Three researchers working at a Wuhan virology lab went to the hospital with Covid-like symptoms weeks before the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in China on December 8, according to newly disclosed U.S. intelligence obtained and reported by the Wall Street Journal on Sunday—corroborating previous State Department findings and casting further doubts on the longstanding assertion that Covid-19 did not escape from a lab.
The State Department previously reported that U.S. officials have “reason to believe” several researchers inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology faced “symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses” last fall, but it didn’t specify that the researchers were hospitalized or the exact timing of their illnesses.
Unnamed officials familiar with the intelligence reportedly gave the Wall Street Journal varying accounts of the new information’s veracity, with one person saying it needed further investigation while another described it as “very precise.”
“The U.S. continues to hype the lab leak theory,” China’s Foreign Ministry, which did not immediately respond to Forbes’ request for comment, said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal.
In its statement, the Foreign Ministry pointed to March findings from the World Health Organization saying it was “extremely unlikely” that Covid-19 originated from a lab leak and that it was instead more likely the virus spread from bats to humans.
However, after the report was released, WHO head Tedros Ghebreyesus called for a deeper investigation on the matter, saying the probe didn’t adequately assess the possibility of a lab leak.
Many scientists last year initially dismissed claims that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan lab, but the theory quickly became a hot-button issue among conservative lawmakers casting blame onto China for the pandemic. However, as widespread vaccination helps the U.S. turn a corner on the virus, a growing number of domestic officials—from both sides of the aisle—are once again calling for investigations into the origins of Covid-19. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned China last month for its lack of transparency during the pandemic’s early days, saying the country failed to give international health experts real-time access to information about the virus’ spread and urging the country to help put in place a stronger global health security system to revisit the pandemic’s origins.
Though the virus was first confirmed in December 2019, WHO researchers have since identified more than 90 potential Covid-19 cases dating as far back as October of that year.
Asked earlier this month whether he was confident Covid-19 developed naturally, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s top infectious disease experts, responded: “No actually… I am not convinced about that. 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… Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out.”
Yuan Zhiming, the director of the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, told Chinese state media the report was “a complete lie” on Monday. Yuan said he did not know where the information in the report had come from and called the claims about the lab “groundless.”