New Delhi, Jan 26 (IANS): Lethal animal virus epidemic coronavirus, which has sent panic waves across the world, may have its origins at the epicentre of the epidemic, Wuhan, in a laboratory which has been linked to China's covert biological weapons programme.
The Washington Times reported the link with China's biological weapons quoting an Israeli biological warfare expert.
According to the report, Radio Free Asia this week rebroadcast a local Wuhan television report from 2015 showing China's most advanced virus research laboratory known as the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The laboratory is the only declared site in China capable of working with deadly viruses.
Dany Shoham, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who has studied Chinese bio warfare, said the institute is linked to Beijing's covert biological weapons programme.
"Certain laboratories in the institute have probably been engaged, in terms of research and development, in Chinese (biological weapons), at least collaterally, yet not as a principal facility of the Chinese BW alignment," Shoham told The Washington Times.
Work on biological weapons is conducted as part of a dual civilian-military research and is "definitely covert," he said.
From 1970 to 1991, he was a senior analyst with Israeli military intelligence for biological and chemical warfare in the Middle East and worldwide, holding the rank of lieutenant colonel.
China in the past has denied having any offensive biological weapons. The State Department, in a report last year, said it suspects that China has engaged in covert biological warfare work.
Chinese officials so far have said the origin of coronavirus that has killed many and infected hundreds in central Hubei Province is not known.
Gao Fu, Director of Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told state-controlled media that initial signs as of Thursday indicated that the virus originated from wild animals sold at a seafood market in Wuhan.
As per the Washington Times, one ominous sign, said a US official, is that false rumours since the outbreak began several weeks ago are being circulated on the Chinese internet claiming the virus is part of a US conspiracy to spread germ weapons.
That could indicate that China is preparing propaganda outlets to counter future charges the new virus escaped from one of Wuhan's civilian or defense research laboratories.
The World Health Organization is calling the microbe novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV. At a meeting in Geneva on Thursday, the organisation stopped short of declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
The virus outbreak causes pneumonia-like symptoms and prompted China to deploy military forces to Wuhan this week in a bid to halt the spread. All travel out of the city of 11 million people was halted.
The Wuhan site has studied coronaviruses in the past, including the strain that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, H5N1 influenza virus, Japanese encephalitis, and dengue. Researchers at the institute also studied the germ that causes anthrax -- a biological agent once developed in Russia.
It is not known if the institute's array of coronaviruses are specifically included in biological weapons programme but it is possible, Shoham said.
Asked if the new coronavirus may have leaked, Shoham said: "In principle, outward virus infiltration might take place either as leakage or as an indoor unnoticed infection of a person that normally went out of the concerned facility. This could have been the case with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but so far there isn't evidence or indication for such incident."
The former Israeli military intelligence doctor also said suspicions were raised about the institute when a group of Chinese virologists working in Canada improperly sent samples to China of what he said were some of the deadliest viruses on earth, including the Ebola virus.
In a July article in the journal Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Shoham said the Wuhan institute was one of four Chinese laboratories engaged in some aspects of the biological weapons development.
He identified the secure Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory at the institute as engaged in research on the Ebola, Nipah, and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever viruses.
The Wuhan virology institute is under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. But certain laboratories within it "have linkage with the PLA or BW-related elements within the Chinese defense establishment," he said.
In 1993, China declared a second facility, the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, as one of eight biological warfare research facilities covered by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) which China joined in 1985.
The Wuhan Institute of Biological Products is a civilian facility but is linked to the Chinese defense establishment, and has been regarded to be involved in the Chinese BW programme, Shoham said.
"The US has compliance concerns with respect to Chinese military medical institutions' toxin research and development because of the potential dual-use applications and their potential as a biological threat," the report added.
The biosafety lab is located about 20 miles from the Hunan Seaford Market that reports from China say may have been origin point of the virus.
Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright told London's Daily Mail that "at this point there's no reason to harbor suspicions" that the lab may be linked to the virus outbreak.