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Britain is among a number of countries investigating the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, including a possibility it could be linked to a Chinese laboratory conducting research into diseases in bats, Sky News has learnt.
It is thought to be considered highly likely that the novel coronavirus did occur naturally and is not man-made.
But that does not rule out the disease perhaps having emerged accidentally from a laboratory in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, where the first known cases of the illness were recorded.
Sky News understands that the UK and others are looking at all possibilities as they try to establish the original source of the COVID-19 outbreak.
NBC News reported on Thursday that the US intelligence community is examining whether it came accidentally from a Wuhan lab studying diseases in bats.
“It’s a possibility, though not the most likely possibility,” one official was quoted as saying.
Asked about the intelligence on NBC’s Today show, US secretary of defence Mark Esper said: “This is something we’ve been watching closely now for some time,” adding that the results of the investigation are “inconclusive” so far.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) is reported to have been studying coronaviruses in bats.
On Tuesday, a Washington Post columnist claimed that US embassy officials in China visited the Institute of Virology two years earlier and sent warnings back to Washington about alleged inadequate safety there.
One cable, dated 19 January 2018, purportedly read: “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 Wuhan Institute of Virology has previously dismissed rumours that the virus may have been artificially synthesised at one of its laboratories or perhaps escaped from such a facility, according to the Reuters news agency.
US President Donald Trump has said his government is trying to determine whether COVID-19 emanated from a Wuhan laboratory.
Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, said Beijing “needs to come clean” on what they know.
The pandemic has stoked new tensions between the two global powers, with the United States also highly sceptical of China’s records of deaths from the virus, believing the figures to be significantly under-reported.
More than four months into the crisis, the true source of the disease remains a mystery despite initial claims from China that it had originated from a food market in Wuhan.
In January, the director of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention told a briefing “the origins of the new coronavirus is the wildlife sold illegally in a Wuhan seafood market”.
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That has been the most commonly held theory but there has been no definitive proof.
The mystery has fuelled a barrage of disinformation, including claims by the Chinese foreign ministry that COVID-19 may have been brought to China by US troops.
Among the other conspiracy theories is one alleging links to 5G telecommunication equipment, which has even led to phone masts across Europe being attacked.