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Warnings about coronavirus danger in Wuhan 2 years before outbreak ignored: book

Chinese researchers warned of the risk of an outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan about two years before COVID-19 emerged in the city, according to a book by Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, but those warnings were ignored.

U.S. health and science officials from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing attended a conference in late 2017 that outlined warnings about the potential for new SARS-related coronaviruses transmitted by bats, Rogin writes in “Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century,” an excerpt of which was published by Politico on Monday. The researchers had specifically identified a so-called spike protein in three new viruses.

The embassy then reportedly sent multiple teams of experts over the next months to meet with virologists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In these meetings, researchers informed the diplomats they needed help to meet safety standards in the lab, and that they had discovered evidence bat-borne viruses could transmit to human cells, according to cables to Washington.

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One cable "was a warning shot,” a U.S. official said, according to the book. “They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.”

One of the cable writers told Rogin that the messages were meant to warn of a potential public health disaster relating to the lab. They were never made public amid worsening Washington-Beijing relations, as American diplomatic access to labs such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology was curtailed.

“We were trying to warn that that lab was a serious danger,” one of the cable writers said. “I have to admit, I thought it would be maybe a SARS-like outbreak again. If I knew it would turn out to be the greatest pandemic in human history, I would have made a bigger stink about it.”

The prevailing theory remains the virus originated in a wildlife market in Wuhan. The virus shows no indication of direct genetic tampering and the lab's research on bat-borne coronaviruses is largely public, according to Rogin.

Almost 117 million people have been infected worldwide with the virus, and more than 2.5 million people have died as a result of it, according to Johns Hopkins University data.