Tracing the origins of Covid-19 has become an overriding priority. Image: WHO

A coronavirus strain similar to Covid-19 was found in a bat-infested copper mine in China seven years ago.

The pathogen was discovered after an outbreak of deaths and underwent clinical testing before being stored in a high-security laboratory in Wuhan, the epicenter of the initial epidemic in January.

Later known as RaTG13, its genomic sequencing “was 96% identical” to SARS-Cov-2, the infectious virus behind the Covid-19 crisis. 

“An investigation has uncovered evidence that China failed to share crucial information about the sister virus to Covid-19, even though it is the strongest lead in the hunt for the origins of the pandemic,” the award-winning Insight team from the Sunday Times newspaper in London said.

The virus was “discovered after six men were struck down with symptoms such as fever, coughs and pneumonia” after working in a Mojiang mine in the south of Yunnan Province.

“Three died [and] four of the men tested positive for the coronavirus antibodies, although two had passed away before they could be checked,” the report stated, adding that the original hosts were bats.

Last week, a report in Nature shed even more light on the origins of the coronavirus.

The influential scientific journal pointed out that only “an independent investigation” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology would “convincingly rule out the lab as a possible source of the outbreak.” But scientists believe that is highly unlikely because of geopolitical tensions.

The big question being asked now about the spread of Covid-19 was China’s transparency as the virus spread across the country. Photo: STR / AFP

“In the latest study, researchers analyzed partial sequences for some 1,240 coronaviruses found in bats in China. They report that the virus fuelling the pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, is most closely related to a group of viruses found in horseshoe bats,” Nature reported.

“Their findings add to an earlier report that a coronavirus called RATG13, which some of the authors found in intermediate horseshoe bats in Yunnan province, shares 96% of its genetic sequence with SARS-CoV-2,” it said.

At least, China has finally bowed to international pressure to allow World Health Organization officials into the country to help identify the source of the global pandemic.

The outbreak was originally traced to a Wuhan wet market, which also sold live wild animals, back in December. 

By February, vast swaths of China were in lockdown before the epidemic became a pandemic. So far, global infections have surged past 11.5 million, while more than 536,000 have died because of the disease.

“Knowing the source of the virus is very, very important. We can fight the virus better when we know everything about the virus, including how it started. We will be sending a team next week to China to prepare for that,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, told a press briefing last week.

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Australia has been a leading voice in calling for an independent inquiry into the outbreak despite pressure from the Chinese government.

In May, more than 120 countries agreed that the WHO should hold an “impartial and comprehensive evaluation” of the international response to SARS-Cov-2.

“We stand with Australia and more than 120 nations now who have taken up the American call for an inquiry into the origins of the virus, so we can understand what went wrong and save lives now and in the future,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a news conference in Washington.

Obviously, last week’s report will only add to the controversy surrounding Covid-19.