A Chinese general with a long record in biological warfare defense was dispatched to Wuhan at the end of January, fueling suspicions about the origin of the deadly virus and whether the outbreak is linked to a secure medical laboratory engaged in COVID-19 research.
People’s Liberation Army Maj. Gen. Chen Wei joined the effort to contain the outbreak in Wuhan, the state-run Pengbai news outlet reported Jan. 31, describing the general as “our nation’s ultimate expert” in biological and chemical weapon defenses.
Gen. Chen was credited with working on the fight against the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, and the Ebola virus outbreak a decade later. According to the Pengbai report, Gen. Chen also is the leader of a team of experts at China’s Biological Hazards Prevention and Control Program.
The expanded role for China’s military in the epidemic fight comes as Chinese authorities drag their feet on repeated appeals from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allow a full team on international experts to travel to Wuhan to study the virus and the efforts to contain it.
Gen. Chen joined the PLA in 1988 and obtained a doctorate from the Institute of Military Medical Science. She is a member of the National People’s Congress and is also a member of the executive committee of the All-China Women’s League. The PLA officer set up a mobile testing lab in a tent in Wuhan and began operations on the Feb. 7.
“Using indigenously developed test kits and aided by the all-automatic nucleic acid extraction technology, they greatly shortened the nucleic acid detection time and sped up diagnosis,” the posting on news portal Douban reported.
A second report on Chinese social media Feb. 7 revealed that Gen. Chen is a researcher at the Academy of Military Science and has been “working on the front line in combating the virus outbreak in Wuhan.”
The assignment comes as China continues to block teams from the WHO and CDC from traveling to China to join the campaign against the new flu strain.
The Trump administration says it has been asking since the beginning of January to allow American experts to visit the affected areas as part of international efforts to control the disease’s spread. In addition to the CDC, Kelvin Droegemeier, director the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said he wants the National Academy of Sciences to study the origin of the virus.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II confirmed again Friday that CDC experts are still waiting for clearance from Beijing, despite earlier assurances from the Chinese government that a team of CDC specialists would be allowed to travel there as part of a WHO investigation team. An three-person advance team from WHO is in China.
“Obviously, we are quite eager for the Chinese to accept the offer of the World Health Organization and the United States to assist their scientists in this endeavor,” Mr. Azar told NPR.
The lack of access to Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province is raising fresh questions about the Chinese government’s lack of transparency regarding the origins of the Wuhan virus outbreak.
Dr. Droegemeier, the OSTP director, said an investigation into the origin of the virus is needed to deal with the current outbreak and others in the future.
He noted the recent withdrawal of a disputed medical paper by Indian experts that said COVID-19 included “insertions” of virus elements that indicated the manipulation in a laboratory and were not the result of naturally occurring mutations.
The paper argued that four inserts in the virus are similar to components of HIV “and are not present in other coronaviruses.” The paper, published as a pre-publication version, was titled “Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag.”
Other experts disputed the paper and said it is not possible that HIV elements could be injected into the Wuhan virus.
“These questions are important not only for this current situation, but to inform future outbreak preparation and better understand animal/human and environmental transmission aspects of coronaviruses,” Dr. Droegemeier said in a letter to the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Despite the mystery surrounding the origin of the new coronavirus, several U.S. and international news outlets, quoting medical experts, have dismissed all suggestions of a man-made origin of the virus as a “conspiracy theory.” But some experts say the possibility that the virus may have escaped from a Wuhan’s secure biological research laboratory cannot be ruled out.
China’s sole secure facility equipped for studying deadly coronaviruses, the National Biosafety Laboratory is part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of two laboratories known to be working on biological warfare applications.
Dany Shoham, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who has studied the Chinese biological warfare program, said the Wuhan Institute of Virology is linked to the program and has studied anthrax, a known biological warfare agent that is not linked to viruses.
The laboratory has been silent since the outbreak, which was known to Chinese authorities since Dec. 1 when the first patient with symptoms was identified but which Beijing delayed publicly acknowledging until late January.
The delay in sounding the alarm on the disease resulted in some 5 million people leaving Wuhan, a city of 11 million, many carrying the virus during travel for the Lunar New Year holiday.
China’s government has not stated how it believes the virus began. A Chinese government official has said initial indications are that the virus originated from a wild animal market in Wuhan.
But a Chinese government-funded study published in the British medical journal The Lancet stated that the first person to contract the disease caused by the virus had no link to the Wuhan seafood market. The market was closed on Jan. 1 — weeks after the first patient was identified.
The CDC also stated on its website that the origin of the virus is not known. The center added: “The complete clinical picture with regard to 2019-nCoV is not fully understood. Reported illnesses have ranged from mild to severe, including resulting in death.”
China’s tightly controlled state media have rejected reports that the virus was produced in a laboratory.