Chinese scientist Shi Zhengli found the closest known match to the virus COVID-19 in samples of bat faeces taken during research into bat droppings in 2012. However, the “new strain” of a Sars-type coronavirus received only a passing mention in an academic paper.
According to research by a Sunday Times team the droppings were collected and sent back to a top secret lab in Wuhan.
The revelation has sparked claims that the new coronavirus must have escaped from the lab – which is just minutes away from the wet market the Chinese authorities have pinpointed as the epicentre of the epidemic sweeping the world.
China’s secretive Wuhan virus lab, named the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has been at the centre of a number of claims around the origin of COVID-19.
The faeces samples were taken in August 2012, when a small team of scientists travelled to southwest China to investigate a new and lethal illness.
Shi and her team were found to be running controversial experiments to find out how they might mutate the bat virus to become more infectious to humans.
The bat droppings were found in an abandoned copper mine where the team of six investigated what is described as a breeding ground for mutated micro-organisms and pathogens deadly to human beings.
The bat virus experts took the samples back to Wuhan in a bid to identify the source of the Sars — severe acute respiratory syndrome — pandemic 10 years earlier.
Just weeks earlier, six men who had entered the mine had been struck down by an illness that caused an uncontrollable pneumonia the Sunday Times reported.
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By Thursday three more cases had emerged.
Zhou, 63, Liu, 46, and Li, 32 were also treated in intensive care.
A sixth man called Wu was then taken into intensive care the following Wednesday.
All the men were linked.
The six men had been given the task of clearing out piles of bat faeces in an abandoned copper mine in the hills south of the town of Tongguan in the Mojiang region.
Some had worked for two weeks before falling ill, and others just a few days.
All of the men all had high fevers of above 39C.
They also suffered from the classic coronavirus symptoms of coughs and aching limbs.
All but one had severe difficulty in breathing.
After the first two men died, the remaining four underwent a barrage of tests for haemorrhage fever, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and influenza, but they all came back negative.