Report says cellphone data suggests october shutdown at Wuhan lab, but experts are skeptical
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U.S. and U.K. intel agencies are reviewing the private report, but intel analysts examined and couldn’t confirm a similar theory previously.
A private analysis of cellphone location data purports to show that a high-security Wuhan laboratory studying coronaviruses shut down in October, three sources briefed on the matter told NBC News. U.S. spy agencies are reviewing the document, but intelligence analysts examined and couldn’t confirm a similar theory previously, two senior officials say.
The report — obtained by the London-based NBC News Verification Unit — says there was no cellphone activity in a high-security portion of the Wuhan Institute of Virology from Oct. 7 through Oct. 24, 2019, and that there may have been a “hazardous event” sometime between Oct. 6 and Oct. 11.
It offers no direct evidence of a shutdown, or any proof for the theory that the virus emerged accidentally from the lab.
If there was such a shutdown, which has not been confirmed, it could be seen as evidence of a possibility being examined by U.S. intelligence agencies and alluded to by Trump administration officials, including the president — that the novel coronavirus emerged accidentally from the lab.
But that is one of several scenarios under consideration by U.S. intelligence agencies. Many scientists are skeptical, arguing that the more likely explanation is that the virus was transmitted to humans through animals in a Wuhan live produce market. The World Health Organization said Friday it believed the “wet” market played a role in the spread of the disease.
The first known case of coronavirus in China has been traced back to Nov. 17, but some researchers are beginning to question that timeline, given that a case has been documented in France in December.
The document says its analysis suggests the pandemic began “earlier than initially reported” and “supports the release of COVID-19 at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
The document doesn’t cite direct evidence to support that assertion. The analysis seems to account for only a tiny fraction of the cellphones that would be expected in a facility that employs hundreds of people. Dr. Just Vlak, a Dutch virologist who visited a nearby satellite facility of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in late November and met with WIV’s head of bio-security, told NBC News that the facility he visited had between 200 and 300 staff.
The document obtained by NBC News also says that an annual international conference planned for early November in the same lower-security portion of the WIV that Vlak visited appears to have been “cancelled and never took place.” The conference actually went forward as planned. A second version of the document viewed by NBC News is annotated to say that the conference did proceed. No other differences between the two versions of the document were observed.
For that and other reasons, some officials are skeptical of the analysis, which is based on commercially available cellphone location data. One U.S. official who has seen the document said the data “looks really weak to me and some of the conclusions don’t make sense.”
Earlier, U.S. intelligence agencies received reports based on publicly available cellphone and satellite data suggesting there was a shutdown at the lab, two U.S. officials familiar with the matter say. But after examining overhead imagery and their own data, the spy agencies were unable to confirm any shutdown, and deemed the reports “inconclusive.”
Another U.S. official said intelligence agencies may give the data another look in the wake of this new report. And still another intelligence official said there may be more private cellphone location data that could shed further light on the matter.
Because the Wuhan lab is a high-security facility in an adversary nation studying dangerous pathogens, it is a collection target for several U.S. intelligence agencies, multiple officials told NBC News. Data gathered would include mobile phone signals, communications intercepts and overhead satellite imagery, the officials said.
Analysts are now examining what was collected in October and November for clues suggesting any anomalies at the lab, officials said.
Congressional intelligence committees have also been given the document, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R.-Fla., appeared to be alluding to it or a similar report in a tweet on Wednesday.
“Would be interesting if someone analyzed commercial telemetry data at & near Wuhan lab from Oct-Dec 2019,” Rubio tweeted. “If it shows dramatic drop off in activity compared to previous 18 months it would be a strong indication of an incident at lab & of when it happened.”
A Rubio spokesman declined to comment.
Among the many questions about the document is who wrote it. The cover page says “MACE E-PAI COVID-19 ANALYSIS.” It’s unclear what that means, although E-PAI may stand for “electronic publicly available information.”
President Donald Trump has said he has seen evidence that gives him “a high degree of confidence” that the virus emerged accidentally from a lab, but U.S. intelligence officials say they have not reached that conclusion and lack hard evidence to support it.
China has consistently denied that the virus escaped from a lab, and Chinese media recently called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “evil” for suggesting the possibility.
Those who suspect such a lab release point to a body of circumstantial evidence:
- A Jan. 24 study published in the medical journal The Lancet found that three of the first four cases — including the first known case — didn’t provide a documented link to the Wuhan wet market.
- The bats that carry the family of coronaviruses linked to the new strain aren’t found within 100 miles of Wuhan — but they were studied in both labs.
- Photos and videos have emerged of researchers at both labs collecting samples from bats without wearing protective gear, which experts say poses a risk of human infection.
- A U.S. State Department expert who visited the WIV in 2018 wrote in a cable reported by The Washington Post: “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, [U.S. diplomats] noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”
- According to Senate Intelligence Committee member Tom Cotton, R-Ark., the Chinese military posted its top epidemiologist to the WIV in January.
- The Shanghai laboratory where researchers published the world’s first genome sequence of the coronavirus was shut down Jan. 12, according to The South China Morning Post.
- According to U.S. intelligence assessments, including one published by the Department of Homeland Security and reviewed by NBC News, the Chinese government initially covered up the severity of the outbreak. Government officials threatened doctors who warned their colleagues about the virus, weren’t candid about human-to-human transmission and still haven’t provided virus samples to researchers.