China should have created a Covid vaccine years before the pandemic started, a leading infectious disease expert has claimed.
Researchers in Wuhan, the city where the outbreak began, had samples of a very similar coronavirus called RaTG13, which sickened a group of miners in 2012.
Virologist Professor Gustavo Palacios said this effectively meant an opportunity to protect the world from Covid had gone to waste.
Speaking at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on how to combat pathogens which pose a risk to the world, he said: ‘Information collected before the pandemic wasn’t used to control Covid.’
RaTG13 ‘could have been very well used’ to experiment on how to make a vaccine against similar coronaviruses, he added.
Experts say Chinese researchers could have made a Covid vaccine early using a very similar virus held within the walls of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Security personnel keep watch outside the WIV during a visit by the WHO in 2021
Virologist Shi Zheng-li – nicknamed the ‘Bat Lady’ – is pictured in the lab. She hunted down dozens of deadly Covid-like viruses in bat caves and studied them at the WIV
Virologist, Professor Gustavo Palacios, said the fact that scientists at Wuhan had access to a virus called RaTG13, which is very similar to Covid, meant they could have developed an earlier vaccine
Such tests would ‘probably’ have led to a vaccine that, Professor Palacios claimed, ‘would have been grossly protective against Covid’.
‘We knew a plague of viruses was there and circulating,’ he added, according to the Daily Telegraph.
‘We didn’t take any action to use that information to prepare but the information was there.’
Professor Palacios, an expert in infectious disease from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, was speaking at the Pathogen Project conference.
Vaccines weren’t rolled out in the Western world until December 2020, nine months after the the pandemic was officially declared.
Although this was a record feat in scientific terms, the wait saw millions ultimately die from a lack of an effective way to protect them from a hugely-infectious virus.
RaTG13 is a 96.2 per cent match for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid — making it the closest genetic relative.
It was found in samples collected from the surrounds of an abandoned copper mine near the town of Tonggua, in the southwest of China, in 2013.
Samples were collected after miners who had been tasked to clear bat faeces from the cave became ill with a severe respiratory disease, one of whom died. They were kept at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, suspected to have carried out controversial gain-of-function studies on similar pathogens in the run-up to the pandemic.
Critics of the technique warn it poses a massive risk to humans, if the pathogens ever escape.
RaTG13’s existence at the secretive site is one reason why scientists have questioned Beijing’s official version of events and suggested Covid could have leaked from the lab and into society.
China has itself repeatedly insisted the pandemic started naturally, pointing to a nearby wet market, where live animals are bought and sold, as the potential source.
Professor Palacios’ comments come after an explosive US Senate report suggested that Chinese researchers started working on a Covid jab in mid-November 2019.
This is over a month before Beijing officially alerted the World Health Organization to a mysterious flu-like outbreak in Wuhan.
It adds to the huge pile of evidence that suggests President Xi Jinping’s communist regime attempted to cover up the early stages of the pandemic.
Other Covid origin theories point to Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan (pictured) as being the epicentre of the outbreak. Many of the earliest cases in December 2019 and January 2020 had visited the site, where live animals were sold
The question of whether the global outbreak began with a spillover from wildlife sold at the market or leaked out of the Wuhan lab just eight miles across the Yangtze River has given rise to fierce debate. Some studies point to a natural spillover at the Huanan wildlife market. Positive swab samples of floors, cages and counters also track the virus back to stalls in the southwestern corner of the market (bottom left), where animals with the potential to harbour Covid were sold for meat or fur at the time (bottom right)
The report also concludes the pandemic most likely came from a lab leak, and was the result of a ‘research-related incident’ in Wuhan.
It even suggests there may have been two unintentional spill-over events just weeks apart.
The document, which was released to US news website Axios, is the full version of a 35-page summary published in October by the Senate Health, Education, Labour and Pensions Committee.
One section of the report focuses on China’s vaccine development.
Investigations by the committee show a team led by Professor Yusen Zhou, from the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, filed a patent for a Covid-19 vaccine on February 24, 2020.
Experts interviewed by the investigators said it would have taken at least two to three months to reach this stage – suggesting work must have started in November 2019, one month before China publicly released details on the virus.
Consensus over how the pandemic began three years ago in Wuhan has slowly started to shift.
While the majority of virologists say the virus had natural origins, a growing number believe it could have been a lab leak from the WIV.
At first, the overwhelming opinion — shared by the world’s leading experts — was that Covid crossed naturally from animals infected with a bat coronavirus.
China’s secrecy — in not providing vital access to scientists probing the origins and accusations of covering up evidence from the early days of the pandemic by wiping key databases — has only fuelled alternative theories.
The truth on how Covid emerged will likely never be known, however.
Earlier this month Dr George Fu Gao, a top Chinese scientist said the true source of Covid may never be revealed because research into the origins of the virus has become ‘too sensitive and politicised’.
DID COVID LEAK FROM A WUHAN LAB? THE EVIDENCE FOR AND AGAINST
Evidence for Wuhan lab-leak theory
An article in the respected Science journal on May 14 2021 kick-started the surge in interest for the lab-leak theory.
Some 18 experts wrote in the journal that ‘we must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data’.
Later that month, a study by British Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr Birger Sørensen claimed it had ‘prima facie evidence of retro-engineering in China’ for a year.
The study included accusations of ‘deliberate destruction, concealment or contamination of data’ at Chinese labs.
It followed statements from the WHO Director General, US and EU that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve.
Previously, the theory had been dismissed as conspiracy by most experts, partly because of its association with President Donald Trump.
President Joe Biden in May 2021 ordered a full investigation into the origin of the pandemic virus and demanded scientists work out whether there is truth to the theory.
In December 2021, Harvard scientist Dr Alina Chan told the UK’s Science and Technology Select Committee that it is ‘reasonable’ to believe that Covid was genetically engineered in China.
She also said that the Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up of the initial outbreak in Wuhan two years ago and attempts to sabotage the World Health Organisation’s inquiry into the origins of the pandemic made the lab-leak theory likely.
The head of the World Health Organization insisted just a day earlier that the theory that Covid emerged from a Wuhan lab has not been ruled out — as he said China should help solve the mystery out of ‘respect’ for the dead.
The body’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, suggested that Beijing had not cooperated fully as he urged more ‘transparency’ in the continuing investigation.
And a senior Government source claimed in June 2022 that the WHO boss privately believes the pandemic kicked off following a leak from a Chinese lab.
In September 2022, leading medical journal the Lancet admitted the virus may have been leaked from a lab, including those in the US.
Evidence against the theory
Most of the scientific community say the virus is most likely of natural origin.
A series of papers point to the virus evolving in animals before being transmitted to humans, in the same way as all other previously discovered coronaviruses.
The first study, published in Scientific Reports, showed some 47,000 wild animals from 38 species were sold across four markets in Wuhan between May 2017 and November 2019.
The authors, including Dr Chris Newman, an evolutionary ecologist at Oxford University, claimed the evidence showed the conditions for animal-to-human transmission were in place in Wuhan.
But they acknowledged there was no proof Sars-CoV-2 was present or originated in any of these animals.
A joint World Health Organization-China investigation also concluded it was ‘very likely’ the virus jumped from bats to humans via an as-yet-unknown intermediary animal.
And a June 2022 report by the WHO sets out that Covid most likely originated in bats before infecting humans.