There are still “questions that need to be answered” about the origins of the Covid pandemic, the UK Government has said, after China’s former most senior scientist insisted the lab leak theory could not be ruled out.
The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) renewed calls for an official review into how Covid spread across the globe to “ensure we are better prepared for future pandemics”.
A spokesperson toldi that the UK Government’s official position on the lab leak theory remains unchanged since being spelt out by health minister Lord Markham in a written ministerial statement in March this year.
Lord Markham said at the time that the Government “has been clear on the need for a robust, transparent and science-led review into the origins of Covid-19”, and that ministers continue to support the World Health Organization’s (WHO) studies into the origins of the virus.
“We recognise that there are questions that need to be answered about the origin and spread of Covid-19, not least so we can ensure we are better prepared for future pandemics,” he added.
It follows comments on Tuesday by Professor George Gao, a virologist and immunologist who led China’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC) during the pandemic, who said it remained a possibility that Covid originated in a Wuhan laboratory.
“That’s science. Don’t rule out anything,” he told the BBC Radio 4 podcast Fever: The Hunt for Covid’s Origin.
Professor Gao also claimed the Chinese government investigated whether the Wuhan Institute of Virology may have been the source of the pandemic, marking the first admission from a senior official that Beijing took the so-called lab leak theory seriously.
“The [Chinese] government organised something. That lab was double-checked by the experts in the field,” he said, adding that the probe was carried out by a separate branch of the Chinese government – not the CDC.
The Chinese Embassy in the UK hit back at the claims on Tuesday, telling the BBC: “The so-called ‘lab leak’ is a lie created by anti-China forces. It is politically motivated and has no scientific basis.”
It places the UK Government at odds with Beijing’s official stance on the theory, which is still being investigated by WHO and other global health bodies.
The lab leak hypothesis was initially written off as a baseless conspiracy theory after being touted by former US president Donald Trump, but resurfaced earlier this year when the FBI’s director said it was the “most likely” source of the pandemic – although there is no consensus among US intelligence agencies on the question.
Covid was first detected in Wuhan, a city in central China, in December 2019. Numerous studies have suggested the virus most likely emerged from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan – a wet market selling live animals.
However, the city is also home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research facility that studies coronaviruses. It has sparked speculation among some scientists that the virus may have been leaked from a laboratory.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, said in March that he had written to and spoken with “high-level Chinese leaders on multiple occasions as recently as just a few weeks ago… all hypotheses on the origins of the virus remain on the table”.