Bat caves

China’s coronavirus black hole: Bat caves where Covid-19 may have started

PHOTO: An AP investigation has uncovered concerns that the Chinese state is hampering research into the origins of Covid-19. Pictured: Visitors look inside the abandoned Wanling cave near Manhaguo village in southern China’s Yunnan province on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. The cave is home to bats which are a potential source of the virus

Deep in the lush mountain valleys of southern China lies the entrance to a mine shaft that once harboured bats with the closest known relative of the Covid-19 virus.

The area is of intense scientific interest because it may hold clues to the origins of the coronavirus that has killed more than 1.7million people worldwide. Yet for scientists and journalists, it has become a black hole of no information because of political sensitivity and secrecy.

A bat research team visiting recently managed to take samples but had them confiscated, two people familiar with the matter said. Specialists in coronaviruses have been ordered not to speak to the press. And a team of Associated Press journalists was tailed by plainclothes police in multiple cars who blocked access to roads and sites in late November.

More than a year since the first known person was infected with the coronavirus, an AP investigation shows the Chinese government is strictly controlling all research into its origins, clamping down on some while actively promoting fringe theories that it could have come from outside China.

The government is handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to scientists researching the virus’ origins in southern China and affiliated with the military, the AP has found. But it is monitoring their findings and mandating that the publication of any data or research must be approved by a new task force managed by China’s cabinet, under direct orders from President Xi Jinping, according to internal documents obtained by The AP.

A rare leak from within the government, the dozens of pages of unpublished documents confirm what many have long suspected: The clampdown comes from the top.

As a result, very little has been made public. Authorities are severely limiting information and impeding cooperation with international scientists.

‘What did they find?’ asked Gregory Gray, a Duke University epidemiologist who oversees a lab in China studying the transmission of infectious diseases from animals to people. ‘Maybe their data were not conclusive, or maybe they suppressed the data for some political reason. I don’t know…I wish I did.’

  • An AP investigation heard accusations from Chinese and foreign scientists that the state was ‘politicising’ research into the origins of coronavirus 
  • The publication of research as well as access to samples is tightly controlled, potentially hampering efforts to prevent a future pandemic
  • Scientists suggest China, which has suggested despite evidence that Covid-19 originated elsewhere – is trying to mitigate damage to its reputation 
  • AP journalists were denied entry to caves home to bats that may hold clues even as tourists were allowed to pass through
  • A mine shaft where the closest relative of the Covid-19 virus was found in is particularly sensitive
  • In 2012 six men cleaning the bat-filled shaft fell ill with mysterious bouts of pneumonia which killed three