Vanity Fair and other news sources have cited multiple unnamed sources from within the US State Department claiming that three Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers supposedly in engaged in "gain of function" studies had fallen ill in November 2019 with symptoms similar to Covid-19:

In November, that lead turned up classified information that was “absolutely arresting and shocking,” said a former State Department official. Three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, all connected with gain-of-function research on coronaviruses, had fallen ill in November 2019 and appeared to have visited the hospital with symptoms similar to COVID-19, three government officials told Vanity Fair.

While it is not clear what had sickened them, “these were not the janitors,” said the former State Department official. “They were active researchers. The dates were among the absolute most arresting part of the picture, because they are smack where they would be if this was the origin.” The reaction inside the State Department was, “Holy shit,” one former senior official recalled. “We should probably tell our bosses.” The investigation roared back to life.

Is any of this verifiable by the general public? Who are these three researchers? Were they ill on the dates claimed with the symptoms claimed, etc.?

There are some rebuttals from China's Ministry of Foreign affairs, but they are rather unspecific and simply accuse the US of spreading anti-Chinese propaganda. The most specific of these is probably this quote on WebMD:

“I’ve read it. It’s a complete lie,” Yuan Zhiming, PhD, director of the biosafety lab, told Global Times, a state-run news outlet.

“Those claims are groundless,” he said. “The lab has not been aware of this situation, and I don’t even know where such information came from.”

It's not too clear whether that is in response to the January 15 factsheet from Trump's administration (which was a bit vague) or the more recent, slightly more detailed report published by the Wall Street Journal and other outlets in May.

  • To me the 'with symptoms similar to COVID-19' bit is new and as far as I know this bit is not included in the otherwise very similar statement in the Wall Street Journal article which (to my knowledge) is a much more trustworthy source than Vanity Fair.
    – quarague
    Jun 6, 2021 at 12:19
  • 1
    the WSJ article said the symptoms were consistent with both covid and non-covid pneumonia, which is a more careful way of saying the same thing
    – Avery
    Jun 6, 2021 at 12:28
  • 2
    I'm not sure why "Three researchers had covid-like symptoms (from some communicable disease they probably passed around to each other)" is news, really. Have you seen the list of covid-like symptoms? I feel like i'd be hard-pressed to find a respiratory illness that wasn't covered under that umbrella
    – Ben Barden
    Jun 7, 2021 at 3:05
  • 1
    @BenBarden, I think the "news" would be "Three researches had covid-like symptoms at the Wuhan Institute of Virology at the same time the outbreak was starting". That certainly sounds like news I'd want to hear.
    – Adam Johns
    Jun 7, 2021 at 21:39
  • Also in China there is no general practitioner (GP) system. If you want to see a doctor, you go to a hospital. Going to the hospital does not indicate any severity (staying in a hospital does, of course)
    – lalala
    Jun 10, 2021 at 8:35

1 Answer 1


Not a definitive answer, but an interview with an Australian scientist, Danielle Anderson, who worked at the institute at around the time just came out 2 days ago:



  • Regarding her stay:

Anderson was on the ground in Wuhan when experts believe the virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2, was beginning to spread. Daily visits for a period in late 2019 put her in close proximity to many others working at the 65-year-old research centre. She was part of a group that gathered each morning at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to catch a bus that shuttled them to the institute about 30 kilometres away.

  • Regarding sickness at the time

Anderson says no one she knew at the Wuhan institute was ill towards the end of 2019. Moreover, there is a procedure for reporting symptoms that correspond with the pathogens handled in high-risk containment labs.

“If people were sick, I assume that I would have been sick – and I wasn’t,” she says. “I was tested for coronavirus in Singapore before I was vaccinated, and had never had it.”

  • Regarding possibility of a lab leak

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is large enough that Anderson says she didn’t know what everyone was working on at the end of 2019. She is aware of published research from the lab that involved testing viral components for their propensity to infect human cells. Anderson is convinced no virus was made intentionally to infect people and deliberately released – one of the more disturbing theories to have emerged about the pandemic’s origins.

Anderson did concede that it would be theoretically possible for a scientist in the lab to be working on a gain of function technique to unknowingly infect themselves and to then unintentionally infect others in the community. But there’s no evidence that occurred and Anderson rated its likelihood as exceedingly slim.

Interestingly, the same article also mentioned the article in OP's question

...disclosed by the Wall Street Journal, claimed three researchers from the lab were hospitalised with flu-like symptoms in November 2019.

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