BEIJING -- The theory that the COVID-19 coronavirus originated in a Wuhan-based laboratory is regaining traction with top virologists and multiple world leaders calling for further investigation.
But Beijing is ramping up its propaganda machine in an attempt to squash the theory again.
Three lab workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were reportedly hospitalised in November 2019 with coronavirus-like symptoms -- a month before the pandemic's first declared case, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported Sunday (May 23), citing a previously undisclosed US intelligence report.
Chinese researchers had collected samples seven years earlier from a mine in southwestern China, where miners had contracted a mysterious illness from a new, bat-borne coronavirus, the WSJ reported Monday (May 24), citing two Chinese academic theses.
The intelligence report provides fresh details on the number of researchers affected and on the timing of their illnesses and of their hospital visits.
The revelation adds weight to the theory that the COVID-19 virus could have escaped from the laboratory.
Solving the mystery of the pandemic
Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) sent a team of international experts to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the pandemic, but Beijing's lack of transparency and selective data sharing frustrated the team.
China's obfuscation is not surprising after months of denials, lies, coverups and foot-dragging about the origins of the coronavirus.
The long-delayed report by the WHO and their Chinese counterparts drew no firm conclusions but said the virus most likely jumped from bats to humans via an intermediate animal.
Initially, the expert report said a theory involving the virus leaking from a lab was "extremely unlikely".
After the report was released, however, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisted all theories remained on the table.
Officials in Beijing, keen to reshape the narrative of the pandemic, have been adamantly opposed to the lab leak theory, highlighting China's "heroic" response and recovery and whitewashing the regime's delays and denials regarding the outbreak of the disease.
It is "disrespectful" to the WHO probe to revive the laboratory leak theory, and doing so would risk an "undermining of global solidarity to fight the virus", Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, said May 26, repeating earlier denials.
Addressing the WHO's main annual meeting of member states on Tuesday, representatives from several countries stressed the continued need to solve the mystery of how COVID-19 first started spreading among humans.
Determining how the potentially fatal COVID-19 began spreading is seen as vital to preventing future pandemics.
"We underscore the importance of a robust comprehensive and expert-led inquiry into the origins of COVID-19," US representative Jeremy Konyndyk told the World Health Assembly (WHA).
The European Union, Australia and Japan were among others to call for a continued investigation, while the British representative urged for any probe to be "timely, expert-driven and grounded in robust science".
Denials and disinformation
Rather than assisting the probe in any meaningful way, the Chinese regime has returned to denial and disinformation to deflect blame.
Its latest targets are US infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci and the WSJ report.
"US elites degenerate further in morality, and Fauci is one of them," was the headline of a blistering opinion piece penned by Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times, on Tuesday.
Hu called the WSJ report "a conspiracy ... to slander China". Fauci is "fanning a huge lie against China", he claimed.
Yuan Zhiming, director of the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, called the WSJ report "a complete lie".
"Those claims are groundless," he told the Global Times.
China's anger -- and its attempts to undermine American scientists -- stems from Fauci's comments earlier this month in which he said he is no longer convinced that the COVID-19 pandemic originated naturally.
"I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened," he said on May 11.
Preventing future global catastrophes
US President Joe Biden on Wednesday ordered US intelligence agencies to report to him in the next three months on whether COVID-19 first emerged in China from an animal source or from a laboratory accident.
US intelligence agencies have "coalesced around two likely scenarios" but have not yet reached a definitive conclusion on how the virus originated in China, Biden said in a statement.
Agencies should "redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion", he said.
When the pandemic first emerged in early 2020, Biden urged investigators to obtain access to China to learn about the virus as a means to fighting it more effectively.
"The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of COVID-19," Biden said.
While they have avoided suggesting that a lab leak was necessarily the source of the spread, a number of international scientists have said a deeper, more scientific look at the lab leak theory is needed.
There have been complaints that the very terms of the WHO's initial investigation, negotiated with Beijing and approved at last year's WHA, stated that the task was to identify the "zoonotic" -- or animal -- source of the virus.
There have been calls for the ongoing WHA, which is set to conclude next Tuesday (June 1), to decide the next stages in the probe and to redefine its focus.
US Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra backed the call for new terms of reference.
"Phase two of the COVID origins study must be launched with terms of reference that are transparent, science-based, and give international experts the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak," he told the WHA.
"The purpose of the inquiry is not to assign blame but to be grounded in science, to find the origin of the virus and the outbreaks, and to help us all prevent future global catastrophes from happening," Konyndyk said.
Zhao on Thursday rejected the need for a new investigation into the pandemic.