A cluster of researchers from China's secretive Wuhan laboratories fell sick with 'Covid-like' symptoms at least six weeks before the Beijing government admitted an outbreak of a new virus in their city, according to the leading US investigator looking into the start of the pandemic.
David Asher, who led State Department inquiries into Covid-19's origins, told The Mail on Sunday that three scientists are believed to have become ill with the mysterious respiratory condition in the second week of November, 2019.
'There are suspicions – for good reasons – of an initial cluster tied to Wuhan Institute of Virology in November and that people started to be hospitalised,' he said.
'Hard to conclude definitely it was Covid but it seems highly likely.'
A cluster of researchers from China's secretive Wuhan laboratories fell sick with 'Covid-like' symptoms at least six weeks before the Beijing government admitted an outbreak of a new virus in their city, according to the leading US investigator looking into the start of the pandemic
According to 'credible' information from a well-connected foreign government, the wife of one researcher died later that month, Asher added.
This is a clear sign of human transmission – yet Beijing did not confirm this crucial fact to the World Health Organisation until mid-January last year, by which time the coronavirus had spread across China and then started seeping around the planet.
'By December, if not sooner, the Chinese had to know that they had a problem on their hands with a mysterious coronavirus spreading in Wuhan,' said Asher, adding that there could also have been unidentified earlier clusters.
Does this map reveal a tantalising new clue?
Could this map from a study published in the journal Nature offer an insight into Covid's origins?
It illustrates the result of tests on almost 10 million Wuhan residents above the age of six last May – a month after lockdown was lifted in the city – and shows the number of detected asymptomatic cases.
Areas with the highest levels are in red, unsurprisingly clustered mainly in the populous city centre district beside the Yangtze river, with lower rates in orange and yellow on the opposite bank that is home to the animal market that was originally the centre of suspicion over the disease's outbreak.
Could this map from a study published in the journal Nature offer an insight into Covid's origins?
However, the map, from a paper by Chinese and British scientists, shows one isolated pocket in red with at least three times the infection levels of surrounding Jiangxia Province.
It is by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab conducting research into coronaviruses.
A vaccine expert who suspects a lab leak said it may be 'a beautiful encapsulation of what everyone is surmising as the origin'.
But others advise caution, suggesting that a major hospital nearby may also be showing high infection levels.
He said that as world experts on coronaviruses, the Chinese 'must have known' this was not normal flu.
'If they had not covered up human-to-human transmission, many millions of people around the world would not have died,' he added.
Asher, who served under Democrat and Republican presidents, has previously led US investigations into biological, chemical and nuclear proliferation in Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, as well as tracking the finances of Islamic State and drug cartel chiefs.
US 'let China eavesdrop on call to Raab'
US officials deliberately held a phone call with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab over an insecure line to allow the Chinese government to eavesdrop on their discussions about the origins of the coronavirus, Washington sources have told The Mail on Sunday.
Shortly before leaving office with President Donald Trump in January, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the call to inform Mr Raab of his plan to point the finger at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, suggesting the pandemic arose following a leak from a laboratory.
A Washington source said Mr Raab had been 'very supportive' during the phone call, which also included the foreign ministers of Australia, Canada and New Zealand – the intelligence sharing group of nations known as Five Eyes – in late December.
The source said: 'We did it on an open phone to ensure the Chinese could hear it. We were sending a message – we wanted to tell the Chinese.
'They have been prevaricating from day one, refusing to give us or you Brits any information day after day.
'So the Secretary of State, based on the frustration between the State Department and our closest allies by the end of the year, wanted to send a clear message.'
However, a UK Government source said Mr Raab had not endorsed Mr Pompeo's actions, and merely 'listened as Pompeo set out what he was planning to do'.
Two weeks later, Mr Pompeo announced that US intelligence agencies had identified workers at the WIV who had fallen ill with Covid-like symptoms in autumn 2019, weeks before the alarm was raised.
He also said that WIV scientists were working on secret military projects and experimenting with a bat coronavirus very similar to the one which causes Covid.
State Department officials, now reporting to Joe Biden, do not believe the virus leak was deliberate, rather that it was a catastrophic accident caused by poor safety procedures.
He added: 'If the Chinese do not come forward with the truth, or we do not sort out this disaster, it is one of the greatest failures in the history of human society.
'They were engaged in a shocking range of dangerous experiments into highly pathogenic, man-made versions of Covid-like viruses in Wuhan.
'A lab leak is not 100 per cent certain but it seems at this stage the only logical source of origin.
'If there was an accident, it doesn't mean you end relations with China but we must understand the nature of their society that let this happen, and impose new controls on bio-technology since we have seen how dangerous it can be to the world.'
Asher's comments fuel fears that China may be covering up a lab accident, amid growing calls for this suggestion to be taken seriously.
Initially, many top scientists dismissed the idea as a 'conspiracy theory,' pointing to some kind of natural transmission from animals.
But Robert Redfield, a virologist and director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until earlier this year, tells a 60 Minutes documentary to be broadcast in the US tonight he believes the most likely origin 'was from a laboratory escape' in autumn 2019.
'It's not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect the laboratory worker,' he said.
He believes suggestions of natural transmission for such a well-adapted disease make little biological sense.
'I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human and at that moment in time the virus … became one of the most infectious viruses we know for human-to-human transmission.'
Wuhan is home to several important labs, including China's only research centre with top-level biosecurity, where experts carried out risky experiments on bat coronaviruses that critics long feared might spark a pandemic.
Asher also pointed to work at the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, an adjacent lab run jointly by Wuhan Institute of Virology with Sinopharm, a state-owned firm thought to have been investigating a vaccine to combat all coronaviruses.
Intriguingly, Sinopharm chief executive Yu Qingming disclosed in an interview how China approved 'conditional sales' of his firm's vaccine on February 25 last year, with senior managers given the jab in March.
Asher's intervention follows a US State Department bulletin earlier this year that said in autumn 2019 'several' Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers had 'symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses'.
The document also accused the centre of carrying out 'secret military activity' and clandestine research, including animal experiments, on behalf of the People's Liberation Army 'since at least 2017'.
David Asher, who led State Department inquiries into Covid-19's origins, told The Mail on Sunday that three scientists are believed to have become ill with the mysterious respiratory condition in the second week of November, 2019
Washington sources indicate that the Biden administration, like the UK government, is less convinced by the lab leak hypothesis than the Trump administration, although both nations are dismayed by the WHO's inquiry into the pandemic's origins, which has ceded much control to Beijing.
G7's rival to Beijing's Belt and Road
Boris Johnson has pledged to combat China's economic expansionism by setting up a rival to Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative – a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organisations.
The Prime Minister addressed five MPs and members of the House of Lords hit by sanctions from Beijing – including former party leader Iain Duncan Smith – telling them that he was planning to commit 'hundreds of millions of pounds' alongside other G7 countries.
Hosting the parliamentarians, all members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, in the No 10 garden, he said: 'China has been buying up great chunks of the world, and indebting countries across Africa. We need to give the developing world a choice between their system and ours.'
Veteran US diplomat Henry Kissinger has said the US will have to reach a mutual understanding with China on a new global order to ensure stability or the world will face serious unresolved tensions in future.
Kissinger, 97, speaking at a Chatham House event in London via Zoom, said: 'If we don't get to an understanding with China . . . then we will be in a pre-World War I-type situation in Europe, in which there are perennial conflicts that get solved on an immediate basis but one of them gets out of control at some point. It is infinitely more dangerous now than it was then'.
Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, a member of the WHO team, admitted China had told them that 'one or two' researchers working in Wuhan and studying coronaviruses had become sick in the autumn – but then insisted this was normal. She denied this pointed to a lab leak, since Chinese officials told them that the scientists later tested negative for Covid-19.
Beijing, which is pushing unproven theories that the virus might have been imported on frozen food, claims the first confirmed case in Wuhan was on December 8, 2019.
Liang Wannian, head of the official expert Covid panel, said there was no evidence of the virus in Wuhan before that month.
Yet The Mail on Sunday has obtained a Chinese medical journal report, based on an interview with the scientist compiling official data on cases, which signals much earlier cases.
Professor Yu Chuanhua, professor of biostatistics at Wuhan University, told Health Times there were 47,000 cases on his database by late February.
These included one suspected, but untested, fatality of a patient who fell ill on September 29, followed by two cases on November 14 and 21.
The interview took place on the day Chinese health authorities issued a silencing gag.
The professor subsequently rang the journalist to retract this information, claiming the dates had been entered incorrectly.
It is understood from US sources that the November 14 case closely matches the timing of the suspected death of the Wuhan researcher's wife.
Asher declined to comment on any classified information.
An authoritative report in the South China Morning Post last March said that there were nine cases by the end of November, involving four men and five women aged between 39 and 79, with the first patient diagnosed on November 17.
This would imply about 50 people were already infected, mostly asymptomatic but with the symptomatic cases involving older people.
Yet the WHO was not alerted until December 31 by alarmed Taiwanese officials.
An analysis by modelling experts at Southampton University suggested China could have cut cases by 95 per cent if action to contain the disease had been taken three weeks earlier – instead of pressing ahead with New Year festivities.
Another study by US researchers, which says the first case emerged in Hubei province between mid-October and mid-November 2019, concluded that such pandemics 'permit only a narrow window for pre-emptive intervention'.
Asher's comments fuel fears that China may be covering up a lab accident, amid growing calls for this suggestion to be taken seriously. Pictured: The Wuhan Institute of Virology