The institute is the focus of speculation and conspiracy theories — some emanating from the White House — about whether the virus leaked from the facility.
WUHAN, China — Cloistered off a major thoroughfare, the Wuhan Institute of Virology could pass for a college campus, its red brick buildings distinguishable from their busy surroundings only by a long, imposing driveway lined with cameras, with a security guard standing sentry.
On the neatly manicured grounds beside a small man-made lake is a newer structure with silver sidings and few windows. This, the institute’s BSL-4 lab — the first in China to receive the highest level of biosafety clearance — stands at the center of an international firestorm of recrimination over China’s role in the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, NBC News became the first foreign news organization to be granted access to the institute since the outbreak began, meeting with senior scientists working to pinpoint the origins of the virus. The Wuhan institute and its scientists have become the focus of intense speculation and conspiracy theories — some emanating from the White House — about China’s alleged efforts to downplay the outbreak’s severity and whether the virus leaked from the facility.
During the roughly five-hour visit, which included a tour of the BSL-4 lab, where technicians clad in bubblelike protective suits handled small vials and other equipment while sealed inside a thick-walled glass enclosure, Wang Yanyi, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said she and others felt unfairly targeted. She urged that politics not cloud investigations into how the coronavirus spilled over into humans.
“It is unfortunate that we have been targeted as a scapegoat for the origin of the virus,” she said. “Any person would inevitably feel very angry or misunderstood being subject to unwarranted or malicious accusations while carrying out research and related work in the fight against the virus.”
The first clusters of a pneumonia-like illness were reported in December in Wuhan, a sprawling city of 11 million people that hugs the Yangtze River in China’s central Hubei province.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, founded in the 1950s, is a prominent research facility that enjoyed an even more elevated profile after it opened the BSL-4 lab in 2015. These days, scientists at the lab are focused on the coronavirus, but normally, work at the facility includes research on some of the most dangerous known viruses, including the Ebola, Nipah and Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever viruses.
It is partly because the Wuhan institute is equipped to study the world’s highest-risk infectious agents and toxins — including those, like the latest coronavirus, that are believed to have originated in bats — that it is entangled in accusations that it had something to do with the outbreak.
During a White House event on April 30, President Donald Trump referred to a possible link. When asked whether he had seen evidence that suggested that the virus originated at the Wuhan lab, Trump responded: “Yes, I have.”
“I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that,” he said when declining to give specifics.
The White House has shown no credible proof to back up claims that the coronavirus was either manufactured at or accidentally leaked from the lab, and neither have any other sources. But Trump continues to fuel the blame, often through racist rhetoric, by regularly referring to the pathogen as the “China virus,” the “Wuhan virus” or “kung flu.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeated similar claims, also without providing proof.
In April, current and former U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News that the U.S. intelligence community was examining whether the virus emerged accidentally from the Wuhan lab. Spy agencies had ruled out that the coronavirus was man-made, the officials said at the time.
Democrats in Congress who have asked administration officials to provide information about any such associations say their requests have been ignored.
The White House declined to comment for comment on this article.
At the beginning of the tour of the institute, a guard took the team’s temperatures and checked bags and equipment. In the facilities, workers wore regular clothes and facemasks, which have become ubiquitous in China during the pandemic.
Trees dot the hilly landscape along the path leading to the institute’s BSL-4 lab, which NBC News was given access to — although not in to the germ-free inner area.
During separate 50-minute interviews accompanied by a representative of the government, Wang and Yuan Zhiming, vice director of the institute, strongly denied that the virus could have originated at the institute. They also said scientists at the facility obtained their first samples of the coronavirus after the disease had begun to spread among the public.
“I have repeatedly emphasized that it was on Dec. 30 that we got contact with the samples of SARS-like pneumonia or pneumonia of unknown cause sent from the hospital,” Yuan said. “We have not encountered the novel coronavirus before that, and without this virus, there is no way that it is leaked from the lab.”
Wang said none of the institute’s scientists contracted the virus, which she said made it extremely unlikely that the pathogen could have escaped from the facility.
NBC News was not able to verify her statements on when the lab first received live samples of the virus or whether any of its scientists were sickened by it.
Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York City-based nonprofit dedicated to studying and preventing pandemics, worked with the Wuhan institute for 16 years until the U.S. government cut funding this year. He also rejected the idea that the virus could have leaked from the lab.
“The fact that they published the sequence so quickly suggests to me that they weren’t trying to cover up anything,” he said.
There is “absolutely zero evidence that it escaped from a lab,” he added.
In May, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, told National Geographic that he discounted the idea that the virus had accidentally escaped from a lab.
Yuan said that regular health checks are conducted for the facility’s personnel but that so far the institute has not encountered positive tests for the virus or its antibodies, which would suggest that a person had the virus at some point.
Wang and Yuan also challenged an internal State Department cable from 2018 that raised concerns by U.S. Embassy officials in China over the safety and training of staff members at the institute.
The partially redacted contents of the cable were leaked this year and were subsequently released following a freedom of information request by The Washington Post. The cable noted “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” but the identity of the person who raised the concerns was not revealed.
Wang disputed the conclusions. She said U.S. officials did visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but in March 2018 — about two months after the Jan. 19, 2018, cable was sent. She added that the officials did not tour any of the labs at the facility and that they did not discuss biosafety procedures.