CHINESE scientists secretly found a virus strain similar to COVID-19 in an abandoned mine in 2013 but kept the discovery secret, according to a shocking new report.
An investigation by The Sunday Times claims the closest linked “strain" to coronavirus was discovered in a bat and rat infested mine in 2013 and was stored for years at a virology lab in Wuhan.
⚠️ Read our coronavirus live blog for the latest news & updates
The discovery of a strain, made seven years ago at the copper mine in south west China, is said to be the strongest lead yet in the hunt for where the pandemic began.
It was found after six men were struck down in 2012 with fever, coughs and pneumonia, half of them fatally, after working in the mineshaft.
The report says four of the men tested positive for coronavirus antibodies - but two died before they could be checked.
Dr Shi Zhengli - nicknamed “Bat Woman” by her colleagues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology – in February co-authored the most extensive academic paper on the novel coronavirus up to that point.
In addition to giving a full genetic description of the virus, Dr Shi’s paper – published in Nature – revealed the WIV housed a bat sample named RaTG13, saying it was a 96.2 per cent match with COVID-19.
But one of Dr Shi's longstanding colleagues alleged the RaTG13 sample was found in the mine in 2013 but the information on the sister virus was not shared.
The news comes after Donald Trump in April said he had a "high level of confidence" that COVID-19 came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after seeing evidence.
He added that US authorities were "looking at it very, very strongly", saying: "We're going to see where it is - we're going to see where it comes from. There's a lot of theories. China might even tell us."
The president announced in June that he would withhold funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) over their handling of the virus outbreak, in which they praised China’s attempts to “contain” the virus.
But after recent pressure from the WHO, China is to launch an investigation into claims the the virus could have leaked from the Wuhan laboratory.
The institute - the largest infectious disease lab in the world - is alleged to have been carrying out high-risk experiments to increase the infectivity of coronaviruses in an attempt to understand the mechanisms that might cause a pandemic.
The newspaper says researchers collected hundreds of coronavirus samples from remote regions of China and brought them back to the city.
LEGLESSBoozy Brits look a little worse for wear as pubs close early after ‘major disorder’
PREPARING TO FAILMeet the 'collapsologists' who live off the land in case society crumbles
HIGH ALERTSpain locks down area with 400,000 people - just as Brits head there on holiday
'SENSE OF PRIDE'Brit soldier who rescued Bosnian boy on patrol celebrates him turning 21
DEATH PLUNGEWoman, 32, dies after falling from F1 rollercoaster at French theme park
SHOPPEDLib Dem leader calls cops on Farage for ‘breaking quarantine’ in pub after US trip
However, the Wuhan Institute claims experiments were shelved because they did not believe the strain was a close enough match to the Sars virus.
However, scientists have questioned the likelihood of this scenario.
Nikolai Petrovsky of Flinders University in Adelaide told The Times: “If you really thought you had a novel virus that had caused an outbreak that killed humans then there is nothing you wouldn’t do — given that was their whole reason for being [there] — to get to the bottom of that, even if that meant exhausting the sample and then going back to get more.”
CORONAVIRUS CRISIS - STAY IN THE KNOW
Don't miss the latest news and figures - and essential advice for you and your family.
To receive The Sun’s Coronavirus newsletter in your inbox every tea time, sign up here.
Get Britain’s best-selling newspaper delivered to your smartphone or tablet each day – find out more.