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China rejects claim of illness at Wuhan lab in late 2019

China on Monday dismissed as “totally untrue” reports that three researchers in Wuhan went to hospital with an illness shortly before the coronavirus emerged in the city and spread around the globe.

Since infecting its first victims in the central Chinese city in late 2019, the pathogen has afflicted almost every country in the world, killing more than 3.4 million people and pummelling national economies.

Beijing has always fiercely fought the theory that it could have escaped from one of its laboratories.

Citing a US intelligence report, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that the trio from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were affected as early as November 2019, suffering from “symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness”.

China disclosed the existence of an outbreak of pneumonia cases in Wuhan to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019.

Asked about the reports on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described them as “totally untrue”.

He told reporters that, according to a statement from the institute, it “had not been exposed to Covid-19 before December 30, 2019, and a “zero-infection” record is kept among its staff and graduate students so far”.

The coronavirus was, however, taken to the lab for study, according to Chinese authorities.

The theory that the killer virus leaked from a Chinese lab was fuelled by, among others, the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

But in March, after a four-week stay in Wuhan, a joint study by the WHO and Chinese experts deemed such an explanation “extremely unlikely”.

Experts favour the generally accepted theory of the natural transmission of the virus from an animal — probably a bat — to humans, through another animal that has not yet been identified.

Some believe, however, that WHO specialists did not have enough space to work freely during their investigation in Wuhan.

US report concluded COVID-19 may have leaked from Wuhan lab: WSJ

A report on the origins of COVID-19 by a U.S. government national laboratory concluded that the hypothesis claiming the virus leaked from a Chinese lab in Wuhan is plausible and deserves further investigation, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday, citing people familiar with the classified document.

The study was prepared in May 2020 by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and was referred by the State Department when it conducted an inquiry into the pandemic’s origins during the final months of the Trump administration, the report said.

Lawrence Livermore’s assessment drew on genomic analysis of the COVID-19 virus, the Journal said.

Lawrence Livermore declined to comment on the Wall Street Journal report.

President Joe Biden said last month he had ordered aides to find answers to the origin of the virus.

U.S. intelligence agencies are considering two likely scenarios – that the virus resulted from a laboratory accident or that it emerged from human contact with an infected animal – but they have not come to a conclusion, he said.

A still-classified U.S. intelligence report circulated during former President Donald Trump‘s administration alleged that three researchers at China‘s Wuhan Institute of Virology became so ill in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, U.S. government sources said.

U.S. officials have accused China of a lack of transparency on the virus’ origin, a charge Beijing has denied.

In Video: Covid-19 may have leaked from Wuhan lab: US study

Chinese researchers removed key Covid-19 gene data from NIH database

The US National Institutes of Health has deleted gene sequences of early Covid-19 cases from a key scientific database at the request of Chinese researchers, claimed a Seattle-based virologist.

Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, described the removal of the sequencing data in a new paper posted online on bioRxiv on Tuesday.

The paper, which hasn’t been peer reviewed, flags concerns that lack of the key gene sequences may dent the current probe into the origin of the pandemic by scientists.

The paper claims that Chinese researchers took virus samples from some of the earliest Covid patients in Wuhan in January and February of 2020, then posted the viral sequences to a widely used US database. After three months the genetic information was removed to “obscure their existence”, an editorial in the journal Science reported on Wednesday.

“Here I identify a data set containing SARS-CoV-2 sequences from early in the Wuhan epidemic that has been deleted from the NIH’s Sequence,” Bloom posted on bioRxiv.

“I recover the deleted files from the Google Cloud, and reconstruct partial sequences of 13 early epidemic viruses. Phylogenetic analysis of these sequences in the context of carefully annotated existing data suggests that the Huanan Seafood Market sequences that are the focus of the joint WHO-China report are not fully representative of the viruses in Wuhan early in the epidemic.

“Instead, the progenitor of known SARS-CoV-2 sequences likely contained three mutations relative to the market viruses that made it more similar to SARS-CoV-2’s bat coronavirus relatives,” Bloom wrote.

Meanwhile the US NIH has confirmed that it deleted the sequences after receiving a request from a Chinese researcher who had submitted them three months earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

“Submitting investigators hold the rights to their data and can request withdrawal of the data,” the NIH said in a statement.

The scientist “indicated the sequence information had been updated, was being submitted to another database, and wanted the data removed from SRA to avoid version control issues,” NIH said.

Bloom said he started his research into the origins of the pandemic, after a team led by the World Health Organization submitted its report early in March this year. It was heavily criticised by many scientists who deemed it “extremely unlikely” that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a laboratory.A

Bloom’s search led him to a study which listed all SARS-CoV-2 sequences submitted before March 31, 2020, to the Sequence Read Archive (SRA) — a database overseen by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a pision of NIH. But when he checked SRA for one of the listed projects, he couldn’t find its sequences, the Science report said.

Further research led him to another study by Ming Wang from Wuhan University’s Renmin Hospital, China, which was published in a journal Small. While the paper lists some of the earliest Wuhan Covid patients and the specific mutations in their viruses, it doesn’t give the full sequence data.

Additional internet sleuthing led Bloom to discover that SRA backs up its information in Google’s Cloud platform, and a search there turned up files containing some of Wang’s team earlier data submissions.

The paper in Small makes no mention of any corrections to viral sequences which might explain why they were removed from SRA, which led Bloom to conclude in his preprint that “the trusting structures of science have been abused to obscure sequences relevant to the early spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan”, the report said.

US to charge ex-Boeing pilot over 737 MAX crashes

New York: Federal prosecutors are preparing to indict a former Boeing test pilot suspected of misleading aviation regulators over the safety issues blamed for two fatal 737 MAX crashes, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

Mark Forkner was the lead contact between the aviation giant and the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration over how pilots should be trained to fly the planes, the Journal said.

According to documents published in early 2020, Forkner withheld details about the planes’ faulty flight handling system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS — later blamed for both crashes — from regulators.

The 737 MAX was formally certified in March 2017, but was grounded worldwide for 20 months following two crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 that killed 346 people.

The MAX was allowed to fly again at the end of 2020, once the MCAS software was modified.

Boeing has acknowledged its responsibility in misleading regulators and agreed to pay more than $2.5 billion to settle certain lawsuits.