Scientists linked to COVID probe studied live bats in Australia
Two Chinese scientists - who western intelligence agencies are looking into as part of their probe into the origins of the global coronavirus contagion - studied live bats in Australia in research jointly funded by the Australian and Chinese governments.
An investigation by The Daily Telegraph can reveal the Five Eyes intelligence agencies of Australia, Canada, NZ, UK and US, are understood to be looking closely at the work of a senior scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Peng Zhou, as they examine whether COVID-19 originated from a wet market or whether the naturally-occurring virus may have been released from the level four laboratory in Wuhan that was studying deadly coronavirus pathogens from bats.
The revelation comes as Australian politicians ramp up pressure on China to co-operate with an international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Andrew Hastie said: "The Chinese Communist Party must take responsibility for the virus that began inside their borders and work with the rest of the world to prevent it from happening again. We are simply asking for transparency and co-operation."
The Australian government's position is the virus most likely originated from the Wuhan wet markets but it is possible it was accidentally released from a laboratory.
It can be revealed that Zhou - the head of the Bat Virus Infection and Immunity Project at the Wuhan Institute of Virology - spent three years at the bio-containment facility, Australian Animal Health Laboratory between 2011 and 2014, where he was sent by China to complete his doctorate.
During this time, Zhou arranged for wild-caught bats to be transported alive by air from Queensland to the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Victoria where they were euthanised for dissection and studied for deadly viruses.
His work was funded jointly by the CSIRO and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
It examined bat immunology and the role of interferons and how "bats are rich reservoirs for emerging viruses, including many that are highly pathogenic to humans and other mammals" and "many of which cause significant morbidity and mortality in humans and other mammals."
The research is designed to prevent the next pandemic by understanding how viruses can be transmitted from bats to humans to cause coronaviruses.
But the work is considered highly-risky and there have been fears in recent years that any inadvertent leak could cause a worldwide pandemic.
The other scientist being looked at is Shi Zhengli, who is the director of the Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Zhengli also spent time in Australia as a visiting scientist for three months from February 22 to May 21, 2006 where she worked at the CSIRO's top-level Australian Animal Health Laboratory.
She used faecal samples of horseshoe bats to identify that they were the natural host for SARS-like coronaviruses.
When the COVID-19 outbreak occurred in Wuhan, Zhengli said she had sleepless nights worrying whether it was released from her laboratory - but has since strongly denied this occurred.
The Daily Telegraph does not suggest the two scientists are responsible for the outbreak or spread of COVID-19, but merely that they have come to the attention of intelligence agencies.
On November 18 last year, shortly before the outbreak, Zhou posted a postdoctoral recruitment notice looking for one or two candidates to study the "unique mechanism of innate immunity in bats."
In it, according to a translation done by The Daily Telegraph, Zhou offered the opportunity for "academic exchanges and research at home and abroad".
The CSIRO and the Australian Animal Health Laboratory have collaborated with China in numerous jointly-funded research projects into bat diseases, with scientists travelling back and forth between the two laboratories.
WARNINGS ON LAB
The research into bats and coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been considered high-risk amid concerns about the practices at the laboratory.
A ''Sensitive but Unclassified'' cable, dated January 19, 2018, obtained by The Washington Post, revealed that US embassy scientists and diplomats in Beijing visited the laboratory and met with Zhengli.
They sent warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety practices and management weaknesses as it conducted research on coronaviruses from bats. According to the Post, the cable "warns that the lab's work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic".
"During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory," the cable stated.
A CSIRO spokesman said it had partnered with China in "excellent research and development for over 40 years".
"While there is no current research on bats at ACDP, the suggestion bat research is dangerous without context … is misleading and irresponsible," he said. "Research into bats underpins much of our understanding of zoonotic diseases. CSIRO undertakes due diligence and takes security very seriously."
An ASIO spokesperson said: "Consistent with long-standing practice, ASIO does not provide comment on individuals or operational matters."
PROBE MUST OCCUR
The US Ambassador to Australia, Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr. told The Daily Telegraph the origins of the outbreak need to be investigated, adding that the phone call between Donald Trump and Scott Morrison on April 22 showed there is "no daylight" between the US and Australia's position on a probe.
"I commend Foreign Minister (Marise) Payne and her call for a hard, dispassionate look at the origins of the epidemic," he said. "This isn't about pointing fingers. It is about what could have been done better to prevent the disease, communicate its existence and prevent it from becoming a global pandemic.
"Sadly, this won't be the last novel virus the world faces. To do better in the future, we will need to fully understand what happened in the past. I fully support (the) calls for transparency and accountability from (Australia).''
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne has said there should be an investigation into the outbreak.
Australian politicians are leading the calls to find out what happened.
Victorian Senator James Paterson said he expects there will be an independent international investigation.
"The only question is whether the Chinese Communist Party co-operates with it or not," he said.
"There is no valid reason why they shouldn't. But if they don't, they will be harshly judged for it by the entire international community."
Liberal MP and former Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma said both the origins and handling of the outbreak need to be investigated.
"I think it's much more likely it has come from a wet market, but there's a conceivable chance it came from a virology lab," he said.
"There is going to have to be an independent investigation that's done in a way that's neutral but credible.
"I envisage something like a world-eminent person's panel, like the former prime minister of Spain and former head of the WHO and maybe Kofi Annan for good measure.
"It should be not a score settling exercise but as part of that there would be inevitably be findings of fault and I suspect several of those will land at China's feet."
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week said the origins of COVID-19 were being investigated.
"What we do know is we know this virus originated in Wuhan, China. We know that there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology just a handful of miles away from where the wet market was, there's still lots to learn," he said.
"You should know that the US Government is working diligently to figure this out. We really need the Chinese govt to open up. They say they want to co-operate. One of the best ways they could find to co-operate would be to let the world in, to let the world's scientists know exactly how this came to be, exactly how this virus began to spread."
The Chinese Government claims the virus outbreak occurred at the wet market and has shutdown any attempts to investigate its origins.
Additional reporting: Gabrielle Stricker-Phelps.
Additional reporting: Gabrielle Stricker-Phelps
Originally published as Scientists linked to COVID probe studied live bats in Australia