A group comprising 31 US scientists and "science communicators" have signed an "open letter", claiming that a probe into allegations that COVID-19 originated in a laboratory has a "realistic chance of success" even if Beijing does not participate in the probe, Newsweek reported on Monday.
The signatories reportedly said a "systematic search" could determine if documents, samples, and pathogens from the institute were taken offline — although the report was vague on how that could be achieved remotely.
Earlier, computational biologist Jesse Bloom, a specialist in viral evolution at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, claims to have recovered 13 genetic sequences allegedly deleted from a Chinese database on the deadly virus strain. He said the earliest samples of the virus, linked to the Huanan Seafood Market, were more distantly-related to the strain found in bats than later ones — indicating that the market was not the origin point.
"There is no plausible scientific reason for the deletion", Bloom said in a pre-publication report for the magazine Nature. "It, therefore, seems likely the sequences were deleted to obscure their existence...this suggests a less than wholehearted effort to trace the early spread of the epidemic".
The signatories also called for the publication of correspondence between the Wuhan institute and its western partners, including EcoHealth Alliance, the US Agency for International Development, and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The NIH controversially gave the institute a $600,000 research grant, approved by the president's chief medical adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci. In early June, Republican Senator Rand Paul told Fox News that money was used for "gain-of-function" research that some scientists say could have created the deadly coronavirus strain. Paul then suggested that Fauci bore a "moral culpability" for the pandemic.
"It's clearly 'gain of function'. There are several scientists who are in this field, cellular biologists, they all say that taking a SARS virus and adding an S-protein to it to make it infect human cells, that is the very definition of gain of function", Paul said. "It's very dangerous. We shouldn't be doing it here or there. But Dr Fauci has denied it to this day".
A World Health Organisation delegation to Wuhan in March concluded that a laboratory origin for COVID-19 was "extremely unlikely", reinforcing a widely-accepted theory that the new virus originated in wild animals sold for human consumption at "wet markets" in the city of Wuhan, with bats or pangolins as possible carriers.
A more recent study has claimed, however, that the statistical chances of the changes in genetic sequence from wild-type coronavirus to the pandemic strain occurring by natural random mutation are almost impossible — an assessment Fauci agreed with in an email to colleagues recently released under a freedom of information request.
The open letter argues that a probe would require a "thorough evaluation" of the farm-animal and wildlife trades in Asia and their "potential roles in the pandemic" in a bid to "understand how COVID-19 may have jumped from an animal to a human".
US President Joe Biden asked national intelligence agencies to "redouble" their efforts to determine COVID-19's origins — although they previously failed to come up with definitive proof of an alleged Chinese cover-up.
The open letter said that if China rejects "every opportunity" to join a probe, it "should not be afforded a veto over whether or not the rest of the world carries out the fullest possible investigation".
But China's English-language Global Times warned in a recent editorial that Beijing would not tolerate "any investigation" by US authorities outside their jurisdiction.
"If we find any trace of US intelligence agencies taking action in China, we will immediately strike heavily", the paper said.