Professor Kwok-Yung Yuen, whose team identified the SARS virus in 2003, said he suspects that authorities deliberately attempted to “cover up” the source of the outbreak that has now infected more than 16 million people around the world and claimed 694,000 lives.
In an interview with the BBC’s Panorama: China’s Coronavirus Cover-Up programme, to be broadcast on Monday evening, Prof Yuen, of Hong Kong University, said Huanan Seafood Market had been disinfected before a team of scientists was allowed to investigate the site.
“I do suspect that they have been doing some cover-up locally at Wuhan,” Prof Yuen told the programme. “The local officials who are supposed to be immediately relaying the information has not allowed this to be done as rapidly as it should.”
In early January, genetic sequencing revealed that the mysterious new illness spreading through the city closely resembled the SARS virus, which killed more than 700 people.
By 18 January , Prof Yuen diagnosed a family of seven living in Shenzen, some 700 miles away from Wuhan. Some of the family members had just returned from Wuhan.
But Prof Yuen said Beijing contined to play down the seriousness of the new respiratory disease, despite evidence of human transmission.
“I know how efficient the virus was spreading and I know that it is acquired in hospital and I know that it can go with people by flights from one city, thousands of miles away,” he added.
“There is one thing that I learned [during the SARS outbreak] … if you don’t make use of every hour, you are in big, big trouble.”
Prof Yuen then joined a team of high-profile Chinese scientists who were sent to Wuhan on 18 January.
He said he wanted to inspect the market initially blamed for the outbreak but that it had already been disinfected.
If the virus jumped from animals to humans here, crucial evidence was now lost, Prof Yuen said.
“When we went to the Huanan Seafood Market, of course there is nothing to see because the market was clean already. So, you may say that the crime scene is already disturbed.
“Because the Seafood Market was cleared…we cannot identify the animal host…which has given the virus to humans.”
Professor Andrew Tatem, of Southampton University, has been studying mobile phone data which shows people’s movements in and out of the Wuhan area before a lockdown was imposed.
He said earlier action could have made a critical difference.
He told Panorama: “If the same interventions that were put in place on 23 January had been put in place on 2 January, we may have seen a 95 per cent reduction in the number of cases.”
Professor Li Lanjuan was a key adviser to the Chinese government in the early stages of the outbreak and recommended the lockdown.
She told Panorama: “The lockdown was a grave decision. It was only made when we felt that the epidemic in Wuhan would threaten the entire country.”
China has said it shouldn’t be blamed for coronavirus and it is a victim too. Official claimed they have acted at all times with “openness and transparency”.
Official in China said they “provided information to the WHO and relevant countries in a timely fashion”.
China agreed to join an international inquiry into the pandemic but only after the crisis is over.
Dr Bernhard Schwartländer, Chef de Cabinet, World Health Organisation, said: “We stand ready to come with the best experts around the world to work together with our Chinese counterparts to really understand, to try to understand, where this virus has come from as a basis to make the world safer as we move forward.”
It comes as the coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of slowing down, with large numbers of deaths and cases being recorded in the US, India and much of South America.
Elsewhere, China recorded its biggest rise in cases since April, while Australia recorded its worst ever daily infection tally as authorities continue to grapple with multiple outbreaks in Melbourne.
India has recorded nearly 50,000 new daily cases of Covid-19, the highest daily tally so far, according to the ministry of health and family welfare.
Global infections stand at just under 16.2 million, with nearly 650,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins figures.