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Monday, 25 May 2020

Health boss weighs in on theory COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab and doubles down on Australia's call for independent inquiry that has sparked trade threats from China

  • Health Minister Greg Hunt addressed idea of coronavirus coming from a lab
  • He expressed the view it most likely came from animal or zoonotic transmission
  • Mail on Sunday revealed the coronavirus 'uniquely adapted to infect humans'
Australia's Health Minister has argued debate about whether COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab justified the push for an independent inquiry into its causes. 
Greg Hunt doubled down on Australia's call for a coronavirus investigation after the Mail on Sunday revealed vaccine researchers found the pandemic virus was 'uniquely adapted to infect humans' and did not appear to be a typical animal-to-human infection. 
'In terms of the origins of the virus, our best advice remains that it came from zoonotic or animal sources but this is precisely why, precisely why we argued for an impartial and independent and comprehensive international evaluation,' Mr Hunt said.
Mr Hunt doubled down on Australia's call for a coronavirus investigation after the Mail on Sunday revealed vaccine researchers found the pandemic virus was 'uniquely adapted to infect humans' and did not appear to be a typical animal-to-human infection. Pictured is the Wuhan Institute of Virology
Mr Hunt doubled down on Australia's call for a coronavirus investigation after the Mail on Sunday revealed vaccine researchers found the pandemic virus was 'uniquely adapted to infect humans' and did not appear to be a typical animal-to-human infection. Pictured is the Wuhan Institute of Virology
Professor Nikolai Petrovsky, a top vaccine researcher from Flinders University in Adelaide, said the virus was 'not typical of a normal zoonotic infection' since it appeared with the 'exceptional' ability to enter human bodies from the beginning.
The professor of medicine is running a biotech research unit that will start human trials for a COVID-19 vaccine next month.
'I haven't seen a zoonotic virus that has behaved in this way before,' he told the Mail on Sunday.
Professor Petrovsky said new viruses crossing over from animals normally strengthened as they adapted to human hosts, but for unexplained reasons, this new coronavirus seemed perfectly suited to infect humans without the need to evolve.
China, Australia's biggest trading partner, is threatening economic retaliation after Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Foreign Minister Marise Payne succeeded in setting up a World Health Assembly investigation into the origins of coronavirus.
The Global Times newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, said 'Australia may feel more pain than the US' if it sided with Washington instead of Beijing in any diplomatic or trade dispute.
While Mr Hunt isn't suggesting COVID-19 came from a lab, his Coalition government colleague Nationals backbencher George Christensen in March suggested it may have originated at the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
He repeated a theory the South China University of Technology had published a report in February saying the virus may have originated in a research facility less than 300 metres from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.
Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt has argued debate about whether COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab justified the push for an independent inquiry into its causes
Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt has argued debate about whether COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab justified the push for an independent inquiry into its causes
'Everybody is trying to poo poo that idea. There are a lot of questions about it. We need to get to the bottom of that,' Mr Christensen told Sydney radio 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones.
Other theories suggest it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Richard Ebright, one of the world's top biosecurity experts, told this newspaper the odds of this new virus containing such unusual features and occurring naturally were 'possible – but improbable'.  
Ebright, professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, said scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were creating chimeric coronaviruses (new hybrid micro-organisms) and seeking funding to test their ability to infect human cells while using procedures that leave no sign of human manipulation.
Asked about the chance of a leak, he replied: 'There definitely is a possibility. But there is no basis to say a high probability.'
Richard Ebright, one of the world's top biosecurity experts, said scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (pictured) were creating chimeric coronaviruses (new hybrid micro-organisms) and seeking funding to test their ability to infect human cells while using procedures that leave no sign of human manipulation
Richard Ebright, one of the world's top biosecurity experts, said scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (pictured) were creating chimeric coronaviruses (new hybrid micro-organisms) and seeking funding to test their ability to infect human cells while using procedures that leave no sign of human manipulation
The Mail on Sunday also revealed Michael Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, gave approval to this research lab in 2004 when he was French foreign minister, under a joint deal with the Chinese. 
Jacques Chirac, the French president at the time of the deal, pushed for the Wuhan institute to be set up after the 2003 SARS outbreak, which affected 26 countries and resulted in more than 8,000 cases and 774 deaths. Mr Chirac, along with his pro-Beijing prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, promised French funding and expertise in return for a share of the intellectual copyright on the lab’s discoveries.
The move came despite strong opposition from French diplomatic and security advisers, who argued that the Chinese reputation for poor bio-security could lead to a catastrophic leak.
Last week, the World Health Assembly in Geneva formally adopted a resolution calling for an independent inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 
Australia's call was backed by the European Union. 

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