China is guarding ancient bat caves against journalists and scientists seeking to discover the origins of the coronavirus

RATCHABURI, THAILAND - SEPTEMBER 12: A team of ecologists and ecology students from Kasetsart University collect wingspan data from a wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bat at an on site lab near the Khao Chong Pran Cave on September 12, 2020 in Ratchaburi, Thailand. A team of researchers consisting of scientists, ecologists, and officers from Thailand's National Park Department have been conducting bat sampling collection missions throughout Thailand's countryside in an effort to understand the origins of COVID-19. Led by Dr. Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, who's team at the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Diseases-Health Science Center at Chulalongkorn University was the first to analyze and confirm a COVID-19 case outside of China and has led the research in Thailand on tracing the virus. The team from Chulalongkorn University has been researching coronaviruses for 10 years with an expertise in the study of bats. The research team takes part in a catch and release program where they sample saliva, excrement, blood and tissue samples from a variety of bats in Thailand. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
Ecologists collect data from a wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats on site lab near the Khao Chong Pran Cave on September 12, 2020 in Ratchaburi, Thailand. Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images
  • China is closely guarding caves that once played host to bats infected with close variants of COVID-19, The Associated Press reported.

  • The caves in Yunnan Province, south China, are where scientists hope to find evidence of how the coronavirus evolved in bats.

  • But samples taken recently by scientists were confiscated, the AP said, adding that police blocked access to roads and sites around the caves in late November.

  • Journalists with the AP and the BBC said they encountered roadblocks and met people hired to keep them away from the caves.

  • The cabinet must vet all research papers based on evidence from the caves in Beijing, the AP said, "under direct orders from President Xi Jinping."

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China is guarding ancient caves where bats infected with coronavirus variants once lived in an attempt to control research into the outbreak, The Associated Press reported.

The caves, located in China's southern Yunnan Province, are thought to hold the key to understanding how the novel coronavirus evolved in bats. They have yielded information about other coronaviruses before.

In 2017, scientists tracked down the bats responsible for the 2003 SARS outbreak there. The region also played host to the 2012 discovery of RaTG13, a close variant of the coronavirus, which a study in February found to share 96% of its genetic makeup.

But China is taking steps to safeguard the site and control who gets access, The AP said, adding that a team of its journalists were tailed by security services and refused entry into one of the caves.

Authorities also confiscated samples taken by a team of scientists on a recent trip to the caves and police blocked access to roads and sites around the caves in late November, the AP said.

On a recent visit, the BBC reported that "unidentified men told us their job was to keep us out" and that a truck was abandoned in the road to block their convoy.

Some scientists are allowed in though most are affiliated with the Chinese military, the AP said.

All research papers based on evidence from the caves must be submitted to a task force overseen by the government in Beijing "under direct orders from President Xi Jinping."

Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Getty

Bats are well known for carrying a plethora of viruses that do not make them sick. A 2019 study found that one bat can carry more than 200 coronaviruses.

Another coronavirus was discovered in the bats from the Yunnan caves in 2019, as Business Insider's Aylin Woodward previously reported.

The study published in the journal Current Biology identified a previously unknown coronavirus named RmYN02 "that's 97.1% similar to SARS-CoV-2" that was found between May and October 2019.

Many of the samples taken from the caves have been transferred to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the BBC said, a facility at the center of a baseless conspiracy theory that accused it of leaking the coronavirus from a lab.

The lab denies the theory.

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