Ian Lipkin, a Columbia University epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist who is known for his work to contain the SARS coronavirus outbreak in the 2000s, and who assisted both the Chinese and US epidemic response during that crisis, claims that he was made aware of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak at Wuhan, China more than two weeks before Beijing told global health authorities about it, APA reports.
Speaking to director Spike Lee for the latter’s new HBO documentary series, Lipkin reportedly said he learnt about the newly discovered virus’s outbreak on 15 December, 16 days before Chinese health authorities informed the World Health Organization on 31 December.
In a separate interview, the academic said he had been told about the new virus by Lu Jiahai, a Chinese friend and research partner from the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, southern China.
Chinese medical authorities only realised that they were dealing with a fundamentally new virus in late December 2019, based on the appearance of patients with similar, severe pneumonia-like symptoms originating mostly in the city of Wuhan starting on or about 8 December. By the end of the month, authorities had linked the cases to a wet seafood wholesale market, leading to suspicions that the virus may have jumped from animals to humans. Over a year-and-a-half later, a conclusive link proving animal to human spread has yet to be discovered.
Lipkin, 68, received accolades in both the US and China for his work advising the two nations over their response to the SARS outbreak in the early to mid-Noughties, during which he assisted Chinese government efforts to “assess the state of the epidemic, identify gaps in science and develop a strategy for containing the virus and reducing morbidity and mortality.” In the US, he joined a Defense Department task force to assist with similar tasks.
In the early days of the 2019 outbreak, Lipkin initially predicted that the new virus would cause fewer deaths than SARS. He travelled to Guangzhou in late January 2020, where he met with senior Chinese medical advisers to the Chinese governments, before returning home. He later contracted COVID-19 and treated himself with hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug which went on to be touted as a miracle cure by former President Donald Trump, but was derided by the US mainstream media and some scientists as an ineffective or even unsafe treatment.
Lipkin, who is also known for his controversial support of gain-of-function research, which some US politicians and academics fear may have been responsible for the Wuhan outbreak, has long defended China and its efforts to try to squash the pandemic, and has consistently denied “any type of laboratory-based scenario” as the outbreak’s cause, although his views have softened with time.
Lipkin’s department at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health has received more than $1 million in grants from the EcoHealth Alliance between 2018 and 2020. That same US-based non-governmental institution also funded potentially dangerous bat coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Some US officials have claimed that SARS-CoV-2 may be a genetically modified virus, and that this virus leaked from the Wuhan lab before going on to cause a global pandemic. Chinese officials have categorically denied these claims, and last week, US intelligence agencies released a brief, unclassified summary of a long-awaited probe into the origins of COVID-19, saying that the virus “probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019,” with the first-known cases appearing in Wuhan in December of that year.
The intelligence community concluded that the virus “was not developed as a biological weapon,” and said that “most” of its agencies “assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered,” although two agencies believe “there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way.”
The inconclusive report comes in the wake of intensifying back and forth claims by US and Chinese officials demanding that global health officials be allowed into one another’s laboratories to search for COVID-19’s origins.