team in China to interview scientists in Wuhan and develop a framework to investigate the origin of the coronavirus. She also called for more international collaboration, but China and the U.S. remain at political loggerheads — tensions that escalated in 2018 with trade disputes, then sharpened a year later over China's Xinjiang policy and the protests in Hong Kong, and were further aggravated by the pandemic.

In April, the National Institutes of Health terminated funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for a research collaboration with EcoHealth Alliance. The long-term project aimed to identify areas at risk for emerging infectious diseases and to collect and study bat samples to prevent future coronavirus outbreaks. Yuan said the institute was not given a reason for the cancellation of the grant.

The National Institutes of Health did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

A mysterious pneumonia

About eight months into a pandemic that has killed more than 720,000 people and brought the world's economy to its knees, precisely where and when the virus emerged remains a mystery.

The first unexplained cases of a pneumonia-like illness were reported to the WHO's office in Beijing on Dec. 31, and detailed information about the "viral pneumonia of unknown cause" was provided Jan. 3, according to the WHO.

Trump has accused the WHO of failing to adequately warn the world about the coronavirus outbreak, saying in May that its actions as a "puppet of China" allowed the pandemic to spiral out of control. Later that month, he announced that the U.S. would pull its funding for the agency.

The timeline of events early on in the coronavirus outbreak has come under intense scrutiny, including whether China acted quickly enough to alert the WHO of evidence that the virus was being transmitted between humans. Local authorities have been criticized for downplaying the threat to the public and being slow to impose lockdown measures in Wuhan, which went into effect Jan. 23.

Image: Dr. Li Wenliang.
Dr. Li Wenliang.

Reports also emerged that the Chinese government had suppressed information about the coronavirus, going so far as to have police punish a 34-year-old doctor named Li Wenliang after he warned about the virus in a chat group on the messaging app WeChat in late December.

Li died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, on Feb. 7. The government later conducted an investigation, took disciplinary measures against the police officers involved and posthumously hailed Li as a “martyr.”

And despite the country's experience with SARS, another type of coronavirus that emerged in China in 2003 before spreading to four other countries, Chinese authorities have been accused of not doing enough to stem the trade of exotic wildlife, which can harbor so-called zoonotic diseases that can hop from animals into humans.

‘Wet market' a focus

Early research suggests that this virus closely resembles a known coronavirus harbored in horseshoe bats, but teasing out its origin — and what intermediate animal, if any, it passed through before infecting humans — will likely be a long, complicated process.

Some of the first reported cases were traced to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, a "wet market" where outdoor stalls sell a variety of meat, seafood and live animals for consumption. Public health officials have warned that these types of live-animal markets can be hotbeds of emerging infectious diseases.

Yuan, the Wuhan institute's vice director, said scientists have not yet found a smoking gun linking the emergence of the pathogen to the market.

"So far, there is no evidence to show that the novel coronavirus jumped from animals to people in Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan," he said, adding that it is not yet clear "how it jumped from the natural or immediate hosts to humans in the early stages, from what animal and when and how the spillover happened."

The Huanan Seafood Market was shuttered Jan. 1, and although scientists with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention were reported to have gathered samples from the site, most of the data have not been made public, further fueling suspicions of Chinese motives and actions.

Image: The closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where some of the first reported cases were traced to.
The closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where some of the first reported cases were traced to. Getty Images

Scientists can glean information about a virus from its genetic material, but a pathogen's molecular makeup will not reveal everything about its source. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was involved in sequencing the coronavirus' genome, and Chinese researchers published the results Jan. 12.

The virus' genome revealed it to be a new pathogen, but there were marked similarities between this coronavirus and one from a bat sample that was collected in 2013 in Yunnan province. The genomes of the coronaviruses were found to be 96.2 percent alike, but the differences are crucial, said Shi Zhengli, a prominent bat researcher who directs the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan institute.

Based on the two sequences, it would take more than 1,100 mutations for the virus isolated in the 2013 sample to evolve into the strain of coronavirus that is spreading around the world, she said in written responses.

The WHO has maintained that the coronavirus was likely harbored in animals. And the authors of a study published in March in the journal Nature said it is "improbable" that the pathogen emerged as a result of lab-based manipulations of a related coronavirus. About a month before that paper was released, 27 public health scientists from nine countries signed a statement in the medical journal The Lancet supporting their colleagues in China and pushing back against misinformation surrounding the pandemic.

The U.S. decision this year to terminate funding for EcoHealth Alliance's bat research also sent ripples of alarm through the scientific community — a feeling Daszak, its president, said he shared.

"Cutting off our relationship with scientists on the ground, the places where these pandemics start, is absolutely the wrong thing to do," he said.

Photographs of the lab’s construction and opening — a collaboration with France — decorate one wall leading to the secure lab at the institute. The lab technicians were trained in Lyon, France, and at least two of them trained in Galveston, Texas, Yuan said.

So it is perhaps not a surprise that Yuan lamented that worsening U.S.-China relations were hurting scientific collaboration and said the world would be better off with more and not less cooperation.

"We don't want to see the tension between China and the U.S., because it is not good for the scientific development. It is not good for the progress and stability of the world," he said.

"We have learned a lot from the American scientists in terms of their scientific technology, spirit and relevant experience," he said, adding, "During this pandemic, I think we still need to believe in science, respect science and trust the scientists."

Janis Mackey Frayer and Dawn Liu reported from Wuhan, Denise Chow from New York, and Ken Dilanian, Dan DeLuce and Abigail Williams from Washington.

CORRECTION (Aug. 10, 2020, 5:11 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the source of an observation that the lab had a shortage of trained technicians and investigators. The comment appeared in a State Department cable, but because the cable was partially redacted, it is not clear whether department officials observed the shortage themselves, or whether they were told about the shortage from lab officials.