Chinese researchers may have begun developing two Covid vaccines in November 2019, before the official start of the outbreak, a US senate report has claimed.
The claims come in a 300-page document, which concluded that the pandemic most likely came from a lab leak and was the result of a “research-related incident” in Wuhan.
It said the theory that Covid-19 jumped from animals to humans in a market no longer deserved the “presumption of accuracy”.
The report argued that Chinese researchers appeared to begin development of at least two Covid vaccines at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in November 2019, meaning “SARS-CoV-2 would have been present at the WIV before the known outbreak of the pandemic”.
The claims give further credence to the lab leak theory and support accusations that China covered up early cases of the outbreak.
The 300-page report, released to Axios, was the full version of a 35-page summary published in October by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
It said: “The Covid-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.
“New information, made publicly available and independently verifiable, could change this assessment.
“However, the hypothesis of a natural zoonotic origin no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt, or the presumption of accuracy.”
The report suggested that advocates of the natural transmission theory “must provide clear and convincing evidence” for their argument.
It concluded: “The preponderance of information affirms the plausibility of a research-related incident that was likely unintentional resulting from failures of biosafety containment during vaccine-related research.”
No evidence proving a natural spillover
Scientists, and US intelligence, have been divided over whether the pandemic originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology [WIV], which had been collecting and manipulating bat viruses, or from a natural spillover at a Wuhan market selling live animals.
The report said there were “anomalies” between Covid-19 and other diseases that have spilled over naturally from animals to humans.
And it said, three years on, no critical evidence had been found proving there was a natural spillover.
It added that there had not been spillovers of the virus in numerous places at numerous times, as might be expected if that was the cause.
The report also noted that the type of bats carrying the closest virus to Covid-19 lived over 1,000 miles away from Wuhan.
However, the lab had collected over 200 coronaviruses, and employees had been photographed handling bats with inadequate protective gear, the report said.
Scientists there had been involved in research aimed at preventing future pandemics, and had sought funding to engineer coronaviruses, it said.
The report said: “A research-related incident is consistent with the early epidemiology [of Covid-19] showing rapid spread of the virus in Wuhan, with the earliest calls for assistance being located near the WIV’s original campus in central Wuhan.
“In short, human errors, mechanical failure, animal bites, animal escapes, inadequate training, insufficient funding, and pressure for results can lead to an escape of virulent pathogens, which could, in turn, infect animals and humans and lead to a release of a virus from a lab.”
No definitive conclusion
However, the report did not offer a “definitive” conclusion on the origin of the pandemic.
It said: “More information is needed to arrive at a more precise, if not a definitive, understanding of the origins…and how the Covid-19 pandemic began.
“Governments, leaders, public health officials, and scientists involved in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic and working to prevent future pandemics, must commit to greater transparency, engagement, and responsibility in their efforts.”
Last month, Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, said Covid “most likely” leaked from the Wuhan lab.
Mr Wray said: “The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan.”
The US Department of Energy has also concluded that a lab leak was the most likely cause, although with “low confidence”.
The energy department oversees a network of 17 US laboratories researching advanced biology.
Meanwhile, the CIA reportedly remains undecided between the lab leak and natural transmission theories.
Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, said last month there was not a “definitive answer” yet.
He said: “Some elements of the intelligence community have reached conclusions on one side, some on the other, and a number have said they just don’t have enough information to be sure.”