Hunt for Chinese lab researcher thwarted by 'state cover-up'

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A year-long hunt by The Mail on Sunday and Western intelligence officials for a Chinese lab researcher believed to be the world’s first Covid-19 patient has been thwarted by a suspected state cover-up.

Huang Yanling, who worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was named as Patient Zero in online reports that were widely shared inside China in the early weeks of the outbreak last February. The revelation created a direct link between the pandemic and the lab suspected to have accidentally unleashed it while conducting dangerous experiments on bat coronaviruses.

The reports did not say when she contracted the virus or if she survived. However, they support the US State Department’s belief she was the first of several researchers at the controversial institute who fell ill with Covid-19 in the autumn of 2019, before it was officially acknowledged.

a close up of a mans face

The Chinese government and lab officials stepped in swiftly to deny the reports at the time and remove them from the internet, claiming Huang was safe and well elsewhere in China.

A post purporting to be from Huang appeared on WeChat, China’s equivalent of WhatsApp, telling colleagues and teachers at the institute she was alive and insisting the reports were false.

The message read: ‘To my teachers and fellow students, how long no speak. I am Huang Yanling, still alive. If you receive any email [regarding the Covid rumour], please say it’s not true.’

A separate post by her former boss, Professor Wei Hong Ping, claimed Huang left the institute in 2015 and had contacted him by phone to deny the reports.

A day later, a Chinese news agency made a vague claim to have spoken to her new employer without providing details.

Inexplicably, however, Huang has disappeared from social media and has not been heard from since being identified as Patient Zero, while her biography and research history have been scrubbed from the institute’s website.

Almost one year on, the only trace of the student researcher is a grainy picture of her salvaged from the institute’s website and circulated on the internet.

In the days after the initial reports, bloggers and internet users in China suspicious of officials’ denials pleaded with Huang to make a public appearance to prove she was alive. ‘To stop this rumour spreading, Huang should just come forward and do a blood test,’ said one. Another posted: ‘No matter where you live, Huang, you will be found.’

China’s internet censors quickly stamped out discussion of Huang, and extensive enquiries within the country by The Mail on Sunday, including messages to her former colleagues, have failed to turn up any trace of her.

a person lying on a bed: Chinese government is under growing pressure to reveal the true origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Pictured: Researcher at a lab in Wuhan

The Chinese government is under growing pressure to reveal the true origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Pictured: Researcher at a lab in Wuhan

Huang remains an enigma, the only picture of her showing a woman in her 20s with long hair, peeking out from behind a colleague. Her name is included among the writers of three scientific papers issued by the Wuhan institute between 2013 and 2015, including research into staphylococcus bacteria.

Western governments and intelligence agencies are also understood to have tried and failed to locate Huang amid a ferocious crackdown on any challenge to China’s official narrative that the outbreak has no link to the Wuhan facility.

In its statement yesterday, the US State Department complained that the Chinese Communist Party had prevented investigators and global health authorities from interviewing researchers at the Wuhan institute ‘including those who were ill in the fall [autumn] of 2019’.

‘Beijing continues today to withhold vital information that scientists need to protect the world from this deadly virus and the next one,’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added.

China’s reluctance to produce Huang to quash the alleged rumours has fuelled the belief that she is either dead or is being held by the state to cover up the institute’s culpability for the pandemic. It has also generated lurid speculation about her fate, with some claiming Huang must have been hastily cremated. ‘Everyone on the Chinese internet is searching for Huang. Most believe she is dead,’ said one blogger.

In the same month that Huang was named as Patient Zero, a user of Chinese social media platform Weibo, claiming to be a researcher in Wuhan, alleged the virus had leaked from the institute.

The lab denied the allegation and said the claim came from an overseas impostor posing as one of its researchers.


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