The Wuhan Institute of Virology was studying coronaviruses found in bats from Laos in the months before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, providing fuel for the theory that Sars-Cov-2 escaped from a lab.
US government documents, released under Freedom of Information, suggest the bat origin and the lab escape stories might not be competing theories after all – in fact, they may both be true.
In September, scientists discovered Banal-52, a coronavirus found in Lao bats, which shares 96.8 percent of its genome with Sars-Cov-2.
The striking similarity between the two coronaviruses led scientists to speculate that the Lao bat strain could have somehow given rise to Sars-Cov-2.
But there was one glaring problem: how could a virus originating in bats living in Laos spark an outbreak in Wuhan over 1000 miles away?
That puzzle might now have been solved, as leaked emails between EcoHealth Alliance and US government funders reveal viral samples from Lao bats were being collected and sent for study in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Viral DNA from ‘bats and other high-risk species’ were sent to Wuhan between June 2017 to May 2019. according to the emails, uncovered by a Freedom of Information request made by White Coat Waste Project, a US-based campaign group.
As well as working in Laos, EcoHealth Alliance were investigating cave bat viruses in Yunnan, China, and sending the samples off to scientists in Wuhan for further study.
The Chinese government has prevented researchers from entering the mineshaft in Yunnan where RaTG13 was found in a horseshoe bat (pictured)
The virus RaTG13, also strikingly similar genetically to Sars-Cov-2, was found in a horseshoe bat in a mineshaft in Yunnan.
Records of the genetic sequences collected from both Yunnan and Laos were removed from an online database at the Wuhan institute in September 2019, leaving experts in the dark about the strains that had been studied there.