• By The Financial District


More than a year since the first known person was infected with the coronavirus, an Associated Press (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, Dake Kang, Maria Cheng and Sam McNeil reported for the news service.

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A rare leak from within the government, the dozens of pages of unpublished documents confirm what many have long suspected: The clampdown comes from the top.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

The pandemic has crippled Beijing’s reputation on the global stage, and China’s leaders are wary of any findings that could suggest they were negligent in its spread. China’s leaders are far from alone in politicizing research into the origins of the virus.

In April, President Donald Trump shelved a US-funded project to identify dangerous animal diseases in China and Southeast Asia, effectively severing ties between Chinese and American scientists and complicating the search for virus origins.

Trump also has accused China of setting off the pandemic through an accident at a Wuhan lab — a theory that some experts say cannot be ruled out but as yet has no evidence behind it.

Since bats harboring coronaviruses are found in China and throughout Southeast Asia, the wild animal host of COVID-19 could be anywhere in the region, said Linfa Wang at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.

“There is a bat somewhere with a 99.9% similar virus to the coronavirus,” Wang said. “Bats don’t respect these borders.” It is only in Thailand where bat samples are being taken, with Dr. Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, a coronavirus expert, telling AP the virus could be found “anywhere” there were bats.

Today, the caves in Yunnan that scientists once surveyed are under close watch by the authorities. Particularly sensitive is the mine shaft where the closest relative of the COVID-19 virus — called “RaTG13” — was found. RaTG13 was discovered after an outbreak in 2012, when six men cleaning the bat-filled shaft fell ill with mysterious bouts of pneumonia, killing three.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology and the China CDC both studied bat coronaviruses from this shaft. And although most scientists believe the COVID-19 virus had its origins in nature, some say it or a close relative could have been transported to Wuhan and leaked by mistake.