The Chinese government has come under fresh scrutiny over accusations that officials scrubbed crucial online data about the Wuhan Institute of Virology - the controversial laboratory suspected of being the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Daily Mail, "hundreds of pages of information" spanning over 300 studies conducted by WIV have been wiped from a database, including some which discuss passing diseases from animals to humans - which were published online by the state-run National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), and are no longer available.
The deletion of key evidence has reignited fears that China is trying to whitewash the investigation into the origins of the virus.
It comes after President Xi Jinping last week blocked investigators from the World Health Organisation entering the country in a move that drew international condemnation. Meanwhile, state media outlets have published hundreds of stories claiming that the virus did not even originate in the city of Wuhan.
As part of the NSFC’s purge of online studies, it has deleted all reference to those carried out by Shi Zhengli, the Wuhan-based virologist who has earned the nickname Batwoman for her trips to gather samples in bat caves.
Studies key to any investigation into the source of the virus, including one into the risk of cross-species infection from bats with Sars-like coronaviruses, and another looking at human pathogens carried by bats, have also disappeared. -Daily Mail
Zhengli came under fire in 2015 over her controversial 'gain-of-function' research creating chimeric bat viruses designed to infect humans (but suggesting that an emergent coronavirus that's over 96% similar to a bat coronavirus could have escaped from Zhengli's lab is a conspiracy theory).
According to former UK Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith - a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, the revelations are yet another example of a Chinese coverup.
"China is clearly trying to hide the evidence," he said, adding "It is vital that there is a thorough investigation into what happened but China seems to be doing all it can to stop that happening. We don’t know what was going on in that laboratory. It may well be the case that they played around with bat coronaviruses and made some kind of mistake. Unless China opens itself up to scrutiny, the world will assume they have something to hide."
The Mail notes that this isn't the first time the WIV has been accused of suppressing critical evidence regarding the origins of the virus.
Days before the WHO was alerted to the outbreak of Sars-like pneumonia cases in Wuhan in December 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology began altering its database of viral pathogens.
The Wildlife-borne Viral Pathogen Database was unique because it included information on virus variants in other wild animals.
Among the changes, which experts believe were made to throw investigators off the scent, keywords such as ‘wildlife’ or ‘wild animals’ were deleted.
The title was changed from Wildlife-borne Viral Pathogen Database to Bat And Rodent-borne Viral Pathogen Database. The term ‘wild animal’ was replaced with ‘bat and rodent’ or ‘bat and rat’. -Daily Mail
Notably, the alteration occurred two days before a gene sequencing lab was reportedly ordered by the Health and Medical Commission of Hubei Province to destroy samples of the new disease and withhold information.
According to the report, the alterations - conducted on the evening of Dec. 30 - were substantial, and occurred the day before the CCP notified the World Health Organization about the outbreak of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan.
The primary database contact is none other than Zhengli - who was in Shanghai for a conference in late 2019 when she was summoned back to Wuhan to deal with the outbreak which had been detected in two pneumonia patients. While on the overnight train back to Wuhan, the database was altered.
"It looks like a rushed, inconsistent effort to disassociate the project from the outbreak by rebranding it," according to the UK intelligence analyst who discovered the alterations. "It’s a strange thing to do within hours of being informed of a novel-coronavirus outbreak."
"If the WIV had found the missing link between bat virus RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2 [the coronavirus that causes COVID-19] from an animal vector, it would have been in Shi’s database," he added.
Purged records and destroyed samples don't exactly instill confidence.