Inside the mysterious Wuhan virus lab: Rare pictures show scientists dressed like astronauts studying deadly pathogens in controversial institute
- Photos give us a glimpse of the interiors of the Wuhan Institute of Virology
- They show scientists donning full-body protective suits and head shields
- The lab has 1,500 strains of deadly pathogens and specialises in bat viruses
- Conspiracy theories claim the coronavirus could have escaped from there
- But scientists reject the allegations, stressing the virus came from animals
(dailymail)—A set of rare pictures have shown how Chinese scientists carried out studies in spacesuit-like uniforms at a virus laboratory that has sparked startling theories amid coronavirus pandemic.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which keeps more than 1,500 strains of deadly viruses, specialises in the research of ‘the most dangerous pathogens’, in particular the viruses carried by bats.
Since an outbreak of the novel coronavirus emerged in the city in December, the £34 million institute has been at the center of conspiracy theories, which suggest that the bug originated there.
While scientists believe that the virus jumped to humans from wild animals sold as food in a market in Wuhan, conspiracy theorists promote different assumptions.
Some of them claim that the virus, formally known as SARS-CoV-2, could be a biological warfare weapon engineered there. Others suspect that it escaped from the lab.
China has repeatedly denied the allegations. Shi Zhengli, a director of the institute, told the press in February that she ‘guaranteed with her own life’ that the outbreak was not related to the lab.
Many international experts have also dismissed such theories.
However, The Mail Online Sunday has revealed that the speculation of a virus leak is ‘no longer being discounted’ by the UK government.
The pandemic has killed more than 91,000 people and infected over 1.5 million worldwide.
These photos, captured in 2015 and 2017, give us a glimpse of the interiors of the controversial institute after it was completed.
Researchers are seen donning puffy full-body protective suits as well as head shields while conducting experiments.
Chinese officials decided to build the institute after the country was ravaged by an outbreak of SARS in 2002 and 2003.
SARS, another kind of coronavirus, killed 775 people and infected more than 8,000 globally in an epidemic.
Its crown jewel is a four-storey lab with the highest biosafety level of P4.
It’s the most advanced laboratory of its type in China.
Construction of the lab was finished in 2015 and it officially opened on January 5, 2018, after passing various safety inspections.
Describing the significance of the P4 lab, China Youth Online billed it as the ‘aircraft carrier of China’s virology’. The state-run newspaper said it ‘is capable of researching the deadliest pathogens’.
One researcher, Zhou Peng, specialises in bat viruses.
The then 35-year-old virologist told state news agency Xinhua in 2018: ‘We are proud to say that we are already at the forefront in the field of studying the immunity mechanism of bats, which carry viruses for a long time.
‘Bats carry viruses but are not infected [by them]. [They] provide hope for mankind to study how to fight viruses.’
A team led by director Shi discovered in 2018 that humans might be able to catch the coronavirus directly from bats after conducting studies, according to Beijing News.
There are two major virus labs in Wuhan.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology is situated about 10 miles from the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which is believed to be the starting point of the pandemic.
A second institute in the city, the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control, is barely three miles from the market.
American biosecurity expert Professor Richard Ebright, of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, New Jersey, said that while evidence suggests the virus was not created in one of the Wuhan laboratories, it could easily have escaped from there while it was being analysed.
Prof Ebright said he has seen evidence that scientists at the Centre for Disease Control and the Institute of Virology studied the viruses with only ‘level 2’ security – rather than the recommended level 4 – which ‘provides only minimal protections against infection of lab workers’.
He added: ‘Virus collection, culture, isolation, or animal infection would pose a substantial risk of infection of a lab worker, and from the lab worker then the public.’
He concluded that the evidence left ‘a basis to rule out [that coronavirus is] a lab construct, but no basis to rule out a lab accident’.
Another US experts, however, firmly rejected such allegations.
‘Bat coronaviruses resembling SARS and the new SARS-CoV-2 have been isolated by many groups of legitimate scientists, including the Wuhan lab and plenty of US investigators. This is a far cry from making and releasing the new virus,’ Dr Gerald Keusch, a Boston-based professor previously told MailOnline.
He said: ‘A conspiracy theory never cares about the truth. It just cares about creating doubt and anxiety.
‘Times of crisis are times of anxiety and it is easier to explain the appearance of an aberration like SARS-CoV-2 as the result of an act of deliberation or incompetence of a laboratory than it is to admit to the fact that nature and evolution, assisted by environmental factors and human intrusions into environmental ecosystems, results in viral evolution.’
Dr Keusch, Professor of Medicine and International Health at Boston University’s Schools of Medicine and Public Health, stressed that no release of viruses from a high-level lab, such as the one in Wuhan, ‘has ever happened’.
He defended his peers in the Chinese city as he said: ‘The Wuhan lab is designed to the highest standards with redundant safety systems and the highest level of training.
‘Many of its research faculty trained at a similar laboratory in Galveston, Texas. So we know the Wuhan team is as qualified as the Texas group…
‘This means the assertion of a leak, rather than being highly likely, instead is highly unlikely.’
Senior UK Government sources last week said that while ‘the balance of scientific advice’ is still that the deadly virus was first transmitted to humans from a live animal market in Wuhan, a leak from a laboratory in the Chinese city is ‘no longer being discounted’.
One member of Cobra, the emergency committee led by Boris Johnson, said that while the latest intelligence did not dispute the virus was ‘zoonotic’ – originating in animals – it did not rule out that the virus first spread to humans after leaking from a Wuhan laboratory, according to The Mail on Sunday.
The member of Cobra, which receives detailed classified briefings from the security services, said: ‘There is a credible alternative view [to the zoonotic theory] based on the nature of the virus. Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is that laboratory in Wuhan. It is not discounted.’