Pictures which appear to show slack safety standards at the Chinese laboratory at the centre of international suspicion over Covid-19 have been systematically deleted from its website – as Donald Trump continues to ramp up the pressure on Beijing over its potential role in the outbreak.
During the past month, Wuhan's Institute of Virology has removed photographs of scientists working in its laboratories and edited out references to visits by US diplomats who subsequently raised the alarm about the laboratory's work on bats.
US President Donald Trump announced on Thursday that he had seen intelligence that gave him a 'high degree of confidence' that the global crisis had its origins in the institute – a month after The Mail on Sunday first revealed that British Cabinet Ministers had received classified briefings raising the possibility of a leak from the institute.
Downing Street did not take issue with President Trump's remarks. 'There are clearly questions that need to be answered about the origin and spread of the virus,' a spokesman for Boris Johnson said.
The emerging viruses group handling bats taken from archive photography
The edited material includes a page of the institute's website showing pictures of staff entering caves to take swabs from bats carrying coronaviruses – with the scientists wearing minimal protective equipment. And the institute appears to have also removed reference to a visit to the institute in March 2018 of Rick Switzer, a science and technology expert from the US embassy in Beijing.
As a result of Mr Switzer's visit, cables were sent to the US State Department from the embassy warning about the risks of the bat experiments. One read: 'During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they [the diplomats] noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.'
Last month, The Mail on Sunday published alarming pictures from inside the institute showing a broken seal on the door of one of the refrigerators holding 1,500 different strains of virus. President Trump's remarks were misreported by some media outlets, including the BBC and The Guardian, as placing him at odds with US spy agencies, which said that the virus was not manmade or genetically engineered.
In fact, that has long been the working assumption within security sources on both sides of the Atlantic. Trump was referring to claims that the virus could have leaked by accident from the institute.
The emerging viruses group catching bats in the wild
When Trump was asked on Thursday whether he had 'seen anything at this point that gives you a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus', he replied: 'Yes, I have. Yes, I have.' When pressed to explain what evidence he had seen, he responded.
'I can't tell you that. I'm not allowed to tell you that.' The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing US spy agencies, issued a statement saying: 'The intelligence community will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.'
The Wuhan institute's website – which includes pictures of staff members beside a Communist flag – admits to the risks of the work, saying: 'Because the research object of the laboratory is highly pathogenic microorganisms, once the test tube for storing viruses is opened in the laboratory, it is like opening the Pandora's Box.
'These viruses come and go without a trace. There are various protective measures, but the experimental personnel still need to operate carefully to avoid danger due to operational errors.' Last night, a senior British security source said: 'Establishing where [Covid-19] originated is part of the work being done by a number of countries, including the UK and US, who are rightly looking at all possibilities.
The emerging viruses group pictured catching bats in a cave
'Given the global nature of this, some of this information is being shared in the usual way. Without the Chinese allowing access, which they're unlikely to do, or other substantive evidence emerging, a leak cannot be ruled out.'
This newspaper has disclosed that the institute undertook coronavirus experiments on bats captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan, funded by a £3million grant from the US government.
Sequencing of the Covid-19 genome has traced it to the bats found only in those caves. President Trump cancelled the funding following our report. Beijing insists the fact the country's primary virology institute is based in the city at the centre of the outbreak is a coincidence, dismissing links to the laboratory as 'baseless conspiracy theories'.
Stills from an internet documentary about research on bats from the researchers in Wuhan
Concern about bat experiments has not been confined to the Wuhan institute: an internet video posted in December showed Tian Junhua, a researcher at the nearby Wuhan Centre for Disease Control, in which he is seen collecting samples from the caves and saying: 'We can easily get contact with the faeces of bats which contaminate everything. So it is highly risky here. I feel the fear. The fear of infections.'
At the end of the film, stills from which are seen above, a