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COVID-19 Origins: Investigating a “Complex and Grave Situation” Inside a Wuhan Lab

Katherine Eban and Jeff Kao wrote . . . . . . . . .

“A Secret Language of Chinese Officialdom”

Toy Reid has always had a gift for languages — one that would carry him far from what he calls his “very blue-collar” roots in Greenville, South Carolina. In high school, Spanish came easily. At nearby Furman University, where he became the first person in his family to attend college, he studied Japanese. Then, “clueless but curious,” as he puts it, he channeled his fascination with the Dalai Lama into a master’s degree in East Asian philosophy and religion at Harvard. Along the way, he picked up Khmer, the national language of Cambodia, and achieved fluency in Chinese.

But it was his career as a China specialist for the Rand Corporation and as a political officer in East Asia for the U.S. State Department that taught him how to interpret a notoriously opaque language: the “party speak” practiced by Chinese Communist officials.

Party speak is “its own lexicon,” explains Reid, now 44 years old. Even a native Mandarin speaker “can’t really follow it,” he says. “It’s not meant to be easily understood. It’s almost like a secret language of Chinese officialdom. When they’re talking about anything potentially embarrassing, they speak of it in innuendo and hushed tones, and there’s a certain acceptable way to allude to something.”

For 15 months, Reid loaned this unusual skill to a nine-person team dedicated to investigating the mystery of COVID-19’s origins. Commissioned by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the team examined voluminous evidence, most of it open source but some classified, and weighed the major credible theories for how the novel coronavirus first made the leap to humans. An interim report, released on Thursday by the minority oversight staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP), concludes that the COVID-19 pandemic was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.”

As part of his investigation, Reid took an approach that was artful in its simplicity. Working out of the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington and a family home in Florida, he used a virtual private network, or VPN, to access dispatches archived on the website of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). These dispatches remain on the internet, but their meaning can’t be unlocked by just anyone. Using his hard-earned expertise, Reid believes he unearthed secrets that were hiding in plain sight.

Ever since the Chinese city of Wuhan was identified as ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic, a contingent of scientists have suspected that the virus could have leaked from one of the WIV’s complex of laboratories. The WIV is, after all, the venue for some of China’s riskiest coronavirus research. Scientists there have mixed components of different coronaviruses and created new strains, in an effort to predict the risks of human infection and to develop vaccines and treatments. Critics argue that creating viruses that don’t exist in nature runs the risk of unleashing them.

The WIV has two campuses and performed coronavirus research on both. Its older Xiaohongshan campus is just 8 miles from the crowded seafood market where COVID-19 first burst into public view. Its newer Zhengdian campus, about 18 miles to the south, is home to the institute’s most prestigious laboratory, a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) facility, designed to enable safe research on the world’s most lethal pathogens. The WIV triumphantly announced its completion in February 2015, and it was cleared to begin full research by early 2018.

Like many scientific institutes in China, the WIV is state-run and funded. The research carried out there must advance the goals of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As one way to ensure compliance, the CCP operates 16 party branches inside of the WIV, where members including scientists meet regularly and demonstrate their loyalty.

Week after week, scientists from those branches chronicled their party-building exploits in reports uploaded to the WIV’s website. These dispatches, intended for watchful higher-ups, generally consist of upbeat recitations of recruitment efforts and meeting summaries that emphasize the fulfillment of Beijing’s political goals. “The headlines and initial paragraphs seem completely innocuous,” Reid says. “If you didn’t take a close look, you’d probably think there’s nothing in here.”

But much like imperfect propaganda, the dispatches hold glimmers of real life: tension among colleagues, abuse from bosses, reprimands from party superiors. The grievances are often couched in a narrative of heroism — a focus on problems overcome and challenges met, against daunting odds.

As Reid burrowed into the party branch dispatches, he became riveted by the unfolding picture. They described intense pressure to produce scientific breakthroughs that would elevate China’s standing on the world stage, despite a dire lack of essential resources. Even at the BSL-4 lab, they repeatedly lamented the problem of “the three ‘nos’: no equipment and technology standards, no design and construction teams, and no experience operating or maintaining [a lab of this caliber].”

And then, in the fall of 2019, the dispatches took a darker turn. They referenced inhumane working conditions and “hidden safety dangers.” On Nov. 12 of that year, a dispatch by party branch members at the BSL-4 laboratory appeared to reference a biosecurity breach.

once you have opened the stored test tubes, it is just as if having opened Pandora’s Box. These viruses come without a shadow and leave without a trace. Although [we have] various preventive and protective measures, it is nevertheless necessary for lab personnel to operate very cautiously to avoid operational errors that give rise to dangers. Every time this has happened, the members of the Zhengdian Lab [BSL4] Party Branch have always run to the frontline, and they have taken real action to mobilize and motivate other research personnel.

Reid studied the words intently. Was this a reference to past accidents? An admission of an ongoing crisis? A general recognition of hazardous practices? Or all of the above? Reading between the lines, Reid concluded, “They are almost saying they know Beijing is about to come down and scream at them.”

And that, in fact, is exactly what happened next, according to a meeting summary uploaded nine days later.

The dozens of pages of WIV dispatches that Reid unearthed, particularly those from November 2019, helped shape the conclusion of the interim report. Working out of a small, windowless room in the Hart building that they nicknamed “the Bat Cave,” the researchers cross-referenced Reid’s analysis with myriad clues, from procurement notices and patent filings to records of ongoing scientific experiments at the WIV. As their investigation grew, so did a timeline that unfolded across the walls like a giant checkerboard.

Given advance access to hundreds of pages of the Senate researchers’ findings and analysis, Vanity Fair, in partnership with ProPublica, spent five months investigating their underlying evidence. We analyzed WIV documents, consulted with experts in CCP communications, asked biocontainment experts to help analyze documents and reviewed with independent scientists the possible evidence that certain vaccine research may have begun far earlier than acknowledged.

We also traced the hazards that arose as the WIV built a lab to research the world’s most dangerous pathogens. Taken together, our reporting provides critical context that is not included in the pared-down 35-page interim report. It offers the most detailed picture to date of the months leading up to the COVID-19 outbreak, including new details on the intense pressure the lab faced to produce breakthrough research, its struggles to grapple with mounting safety issues and a previously unreported series of references to a mysterious incident shortly before the virus began infecting its first victims.

The Senate HELP minority committee did not release a detailed 236-page analysis that Reid drafted as a companion report. Nor did the interim report provide context for the documents he unearthed. These omissions came as hundreds of pages were whittled down to 35 in the days before the report was released. Though some members of the Senate team reviewed a small number of classified documents, the interim report relied only on publicly available material. A spokesperson for the Senate HELP minority committee told Vanity Fair and ProPublica: “What has been included in the interim report are the facts the Committee has determined are ready for, and worthy of, publication at this time. The Committee’s bipartisan oversight investigation is still ongoing, and what is worthy of inclusion will find its way into the final report.”

Vanity Fair and ProPublica downloaded more than 500 documents from the WIV website, including party branch dispatches from 2017 to the present. To assess Reid’s interpretation, we sent key documents to experts on CCP communications. They told us that the WIV dispatches did indeed signal that the institute faced an acute safety emergency in November 2019; that officials at the highest levels of the Chinese government weighed in; and that urgent action was taken in an effort to address ongoing safety issues. The documents do not make clear who was responsible for the crisis, which laboratory it affected specifically or what the exact nature of the biosafety emergency was.

The interim report also raises questions about how quickly vaccines were developed in China by some teams, including one led by a military virologist named Zhou Yusen. The report called it “unusual” that two military COVID-19 vaccine development teams were able to reach early milestones even faster than the major drug companies who were part of the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed program.

Vanity Fair and ProPublica spoke to experts who said that the timeline of Zhou’s vaccine development seemed unrealistic, if not impossible. Two of the three experts said it strongly suggested that his team must have had access to the genomic sequence of the virus no later than in November 2019, weeks before China’s official recognition that the virus was circulating.

The authors of the interim report do not claim to have definitively solved the mystery of COVID-19’s origin. “The lack of transparency from government and public health officials in the [People’s Republic of China] with respect to the origins of SARS-CoV-2 prevents reaching a more definitive conclusion,” the report says, adding that its conclusion could change if more independently verifiable information becomes available.

Throughout the pandemic, the WIV has largely remained a black box, owing to the Chinese government’s refusal to cooperate with international probes. By mining the WIV’s own records, Toy Reid and Senate researchers unearthed new clues that support the interim report’s assessment that a lab accident was “most likely” responsible for the pandemic.

In response to detailed questions, a Chinese Embassy spokesperson, Liu Pengyu, dismissed allegations of a lab leak and said that an international team convened by the World Health Organization concluded that “the allegation of lab leaking is extremely unlikely. The conclusion should be respected. … From the very beginning, China has taken a scientific, professional, serious and responsible attitude in origins tracing.” Some American politicians and journalists “distort facts and truth,” he said, adding that the U.S. should “stop using the epidemic for political manipulation and blame games.”

“Open the Aperture of Your Mind”

More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset, the question of its origin has remained a scientific whodunit for the ages. Did the virus come from a caged infected animal, languishing in the warren of stalls at a Wuhan wholesale market? Or did it come from the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology, where China’s top coronavirus researchers, some partly funded by the U.S. government, were splicing together coronavirus strains to gauge how they might become most infectious to humans?

A bitter battle has ensued between a group of virologists who assert their research points to a market origin and an alternate group of academics and online sleuths who argue there’s been an attempted cover-up of a more likely lab origin. Four months ago, the World Health Organization’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens revised an earlier conclusion and said that both scenarios remain on the table, due to insufficient evidence, and require further investigation.

In June 2021, with efforts to learn the truth at a virtual standstill, Burr drafted Dr. Robert Kadlec, the former Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response under President Donald Trump, to assemble a team to examine the leading hypotheses. Burr, the ranking member of the Senate HELP committee, is retiring at year’s end. A spokesperson for Burr declined to make him available for an interview.

In the foreword of the interim report, Burr wrote, “My ultimate goal with this report is to provide a clearer picture of what we know, so far, about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 so that we can continue to work together to be better prepared to respond to future public health threats.”

Burr has served in the U.S. Congress for 28 years, first as a congressman and then, since 2005, as a senator. By today’s standards, he is a moderate Republican, having voted to convict Trump in the Jan. 6 impeachment. Long known for his work on biodefense issues, he helped lead passage of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act in 2006 and also worked to speed up the FDA’s approval of drugs for rare diseases.

The pandemic also immersed him in scandal, as ProPublica has previously reported. In February 2020, after receiving Senate intelligence committee briefings on the health threat of COVID-19, he sold up to $1.7 million in stock holdings before the market tanked, sparking a Justice Department investigation into insider trading. Burr said he relied on public news reports to guide his decision to sell stocks. He stepped aside as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee after the FBI seized his cellphone. In January 2021, the DOJ closed its investigation without charging him.

The Senate HELP committee paid the salaries of seven researchers, but little more, so Kadlec cobbled together the best team he could. From the State Department, he borrowed a veterinary epidemiologist as well as Reid, whom he’d met just weeks earlier through a mutual friend who was a Dalai Lama aficionado. At the time, Reid was detailed to the office of Sen. Marco Rubio to work on China policy issues. Kadlec also leaned on scientific advisers with expertise in virology, epidemiology and biodefense.

Kadlec, a former Air Force officer who worked with Burr years earlier on bioterrorism issues, has served under both Republican and Democratic presidents. In 2003, he deployed to Iraq for the Department of Defense and played a critical role in debunking the false claims that trailers there doubled as mobile bioweapons labs. That experience, he says, equipped him to navigate the murky world of“dual-use research,” where civilian scientific work sometimes has a clandestine military purpose.

In February 2020, in his role at HHS, Kadlec allowed sick Americans on a cruise ship to return to the U.S. Angry that the move added to the domestic COVID-19 case count, Trump threatened to fire him. And when Rick Bright, a senior HHS official turned whistleblower, accused the Trump administration of politicizing the pandemic response, he also alleged that Kadlec demoted him in retaliation and used federal funds to bestow contracts on favored drugmakers. The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis investigated. While it did not issue formal findings against Kadlec, it noted in a press release that an HHS division under Kadlec’s control awarded a lucrative contract to a drugmaker, despite regulators’ warnings about its troubled manufacturing plants. Calling the experience “very hurtful,” Kadlec says, “I got slimed in the press.” He adds, “I still carry that with me today.”

Kadlec says the investigation of the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster, in which seven astronauts died, inspired his approach to the inquiry. It showed that “in complex disasters and events, there is always a political side, an engineering side, a human error side,” he says. “These things happen for a variety of reasons, so you have to open the aperture of your mind.”

In recruiting Reid, Kadlec found an analyst who would look for clues in places a typical scientist wouldn’t. “The things that I’ve been researching and translating are not really science,” Reid says. “It’s the party speaking to the world of science and trying to manage it.”

“Complex and Grave Situation”

Even the authors of the relentlessly cheerful party branch dispatches and meeting summaries in the WIV archive found it hard to sugarcoat the events of Nov. 19, 2019, Toy Reid discovered as he delved into the WIV’s archives.

Seven days after the Zhengdian party branch members wrote their memo about rushing to the front line to defend against viral dangers, fallout arrived in the form of an official visitor from Beijing. That visitor, Dr. Ji Changzheng, is the technology safety and security director for the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the sprawling state agency that oversees more than 100 research institutions in China, including the WIV. His visit was billed as a senior safety-training seminar for a small high-level audience, including the WIV’s research department heads and top biosafety officials.

But the meeting, chronicled in a one and a half page summary uploaded to the WIV website on Nov. 21, was no pro forma seminar. According to Reid, it appears to have been “out of the ordinary and event driven,” and distinct from the annual safety training, which had been held in April.

For Reid, the import of Ji’s opening remarks practically leapt off the page. Ji told the assembled group that he had come bearing “important oral remarks and written instructions” from General Secretary Xi Jinping and China’s premier, Li Keqiang, to address a “complex and grave situation.”

Though the summary’s language is characteristically vague, Ji described:

many large-scale cases of domestic and foreign safety incidents in recent years, and from the perspective of shouldering responsibility, standardizing operations, emergency planning, and inspecting hidden dangers one-by-one, [he] laid out a deep analysis, with many layers and taken from many angles, which vividly revealed the complex and grave situation currently facing [bio]security work.

The WIV’s deputy director of safety and security spoke next, summarizing “several general problems that were found over the course of the last year during safety and security investigations, and [he] pointed to the severe consequences that could result from hidden safety dangers.”

But what drew Reid’s full attention was the word Ji used to describe the important “written instructions” he was relaying from Beijing: “pishi.” When China’s senior leaders receive written reports on a worrying or important issue, they will write instructions in the margins, known as pishi, to be carried out swiftly by lower-level officials. As Reid interpreted it, the pishi that Ji arrived with that day appeared to have come directly from Xi, arguably China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. To Reid, it suggested that Xi himself had been briefed on an ongoing crisis at the WIV.

Is it possible that Ji meant to invoke the authority of China’s supreme leader in a general way? As Reid acknowledges, “When Chinese officials want to be taken seriously by whoever their audience is, they invoke more senior officials.” To assess whether Ji had simply been dropping Xi’s name, as a way to underscore the importance of his message, Reid researched nine of Ji’s visits to different facilities prior to the pandemic. All were characterized as annual or routine. None mentioned a pishi. “There wasn’t this bandying about of Xi,” Reid says.

Further, when Chinese officials are invoking a higher authority in general terms, they will typically cite an important speech, says Reid. For example, Ji could have referenced the one Xi gave at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ plenary session in May 2018. As Reid puts it, “If he just wanted to invoke the authority of Xi, the natural way to do that is to say, ‘Remember when he came to speak to all of us?’” Invoking the pishi, Reid believes, was “taking it to another level.”

Ji did not respond to questions and a request for comment sent to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The director general at the WIV and the head of the WIV party committee did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Vanity Fair and ProPublica examined research from Chinese academics on pishi and separately got three experts on CCP communications to review the WIV meeting summary. All agreed that it appeared to be urgent, nonroutine and related to some sort of biosafety emergency. Two also agreed that it appeared Xi himself had issued a pishi.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official said that, while the pishi in the dispatch is not necessarily a smoking gun, he reads it as saying that “there is some issue related to lab security, which doesn’t come up very often, that needed to be seen by Xi Jinping.” He added, “Something signed off on by the General Secretary (Xi) and Premier (Li) is high priority.”

Another longtime CCP analyst said it was not possible to conclude from the document that Xi and Li had actually issued a pishi related to a specific incident, or even that they had been informed of one. Ji, in her view, might well have been invoking their names without their knowledge to underscore the importance of his message. However, she said that, given the party’s preference for positive communications, the acknowledgment of a “‘complex and grave situation’ means ‘We are facing something really bad.’” She also said that the language of the summary implied that the situation in question was happening at that time.

Reading between the lines is essential to understanding what the WIV dispatches really mean. As Geremie Barmé, an emeritus professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University, who analyzed key documents at our request, said of CCP communications, “The style of self-protection, of rounding things out, of avoiding the truth, is a highly developed, bureaucratic art form.”

Without more evidence, it is impossible to know the details of what the assembled group knew and discussed that day. But at least one news report supports the notion that the virus may have been circulating at that time. In March 2020, a veteran journalist with the South China Morning Post reported that she reviewed internal Chinese government data on early cases of COVID-19 that included a 55-year-old in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, who contracted COVID-19 on Nov. 17, 2019.

That was just two days before Ji arrived at the WIV, bearing urgent instructions from the highest levels of China’s government.

“Black Swans and Gray Rhinos”

A virologist and former Army officer, James LeDuc spent half a century studying how infectious diseases impact public health and national security. Over the course of his career, he witnessed China’s rise from a “not well-developed country” to a biotechnology superpower, he told Vanity Fair and ProPublica.

In December 1985, LeDuc, then a supervisor at the U.S. Army medical research center, Fort Detrick, arrived at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to help work on a trial of drug efficacy for the hantavirus, a life-threatening disease transmitted by rodents. “China was emerging from the Cultural Revolution. Everyone was on bicycles,” he recalls. “I can remember giving a talk — the screen was a sheet one of us had to hold. The windows were broken out.”

Two and a half decades later, with help from French scientists and engineers, the WIV laid the cornerstone for China’s first BSL-4 laboratory. That facility, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, would become synonymous with the country’s lofty biotech ambitions. “China has said repeatedly and forcefully — and they’re backing up their words with actions — that they intend to own the bio-revolution,” the biodefense expert Dr. Tara J. O’Toole testified in November 2019 before a U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. O’Toole served as one of Kadlec’s scientific advisers for the report.

Today, China operates three BSL-4 laboratories and plans to build at least five more. (Biolabs are rated 1-4, from least to most secure, according to standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and international public health agencies.)

China’s progress has been fast — arguably too fast for its infrastructure to keep pace. It remains dependent on other countries for critical technology and supplies, leading to chronic procurement hurdles that party branch members refer to as the “stranglehold problem.” It has a thin bench of experts to run the most advanced laboratories. China “didn’t have the background of how to run [advanced laboratories] safely,” says LeDuc. “They were trying to do their best.”

From 2010 until his retirement in 2021, LeDuc served as director of the Galveston National Laboratory, one of eight BSL-4 facilities in the U.S. During that time, he went out of his way to help improve standards at the WIV. He brought several of the WIV’s scientists to Galveston for training and invited its officials to attend an international conference he hosted.

In 2016, LeDuc returned to the WIV for a scientific meeting in which he shared a new set of recommendations. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity had urged the U.S. government to more intensively screen proposals for what it called “gain-of-function research of concern” in which scientists manipulate dangerous pathogens to gauge their likelihood of sparking a pandemic.

LeDuc says his presentation was “not necessarily well received. Most of the folks were scientists and could care less about policy.” But he felt he had a responsibility to warn them all the same. “It’s enlightened self-interest that we are doing everything to ensure [China’s] success,” he says. “We want to make sure they have the best practices. If someone screws up, we all suffer.”

Poring through publicly available documents, Kadlec’s researchers saw that China’s top scientists had been sounding the alarm too. “The biosafety laboratory is a double-edged sword; it can be used for the benefit of humanity but can also lead to a ‘disaster,’” warned a March 2019 article co-written by Yuan Zhiming, director of the WIV’s BSL-4 laboratory. “With increasing numbers of high-level biosafety laboratories constructed in China, it is urgent to establish and implement standardized management measures.”

That same month, the director of China’s CDC cautioned that bioengineering technologies would “also be available to the ambitious, careless, inept and outright malcontents, who may misuse them in ways that endanger our safety.” Writing in the journal Biosafety and Health, the director at the time, George Fu Gao, also urged that “modifying the genomes of animals (including humans), plants, and microbes (including pathogens) must be highly regulated.”

Meanwhile, reports of sloppy practices, hazardous conditions and inadequate oversight reverberated across China’s laboratories, according to documents unearthed by Reid and reviewed by Vanity Fair and ProPublica. A 2018 study by a municipal agency in Zhangjiajie, which canvassed 37 laboratories in the area, came to a scorching conclusion. “Our findings allow for no optimism about biosafety conditions,” the study said. “There are many hidden safety dangers, including occupational exposure, hospital acquired infections, environmental hazard, lack of training, those without credentials taking posts, management systems that do not operate effectively, leadership that does not place enough importance [on lab safety], deficient supervision and management by relevant health departments, etc.”

On Nov. 7, 2018, an official with the Municipal Health Inspection Bureau of Guangzhou, China’s largest manufacturing hub, identified a litany of hazards found during laboratory biosafety inspections: improper use of disinfectants, substandard management of samples, personnel with inadequate training and protective gear, and laboratory wastewater released directly into sewage systems.

The WIV was by no means exempt from such problems, according to reports in its own archives. In 2011 and 2018, inspections of WIV laboratories turned up lapses including improper storage of viral samples and management failings.

Then, on Dec. 24, 2018, an incident that was impossible to conceal helped catapult lab safety to the top of China’s policy agenda. Three students at Beijing Jiaotong University burned to death after improperly stored chemicals exploded inside the school’s laboratory.

On Jan. 21, 2019, Xi Jinping gave a speech to the CCP’s Central Party School, where budding young cadres receive their higher education. Conveying a sense of “anxious urgency,” according to The New York Times, he stressed the need to prepare for two kinds of risks: “black swans and gray rhinos.” He was referring to two concepts popularized in bestselling books: A black swan is a rare and unpredictable event, while a gray rhino is an obvious risk that is ignored until it poses an immediate threat. Xi proceeded to describe potential security problems in China’s state laboratories, leaving no doubt that he was concerned about the issue.

With Xi himself calling for action, a biosecurity bill that had been on the back burner became a top priority and later passed. In October 2019, Gao Hucheng, chairman of a National People’s Congress committee responsible for environmental protection, argued for its importance before the Congress’ standing committee.

In the fall of that year, according to declassified intelligence in a U.S. State Department fact sheet, several researchers inside the WIV became sick “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” The fact sheet did not say who the researchers were or how the US government learned of their illnesses.

As the Chinese government raced to overhaul biosafety regulations, scientists at the WIV faced a conflicting imperative: Beijing’s demand for scientific breakthroughs, which created pressure to perform cutting-edge experiments that could be published in prestigious journals. A party branch dispatch noted that Tong Xiao, a member of the WIV’s CCP committee, often told scientists there: “Don’t look at your work duties as pressure. Every task is an opportunity and a ladder for continuous self-improvement. Our team’s belief is that suffering losses is good fortune.”

“They’ve got this really aggressive regime breathing down their neck,” says Reid. “These guys are in a political pressure cooker.”

“A Doom Loop of Pressure”

In 2002, an outbreak of the SARS coronavirus that originated in China spread around the world, killing 774 people and infecting more than 8,000. At first, China tried to conceal the problem. When that became impossible, it played down the severity, falsely claiming the epidemic was under control. Meanwhile, in two separate incidents in 2004, SARS accidentally leaked from a top laboratory in Beijing and led to mini outbreaks.

In the wake of the debacle, China committed to a long-term project to not only repair its public-health reputation but also achieve the cutting-edge scientific prowess worthy of a true global superpower.

In 2004, French president Jacques Chirac flew to Beijing to sign a scientific cooperation agreement that would help catapult China into the big leagues. Welcomed with lavish ceremony, amid Champagne and strutting soldiers, Chirac pledged that France would sell China four mobile BSL-3 laboratories, help build a world-class BSL-4 lab and partner on essential research.

Eleven years and $44 million later, construction of the BSL-4 lab was complete. Set high above a flood plain, the four-story concrete laboratory was designed to withstand a magnitude 7 earthquake. By early 2018, it had been accredited to research the world’s most dangerous pathogens, including Ebola, Marburg and Nipah viruses. Xi Jinping himself hailed it as “of vital importance to Chinese public health.”

From the outside, the WIV appeared to be a transparent hub for top-caliber international collaborations. That ethos was best embodied by a fearless scientist named Shi Zhengli. She had risen through the ranks at the WIV to become director of its Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases and deputy director of its BSL-4 lab. Fluent in French, she had trained at the BSL-4 Jean Mérieux-Inserm Laboratory in Lyon and was well known in China as “bat woman” for her intrepid exploration of their caves to collect samples. “Shi Zhengli was totally aware of how to handle viruses,” Gabriel Gras, a French biosafety and biocontainment technology expert who helped train the WIV’s BSL-4 staff, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica. “She has handled these all her life.”

As the BSL-4 lab there became one of the nation’s most exalted scientific showpieces, Shi’s research grew in importance and scope. In a 2015 research paper, Shi and a University of North Carolina virologist named Ralph Baric proved that the spike protein of a novel coronavirus could be used to infect human cells. Using mice as subjects, they spliced the spike of a novel SARS-like virus from a bat into a version of the 2003 SARS virus, creating a new infectious pathogen. The virus manipulation was completed at Baric’s BSL-3 lab in North Carolina. This gain-of-function experiment was so fraught that the authors essentially put a warning label on it, writing, “scientific review panels may deem similar studies … too risky to pursue.”

In March 2018, Shi partnered with Baric and a longtime collaborator, Peter Daszak, on a $14 million grant proposal to genetically manipulate bat coronaviruses to see how they might cause pandemics. The proposal called for possibly enhancing the viruses with something called a furin cleavage site to boost their entry into human cells. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) rejected the grant proposal for not adequately assessing the risks posed by a supercharged virus.

It is not clear whether WIV scientists continued the research on their own. Shi and Baric did not offer comment. In his response to our request for comment, Daszak did not address the DARPA grant. He said that he had not reviewed the Senate report and instead pointed to another report, which he recently co-authored in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that “strongly indicates” a natural origin for SARS-CoV-2.

Though Shi was most often pictured in the Chinese press in her white, pressurized oxygen suit, required for BSL-4 research, published papers show that she and the researchers she supervised did much of their work in BSL-3 and even BSL-2 facilities, which the WIV allowed prior to the pandemic. The interim report enumerates several types of risky research conducted at the WIV at BSL-3 and BSL-2 levels. Animal experiments to test the efficacy of vaccines generated highly infectious aerosols that are “difficult to detect,” the interim report says, adding that “there were concerns about conducting this type of research in a BSL2 laboratory.”

In early 2017, the collaboration with the French fizzled and Gras, the last French expert there, departed. The French had served as designers and contractors but never became partners. “I think the French did not really have a strong interest in working with Wuhan,” in part due to diverging research interests, Gras said. He added that Yuan Zhiming, the BSL-4 director, “was not an easy person. He can put pressure on people.” Yuan did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Long before the lab began its riskiest work, there were alarming signs of trouble ahead. In 2016, during severe flooding, the waters rose so high that nearby streets were impassable, and researchers had to hike through a forested area to reach the laboratory and ensure its safety, Zhengdian lab party branch members recounted in a WIV dispatch that Toy Reid unearthed.

The decision to build the walls out of stainless steel caused a considerable challenge. Stainless steel is “very vulnerable to corrosion” from disinfectants, Bob Hawley, the former chief of safety and radiation protection at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica. Hawley is an expert adviser to the interim report.

Even in 2016, Chinese technicians were already struggling with how to properly disinfect laboratory surfaces and other items, according to emails obtained in a FOIA lawsuit. That July, Yuan emailed an NIH staffer he’d met the previous year under the subject line “ask for help.” He wrote that he was seeking “some suggestion for the choice of disinfectants” used in the BSL-4 laboratory. “I am sorry to disturb you and I really hope you could give us some suggestion,” he wrote.

As LeDuc observed, “They were looking for expertise wherever they could find it.”

Yuan himself identified the shortage of expertise as one of many problems that imperiled safe operations in China’s laboratories. In the September 2019 issue of the Journal of Biosafety and Security, he described a threadbare system where maintenance costs were “generally neglected” and “several high-level BSLs have insufficient operational funds for routine yet vital processes. Due to the limited resources, some BSL-3 laboratories run on extremely minimal operational costs or in some cases none at all.”

Gerald Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at Texas A&M University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and an expert adviser to the interim report, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica that he found Yuan’s revelations “jaw-dropping.” The combination of biosafety problems and limited maintenance funds is “a recipe for disaster,” he said. “You further couple that with an authoritarian regime where you could be penalized for reporting safety issues. You are in a doom loop of pressure to produce, and if something goes wrong you may not be incentivized to report.”

As the Zhengdian lab party branch members noted in their dispatch of Nov. 12, 2019, which the interim report includes: “In the laboratory, they often need to work for four consecutive hours, even extending to six hours. During this time, they cannot eat, drink or relieve themselves. This is an extreme test of a person’s will and physical endurance.”

A four- to six-hour shift in a positive pressure suit would be “unusually lengthy,” said Hawley, given the stress of dehydration, lack of mobility and noise from oxygen that is so loud it requires hearing protection. “Usually, it’s only a couple of hours at the maximum.”

Larry Kerr, a virologist who recently retired as HHS’s director of the Office of Pandemics and Emerging Threats and served as an expert adviser to the Senate report, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica, “My gut feeling is that the WIV was not ready to go hot when they turned everything on [at the BSL-4] and started doing experiments in early 2018.” He added: “Even the WIV’s people are saying, ‘We don’t have the resources and capabilities to keep this up and running.’ It’s like, holy crap, if you are working in a lab like that, I don’t understand why people don’t shut it down.”

But the showpiece laboratory remained as busy as ever. As Reid said of the WIV dispatches he analyzed, “The feel you get from all these documents is: It’s just produce, produce, produce, like an actor preparing to take the stage before they’re ready.”

“The CCP’s Version of ‘Cover Your Ass’”

By the fall of 2019, trouble was brewing at the WIV, according to documents turned up by Toy Reid.

On Sept. 11, 2019, the CCP’s No. 15 Inspection Patrol Group arrived at the Beijing headquarters of the WIV’s parent organization, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), to conduct a two-month political inspection. The inspection was part of a larger routine sweep of 37 state organizations. According to the inspection team’s leader, its purpose was to sniff out any “violations of political discipline, party organizational discipline, [financial] ethics discipline, discipline with regard to the masses, work discipline, and discipline in one’s personal life.” They were also on the lookout for instances of insufficient loyalty to the CCP’s mission.

The Beijing inspectors identified more than a dozen “principal problems” at CAS, among them a “‘persistent gap’ between Xi Jinping’s important instructions on pursuing ‘leap frog development in science and technology’ and CAS’s implementation of Xi’s instructions.” In short: not enough progress, despite all the pressure.

A week earlier, on Sept. 3, more than 50 managers and staffers at the WIV had met to discuss a looming internal audit that would evaluate political discipline, according to a party branch dispatch. The scientists and their overseers were facing scrutiny at every level.

A trail of evidence from that fall appears to show the WIV trying to address a crisis. “That’s when you start to see emergency response activity,” says Larry Kerr, the former director of the HHS pandemic office.

It began within 24 hours of the start of the CAS inspection. On Sept. 12 between 2 and 3 a.m., the interim report says, the WIV took down its Wildlife-Borne Viral Pathogen Database, which contained more than 15,000 samples from bats. The database had been a resource for researchers globally. A password-protected section only accessible to WIV personnel contained unpublished sequences of bat beta-coronaviruses — the family of coronaviruses to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs. Public access to the database has not yet been restored.

The Senate researchers analyzed a trail of procurements and patent applications, which, the interim report notes, suggest that “the WIV struggled to maintain key biosafety capabilities at its high-containment BSL3 and BSL4 laboratories.” On Dec. 11, a team of WIV researchers submitted a patent application in China for a device to filter and contain hazardous gases inside a biological chamber, like the ones it used to transport infected animals. The application, which Vanity Fair and ProPublica reviewed, noted that defective air hoses on animal carriers can lead to “multi-stage” risks when airborne pathogens are involved, and warned that a “stable high-efficiency filtering device” and corrosion-resistant frame were “urgently needed.” The following year, in November 2020, the WIV applied for a patent for a new disinfectant compound that it argued would reduce “the corrosion effect to metal, especially stainless steel material,” the interim report says.

The patent application, which listed seven inventors, including Yuan Zhiming, vividly describes concerns related to its prior disinfectant:

Long-term use will lead to corrosion of metal components such as stainless steel, thereby reducing the protection of … facilities and equipment. It can not only shorten its service life and cause economic losses, but also lead to the escape of highly pathogenic microorganisms into the external environment of the laboratory, resulting in loss of life and property and serious social problems.

In the words of one China analyst who serves as an adviser to Western companies, when Chinese officials “describe the solution to a problem, that’s how you find out what went wrong.”

Vanity Fair and ProPublica analyzed the WIV website and found that there may have been an after-the-fact attempt to reframe the events of November 2019. On Nov. 11, the WIV appeared to republish the entire section of its website containing institutional and party branch news. Every dispatch from prior dates, even those from several years earlier, contains underlying data that indicates that it was changed on that day.

While this could have resulted from routine site maintenance, it raises another possibility: that WIV officials removed or revised documents in an effort to insulate themselves from blame ahead of the Nov. 19 visit from Ji Changzheng, the CAS biosecurity official.

The first dispatch to be posted after Nov. 11 was the one from the Zhengdian lab party branch enumerating how its members had rushed to the front lines every time there had been a biocontainment lapse. The dispatch was dated Nov. 12, but the underlying data suggested the file was actually uploaded on Nov. 19, the day of Ji’s urgent visit.

Matthew Pottinger, who researches China-related issues at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and was President Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica, “This is the CCP’s version of ‘cover your ass.’”

“Scientifically, Technically Not Possible”

As Senate researchers explored the question of when the outbreak began, they and their scientific advisers examined the surprisingly fast vaccine development by several Chinese research teams.

The work of one military vaccinologist caught their attention: Zhou Yusen, director of the State Key Laboratory of Pathogen and Biosecurity at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology, in Beijing. Zhou had spent years working to develop vaccines for pathogens including SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a novel coronavirus first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. A 2016 report by the WIV featured Zhou as a key partner on its MERS vaccine research. And in November 2019, he collaborated on a paper with a team of WIV scientists that included Shi Zhengli.

On Feb. 24, 2020, Zhou became the first researcher in the world to apply for a patent for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. His proposed vaccine worked by reproducing a part of the virus’s spike protein known as the receptor binding domain. In order to start vaccine development, researchers would have needed the entire SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence, the interim report says.

Shi Zhengli has said that her lab was the first to sequence the virus and completed that work on the morning of Jan. 2, 2020. That sequence is the one Zhou said he worked with in his Chinese patent application, which Vanity Fair and ProPublica reviewed.

According to the interim report, there are limits to how fast a vaccine can be developed. In particular, it said that “animal studies are designed to last a specific length of time and cannot be curtailed without compromising the resulting data.”

In his patent application and in subsequently published papers, Zhou documented a robust research and development process that included both adapting the virus to wild-type mice and infecting genetically modified ones with humanized lungs.

Vanity Fair and ProPublica consulted two independent experts and one expert adviser to the interim report to get their assessment of when Zhou’s research was likely to have begun. Two of the three said that he had to have started no later than November 2019, in order to complete the mouse research spelled out in his patent and subsequent papers.

Larry Kerr, who advised on the interim report, called the timeline laid out in Zhou’s patent and research papers “scientifically, technically not possible.” He added, “I don’t think any molecular biology lab in the world, no matter how sophisticated, could pull that off.”

Rick Bright, the former HHS official who helped oversee vaccine development for the U.S. government, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica that even a four-month timetable would be “aggressive,” especially when the virus in question is new. “Things aren’t usually that perfect,” he said.

Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told us the timetable was very fast but “feasible for a group with substantial existing expertise and ongoing work” on developing similar SARS-related coronavirus vaccines, but only if “everything went right.”

Zhou and his colleagues described their COVID-19 vaccine research in a preprint posted on May 2, 2020. When it was published in a peer-reviewed journal three months later, Reid found, Zhou was listed as “deceased.” The circumstances of his death have not been disclosed.

Battle Lines

In the early hours of Jan. 1, 2020, Wuhan officials closed the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market after identifying it as the site of the world’s first cluster of SARS-CoV-2 infections. Animals for sale were carted away, stalls were sanitized and an epidemiology team spent days collecting environmental samples.

How did the virus arrive in Wuhan, a metropolis of 11 million people hundreds of miles north of China’s teeming bat caves? It was such an unlikely place for a coronavirus outbreak that WIV scientists had in the past used Wuhan residents as a control group when screening people in the countryside of Yunnan Province for exposure to bat-borne viruses. The assumption was that urbanites in Wuhan would have little contact with bats.

To many scientists, the answer was clear: The wildlife trade in China had brought live animals, an obvious source of disease, into dangerously close proximity with people. Years earlier, something similar had happened with SARS, which spilled over into multiple different markets that sold live animals across Guangdong Province over the course of months.

But the interim report also highlights questions that soon arose regarding the market theory. If the wildlife trade was the culprit, where was the trail of infected animals? And where was the animal host?

The question of where COVID-19 came from has never been a purely scientific one. From the start, in both China and the U.S., it has been politicized almost beyond recognition.

In April 2020, Trump declared at a press conference that COVID-19 — or “kung flu,” as he soon began calling it — had come from a lab in China. When pressed on the evidence for this claim, he declared: “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.”

As a conspiratorial rabble trained its sights on the WIV generally, and Shi Zhengli specifically, Western scientists rushed to their defense. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” read a statement signed by 27 scientists and published by the Lancet medical journal on Feb. 19, 2020. It would later emerge that one of the scientists who’d signed that statement had sought to conceal his own role in orchestrating it and creating the impression of a consensus, as Vanity Fair has reported previously. That scientist didn’t address this issue when he replied to our request for comment for this article.

By then, however, the battle lines had been drawn. If you backed the lab-leak theory, you were with Trump. If you believed in science, you supported the natural-origin theory generally and the market-spillover theory in particular.

On Feb. 25, 2022, a team of researchers from China’s CDC published a preprint revealing that of the 457 swabs taken from 18 species of animals in the market, none contained any evidence of the virus. Rather, the virus was found in 73 swabs taken from around the market’s environment, all linked to human infections. And although some seafood and vegetable vendors in the market tested positive, no vendors from animal stalls did.

The next day, a team of scientists including Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, published a preprint identifying the Huanan market as the “unambiguous epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Using mapping software, they analyzed the locations of 155 of the earliest known cases reported by the Chinese authorities to the World Health Organization and found them to be centered on the market. A companion analysis led by Jonathan Pekar, a bioinformatics graduate student at the University of California San Diego, said there had been not one but “at least two” spillover events at the market.

The Worobey paper described its findings as “dispositive evidence” for a market origin. The New York Times catapulted the preprints to international attention. When the peer-reviewed version was published in Science in July, the “dispositive evidence” language was gone. In a detailed response to our request for comment, Worobey said that the removal of those words was the authors’ editorial choice and that the language in Science was “no less definitive” than the preprint: “It was replaced with similar language: ‘our analyses indicate that the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 occurred through the live wildlife trade in China.’”

By contrast, the interim Senate report concludes that “the hypothesis of a natural zoonotic origin no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt, or the presumption of accuracy.” The available evidence doesn’t fit the patterns of previous outbreaks, it states, including outbreaks of SARS in 2003 and avian influenza in 2013. Those outbreaks saw many independent spillover events in multiple locations, and those viruses “exhibited much greater genetic diversity than early SARS-CoV-2 strains.” And within six months of the first known case of SARS, the report says, Chinese health officials found evidence of the virus in palm civets and raccoon dogs.

The interim report also points out that, “almost three years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, there is still no evidence of an animal infected with SARS-CoV-2, or a closely related virus, before the first publicly reported human COVID-19 cases in Wuhan in December 2019.”

Worobey said, “Our two recent papers establish that a natural zoonotic origin is the only plausible scenario for the origin of the pandemic.” Before this story ran, Worobey posted his comments to us, as well as additional ones, on Twitter, so they would not be “ignored or filtered,” and stated he had not been given sufficient time to respond.

While the China CDC found no evidence of the virus in animals in the market, Pekar told Vanity Fair and ProPublica that the removal of animals from the market by the start of 2020 made it difficult to “actually sample the correct animals for SARS-CoV-2.”

The Senate’s interim report is no likelier than the Worobey and Pekar studies to close the book on the origins debate, nor does it attempt to. If anything, it seems destined to escalate the battle just as Republicans in Congress hope to retake the majority in the midterm elections. They aim to haul Dr. Anthony Fauci, the outgoing director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, into Benghazi-style hearings.

The dispute over COVID-19’s origins, fought in the halls of Congress and on the web pages of scientific preprints, has become more toxic and divisive as time has passed. On Twitter, what should be scientific debate has devolved into a mosh pit of poop emojis and middle school insults. It is unclear what is driving the animus, but political advantage, egos, scientific reputations and research dollars all hang in the balance.

“Under the Thumb of the Party State”

In early February 2020, as COVID-19 was spreading beyond China, James LeDuc of the Galveston National Laboratory began fielding calls from journalists asking if SARS-CoV-2 could have originated from a lab.

He didn’t think so. Nonetheless, on Feb. 9, he emailed his longtime colleague and mentee at the WIV, Yuan Zhiming. LeDuc encouraged him to “conduct a thorough review of the laboratory activities associated with research on coronaviruses so that you are fully prepared to answer questions dealing with the origin of the virus.” He included a three-page list of “some areas where you may wish to investigate.”

Included in LeDuc’s proposed review were the following questions: “Is there any evidence to suggest a mechanical failure in biocontainment during the time in question? -were biological safety cabinets used and appropriately certified? -Exhaust air filtration systems working correctly?”

The questions were apt. Two and a half months earlier, according to the interim report, procurement officials at the WIV posted a call for bids on a government website seeking a costly air incinerator. The post was dated Nov. 19, 2019, the very day that the visiting CAS safety official arrived to address a “complex and grave” situation there.

Prior to the wider adoption of HEPA filters in the 1950s, air incinerators were used to “superheat air coming from one place and going to another, in order to render them free of any microbial agent,” said Bob Hawley, the former safety chief at the Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease. “If somehow the HEPA filter system failed, because there was a tear or breach … then your quick fix would be to bring in an air incinerator.”

LeDuc says he never heard back from Yuan.

Toy Reid, who is now in Jakarta, Indonesia, resuming his work for the State Department, says that WIV scientists are not “free agents” who can candidly share what occurred in their laboratories. “The WIV is under the thumb of the party state,” he says. “Just because you can’t see the political pressures they’re under doesn’t mean they’re not under them. American scientists have been slow to realize that.”

Without the cooperation of China’s government, we can’t know exactly what did or didn’t happen at the WIV, or what precise set of circumstances unleashed SARS-CoV-2. But the dispatches that Reid unearthed, when overlaid with additional evidence the Senate team compiled, point to a catastrophe in the making: political pressure to excel, inadequate resources to safeguard risky work and an effort to skirt blame once a crisis hit.

As Reid sees it, the international community must continue to demand answers. “If you just throw your hands in the air and say, ‘We’ll never know because it’s China,’ and just move on — if you take that defeatist approach to things — you can’t prepare yourself to prevent something like this from happening in the future.”

Source : ProPublica

WHO: COVID Origins Unclear But Lab Leak Theory Needs Study

Maria Cheng and Jamey Keaten wrote . . . . . . . . .

Over two years after the coronavirus was first detected in China, and after at least 6.3 million deaths have been counted worldwide from the pandemic, the World Health Organization is recommending in its strongest terms yet that a deeper probe is required into whether a lab accident may be to blame.

That stance marks a sharp reversal of the U.N. health agency’s initial assessment of the pandemic’s origins, and comes after many critics accused WHO of being too quick to dismiss or underplay a lab-leak theory that put Chinese officials on the defensive.

WHO concluded last year that it was “extremely unlikely” COVID-19 might have spilled into humans in the city of Wuhan from a lab. Many scientists suspect the coronavirus jumped into people from bats, possibly via another animal.

Yet in a report released Thursday, WHO’s expert group said “key pieces of data” to explain how the pandemic began were still missing. The scientists said the group would “remain open to any and all scientific evidence that becomes available in the future to allow for comprehensive testing of all reasonable hypotheses.”

Identifying a disease’s source in animals typically takes years. It took more than a decade for scientists to pinpoint the species of bats that were the natural reservoir for SARS, a relative of COVID-19.

WHO’s expert group also noted that since lab accidents in the past have triggered some outbreaks, the highly politicized theory could not be discounted.

Jean-Claude Manuguerra, a co-chair of the 27-member international advisory group, acknowledged that some scientists might be “allergic” to the idea of investigating the lab leak theory, but said they needed to be “open-minded” enough to examine it.

The report could revive accusations that WHO initially was too accepting of Chinese government explanations early in the outbreak, which ultimately killed millions of people, sickened millions more, forced dozens of countries into lockdown and upended the world economy.

Investigations by The Associated Press found that some top WHO insiders were frustrated by China during the initial outbreak even as WHO heaped praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping. They were also upset over how China sought to clamp down on research into the origins of COVID-19.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speculated repeatedly — without evidence — that COVID-19 was started in a Chinese lab. He also accused WHO of “ colluding” with China to cover up the initial outbreak, citing the U.N. health agency’s continued public praise of the country despite China’s refusal to share crucial data.

WHO’s expert group said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sent two letters to senior Chinese government officials in February requesting information, including details about the earliest human cases of COVID-19 in the city of Wuhan. It’s unclear whether the Chinese responded.

The experts said no studies were provided to WHO that assessed the possibility of COVID-19 resulting from a laboratory leak.

Jamie Metzl, who sits on an unrelated WHO advisory group, has suggested that the Group of Seven industrialized nations set up their own COVID origins probe, saying WHO lacks the political authority, expertise and independence to conduct such a critical evaluation.

Metzl welcomed WHO’s call for a further investigation into the lab leak possibility but said it was insufficient.

“Tragically, the Chinese government is still refusing to share essential raw data and will not allow the necessary, full audit of the Wuhan labs,” he said. “Gaining access to this information is critical to both understanding how this pandemic began and preventing future pandemics.”

In Washington, a Republican-led subcommittee in the House of Representatives on the COVID-19 pandemic tweeted: “Americans were smeared as ‘conspiracy theorists’ for asking whether #COVID19 came from a lab leak. Now, the WHO is asking the same questions.”

“WE NEED ANSWERS,” added the committee, which is headed by Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

WHO’s expert scientists said numerous avenues of research were needed, including studies evaluating the role of wild animals, and environmental studies in places where the virus might have first spread, like the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan.

In March 2021, WHO released a report about COVID-19′s origins following a highly choreographed visit by international scientists to China. The report concluded that the disease most likely jumped into humans from bats and that there was no evidence to suggest there was a connection to a laboratory.

Yet after considerable criticism, including from some scientists on WHO’s team, the agency’s director acknowledged that it was “ premature ” to rule out a lab leak.

In its new report, WHO said the experts were given access to data that included unpublished blood samples from more than 40,000 people in Wuhan in 2019. The samples were tested for COVID-19 antibodies. None were found, suggesting the virus was not spreading widely before it was first identified in late December that year.

WHO’s experts called for numerous studies to be done, including testing wild animals to find which species might host COVID-19. They also said the “cold chain” supply theory should be probed. China has previously advanced the idea that traces of COVID-19 on frozen packaging was causing outbreaks rather than any domestic source, a theory widely panned by outside scientists.

To investigate whether COVID-19 might have been the result of a lab accident, WHO’s experts said interviews should be conducted “with the staff in the laboratories tasked with managing and implementing biosafety and biosecurity.”

China has called the suggestion that COVID-19 began in a laboratory “ baseless ” and countered that the virus originated in American facilities, which were also known to be researching coronaviruses in animals. The Chinese government has said it supports the search for the pandemic’s origins, but that other countries should be the focus.

In a footnote to the report, WHO’s group noted that three of its own experts — scientists from China, Brazil and Russia — disagreed with the call to investigate the possibility of COVID-19 being sparked by a lab accident.

Scientists connected to WHO lamented in August 2021 that the search for the pandemic’s origins had stalled and that the window of opportunity was “closing fast.” They warned that collecting data that was now at least two years old was increasingly difficult.

Source : AP

Wuhan Lab Leak ‘Now the Most Likely Origin of COVID’, U.K. MPs Told

Sarah Knapton wrote . . . . . . . . .

A laboratory leak is now the more likely origin of COVID, MPs have heard, because after two years of searching an animal host has never been found.

Speaking to the Science and Technology Select Committee, Dr. Alina Chan, a specialist in gene therapy and cell engineering at MIT and Harvard, said there was also a risk that Covid-19 was an engineered virus.

Dr Chan, said: “I think the lab origin is more likely than not. Right now it’s not safe for people who know about the origin of the pandemic to come forward. But we live in an era where there is so much information being stored that it will eventually come out.

“We have heard from many top virologists that a genetically engineered origin is reasonable and that includes virologists who made modifications to the first SARS virus.

“We know this virus has a unique feature, called the furin cleavage site, and without this feature there is no way this would be causing this pandemic.

“A proposal was leaked showing that EcoHealth and the Wuhan Institute of Virology were developing a pipeline for inserting novel furin cleavage sites. So, you find these scientists who said in early 2018 ‘I’m going to put horns on horses’ and at the end of 2019 a unicorn turns up in Wuhan city.”

The furin cleavage point on Covid-19 is part of the spike protein which helps it to enter cells.

Spike proteins are little grappling hooks which lock onto receptors on human cells. They have two sections, a binding section and a cell-entry section.

Once attached, the virus makes use of the enzyme furin – which is present in human cells – to snip away the bound section, leaving a space for the cell-entry section of the spike protein to fuse with the cell membrane and get inside. It is the reason Covid-19 is so infectious.

Viscount Ridley, who co-authored a book on the origin of the virus with Dr Chan, said he also believed a lab leak was now the likely origin.

Lord Ridley told MPs: “I also think it’s more likely than not because we have to face the fact after two months we knew the origins of SARS, and after a couple of months we knew MERS was though through camels, but after two years we still haven’t found a single infected animal that could be the progenitor, and that’s incredibly surprising.

“We need to find out so we can prevent the next pandemic. We need to know whether we should be tightening up work in laboratories or whether we should be tightening up regulations related to wildlife markets. At the moment we are really not doing either.

“We also need to know to deter bad actors who are watching this episode and thinking that unleashing a pandemic is something they could get away with.

“We know now that experiments were being done at biosecurity level 2 (similar to a dentist’s office) that resulted in 10,000 times increases in infectivity of viruses and three or four times their lethality. The important thing is to stop doing these experiments that are risky.”

Peter Daszak’s interests declared ‘too little too late’

During the session, the editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, was also criticised over a letter published by the journal in 2020 which dismissed the lab leak theory as a ‘conspiracy theory’ and effectively shut down the debate into the lab leak theory.

The letter was authored by Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth alliance, who had worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) engineering bat coronaviruses.

Yet despite the close link, it took 16 months for the Lancet to publish a memo setting out Mr. Daszak’s conflicts of interest.

Aaron Bell said the memorandum declaring Mr. Daszak’s interests had been ‘too little too late.’

Mr Horton argued it had taken more than a year to ‘persuade’ Mr. Daszak to declare that EcoHealth was working with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“We ask everybody to declare their competing interest and we take those statements on trust and in this care regrettably the authors claimed they had no competing interest and of course the implication there were indeed competing interests that were significant, particularly in relation to Peter Daszak,” said Mr Horton.

“We take declarations of conflicts of interests on trust. We quickly became aware of Peter Daszak’s conflict of interest and we ended up having a debate with him because his view was ‘Look, I’m an expert working in China on bat coronaviruses and that isn’t a competing interest, it makes me an expert.’

“But in the court of public opinion, that is a competing interest you should declare and it took us over a year to persuade him to declare his full competing interest.”

Mr Horton also said that the lab leak was now: ‘a hypothesis that should be taken seriously and needs to be further investigated.’

Source : The Telegraph

The Lab Leak Fiasco

Ashley Rindsberg wrote . . . . . . . . .

On Jan. 24, 2020, British peer-reviewed journal The Lancet published a study on a novel coronavirus it identified as 2019-nCoV. The study substantially contradicted the official Chinese government narrative about when and how the virus originated, placing its emergence months earlier. It also cast doubt on how the virus emerged. While the Chinese government had pointed to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the now-infamous wet market in Wuhan, the paper found that at least one-third of initial cases—including “patient zero,” the first person known to have been sick with the virus—had no connection to the market whatsoever.

In the United States, the media’s initial response to The Lancet paper was largely sober and serious. The New York Times ran a Jan. 25 article connecting the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism to an assortment of prior botched efforts to manage major crises. The next day, Science magazine ran a story questioning the CCP narrative about the origins of the virus, citing The Lancet study’s discovery that of the 41 initial patients, 13 had no link to the wet market. The day after that, Vox ran a piece calling into question many of the assumptions formed in the earliest days of the pandemic, including those that had been shaped by Chinese officials.

On the heels of this spate of coverage from the Times, Science, Vox and others, a U.S. public official added a similar viewpoint. On Jan. 30, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton cited the same Lancet paper in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in the course of making what seemed to be—by the standards of contemporaneous mainstream and expert coverage—a fairly unobjectionable point:

We still don’t know where coronavirus originated. Could have been a market, a farm, a food processing company. I would note that Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus.

The backlash to Cotton’s comment, swift and vociferous, would mark a turning point in the media’s approach to covering and investigating the origins of the virus. On Feb. 17, The New York Times and The Washington Post ran twin reports accusing Cotton of repeating a noncredible “fringe theory” about the origins of the virus, and taking particular issue with his comments on Fox News the previous day that “we don’t have evidence that this disease originated [in the Wuhan lab], but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says. And China right now is not giving any evidence on that question at all.” Both stories claimed that there was a consensus among experts that the so-called lab leak theory had been comprehensively dismissed.

Cotton’s line at the time was difficult to distinguish from mainstream coverage of The Lancet paper, and from presidential candidate Joe Biden’s later insistence to CNN that “I would not be taking China’s word for it. I would insist that China allow our scientists in to make a hard determination of how it started, where it’s from, how far along it is. Because that is not happening now.” So what was wrong with what Cotton said?

While the top-line reporting was the same from the Post and the Times, each paper took a different approach to the nuances of the story. The Post conflated Cotton’s remarks about a possible accidental leak from a scientific lab with an assertion that the virus might have been connected to a Chinese bioweapons program—something Cotton never claimed, and which no statement from anyone on or off the record had even suggested. (The Post issued a correction to the article over a year later, removing the terms “debunked” and “conspiracy theory” and noting that “then as now, there was no determination about the origins of the virus.”)

The Post had previously stitched together claims about the lab leak theory with expert statements on the question of a possible bioweapons connection. Most prominently, in its first article on the topic on Jan. 29, 2020, the Post ran a report that included a quote by professor Richard Ebright, a renowned professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, directly after the article noted a “fringe theory” about how the virus could have been the “accidental result of biological weapons research.” “Based on the virus genome and properties there is no indication whatsoever that it was an engineered virus,” the Post quoted from Ebright.

Ebright himself, however, was never opposed to exploring the possibility of a scientific lab leak. A few days after the Post piece ran, Ebright tweeted out a story about Chinese researchers from other biosafety labs who sold their lab test animals to meat markets. At the bottom of his tweet, Ebright made a simple statement: “Coronavirus may have leaked from lab.”

The Post’s January article citing Ebright was specifically focused on the “fringe theory” that the virus was part of a Chinese bioweapons program. But in that piece, the Post included prominent mention of an article by the Daily Mail that reported on a 2014 Nature paper documenting serious safety issues at China’s scientific biosafety labs. Directly beneath that paragraph referencing the Daily Mail article on an accidental scientific lab leak, the Post focused on a Washington Times article explicitly theorizing that the virus might emerged from a Chinese bioweapons program.

By couching the Daily Mail article—one of the very first, if not the first major news story to raise the possibility of an accidental lab leak—in a piece about fringe theories with thinly backed claims of a bioweapons program, the Post set off a chain of events that would lead to the creation of the bioweapons straw man: the conflation of an accidental lab leak, a theory considered plausible by scientists, then and now, with the actually fringe bioweapons release theory.

Days later, on Feb. 4, 2020, Business Insider’s David Choi picked up this thread, injecting Cotton into the picture by connecting his Senate remarks—which had made no mention of China’s biowarfare program—to “conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins—including one that says the virus ‘originated in lab [sic] linked to China’s biowarfare program.’”

The New York Times would elevate the bioweapons straw man as news media gospel when it reported on Feb. 17 that “The idea of the coronavirus as an escaped weapon has been carried through international news outlets like the British tabloid the Daily Mail and the Washington Times”—even though the Daily Mail article focused exclusively on an accidental lab leak and made no mention of the word “weapon.” This would have been plainly clear to anyone who had even casually perused the two articles, let alone an experienced New York Times reporter and numerous editors. (The New York Times did not respond to a request for comment.)

What accounted for the speed of the media’s about-face? One might posit that hatred of Cotton and the GOP among mainstream reporters and editors is so intense that if the Arkansas senator had said the sky was blue, the entire U.S. press corps would have declared it red. Yet blind partisanship alone couldn’t have guaranteed a rapid, simultaneous, and near-unanimous change in coverage. There was something else.

By now it’s a truism that China wields extraordinary influence over American business, but it’s often forgotten that “American business” includes, of course, the national news media. The nature of that influence does not necessarily entail paying off journalists or news organizations for desired coverage. There is simply an awareness that when the CCP bares its teeth, or, if necessary, goes on the attack, it can alter the fortunes of billion-dollar companies, thousands of employees, and millions of shareholders in the United States and elsewhere.

Consider The Washington Post, whose owner, Jeff Bezos, has enough money to fund the newspaper in perpetuity—an argument against Chinese influence directly shaping coverage. (Who needs China when the richest man on the planet, an American, is your sugar daddy?) But when we take into account that China plays a determining role in Amazon’s profitability, the picture starts to shift. For example, given that half of Amazon’s top 10,000 sellers are Chinese, it’s not hard to understand what would happen to the company’s balance sheet if the CCP decided to disrupt Amazon’s access to those sellers. Similarly, access to the Chinese market will likely be the determining factor in the ability of Amazon’s AWS division to maintain its top spot in the fiercely competitive global cloud computing market. AWS, which recently expanded its presence in China, accounts for nearly half of Amazon’s annual profit.

The Post is not alone. In May, New York Times media columnist Ben Smith penned a column on China’s “vast” strategy to create an alternate global news media and “to insert Chinese money, power and perspective into the media in almost every country in the world.” Smith wrote that China has leveraged its existing media influence to sway coverage, while ramping up that influence through partnerships in countries as far flung as Serbia, the Philippines, Italy, and Guinea-Bissau. Smith, however, never turned his attention to Chinese efforts to plant and harvest influence in its most valuable influence market, the United States, nor did he look at the Times’ own record on pandemic coverage in the context of the paper’s decadelong collaboration with the state-owned media organization China Daily.

The Times and the Post, two of America’s three leading newspapers, are not unique among media outlets in their China ties. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts publicly stated in 2017 that he expected the company’s Universal Studios theme park in China, which opened in September 2021, to generate at least $1 billion in annual operating cash for NBCUniversal’s Universal theme park unit, which saw around $6 billion in total revenue in 2019 (the latest pre-pandemic figure) and accounts for one-third of all of parent company NBCUniversal’s operating cash, making the park a highly lucrative investment for the company. Comcast, the media conglomerate that owns NBCUniversal, also owns NBC News, CNBC, MSNBC, Sky News, and Telemundo, and holds major stakes in Vox Media (which owns Vox, The Verge, and New York Magazine, among others) and in BuzzFeed.

Ties between Disney—the parent of ABC News and Hearst Communications (which owns 33 TV news channels that, together, reach almost one-fifth of American viewers, in addition to 250 magazine editions)—and China are so cozy that the Chinese government recently called on the company to help improve ties with the United States government. In 2019, Reddit, an independent subsidiary of the parent company that owns Condé Nast, which in turns owns Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Wired, took $300 million of investment in a funding deal led by CCP-tied tech company Tencent. The list of major U.S. media companies with substantial ties to China is so long that it is more difficult to name one that isn’t dependent in one way or another on Chinese cash.

In addition to blind partisanship, then, all this can help explain why, for example, in a Feb. 9, 2020, interview with Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai, CBS News’ Margaret Brennan asked a charged question based on a false premise: “Senator Tom Cotton … suggested the virus may have come from China’s biological warfare program. That’s an extraordinary charge, how do you respond to that?” In response, the ambassador declared that it was “harmful” and “dangerous” to stir up “suspicion” and “rumors” that could lead to “racial discrimination” and “xenophobia.” Brennan moved on.

The same day as that interview, Politico published an article that held Brennan as the source for the bioweapons straw man. “When asked about comments made last week by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)—who, according to Brennan, suggested the virus may have come from China’s biological warfare program—Cui did not mince words,” the article stated [emphasis added]. Note that Politico did not quote Cotton saying something he never actually said; it attributed the false Cotton quote to a presumably reputable source (Brennan) without actually correcting it for readers, who would simply consume it as fact. Politico Managing Editor Blake Hounshell then tweeted that “It was wild to see @SenTomCotton spreading rumors about a Chinese bioweapon that were easily debunked within minutes.”

In its own Feb. 17 story, The New York Times made largely the same assertions as the Post, including the patently false claim that Cotton had “walked back the idea that the coronavirus was a Chinese bioweapon run amok.” But the Times report added another partisan twist, reporting that “the conspiracy theory … gained an audience with the help of well-connected critics of the Chinese government such as Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist. And on Sunday [after Cotton’s remarks], it got its biggest public boost yet.” By connecting a plausible lab leak theory first to an implausible bioweapons theory, and then to a hate figure like Steve Bannon, the Times was able to discredit the theory by claiming an association with Trump.

A Business Insider article published on the same day as the Times and Post pieces of Feb. 17 (though later in the day) presented a complete tableau, labeling lab leak a “conspiracy theory,” conflating it with a bioweapons program, claiming the theory had been “thoroughly debunked,” and turning to a Chinese government source (in this case, the editor of the Global Times) to suggest there were similarly credible rumors of a U.S. bioweapons leak. The one thing it couldn’t do was provide a quote about biological weapons from Tom Cotton.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik argued in a June 2021 interview that lab leak “was dismissed and ridiculed by the media” because, he claimed, the “source” of the theory was Trump. The problem with this explanation, as we’ve seen, is that America’s most influential news organizations had vehemently dismissed the lab leak theory as early as February 2020—back when Trump was still praising China for its handling of the virus, and well before he’d said anything at all about the Wuhan lab. It wasn’t until more than a month later, when it became clear that mounting deaths and lockdowns were going to have serious political consequences in the United States, that Trump adopted an anti-Chinese stance; and it wasn’t until two months later that he began making claims about a lab origin. So much for Folkenflik’s theory.

The other common explanation for the media’s anti-lab-leak effort, one still advanced by many members of the press, is that (a) there was no evidence for lab leak, while (b) there was substantial evidence that the virus jumped to humans from an animal. Both claims were rationalized by the now-infamous Lancet letter of February 2020 signed by 27 scientists, which stated, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that covid-19 does not have a natural origin.”

The Lancet was later harshly criticized after it was revealed that the letter was organized by Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance, an NGO that distributes U.S. government grant money (from the National Institutes of Health) to biosafety labs, including to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Like the excuse that Trumpian rhetoric had poisoned the well, however, the timeline of this explanation also doesn’t work: The Lancet letter ran on Feb. 19—after The New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Business Insider, ABC News, and numerous others had run reporting that definitively labeled lab leak a conspiracy theory.

For Daszak, The Lancet letter was only the opening salvo in a yearlong media campaign in which the EcoHealth Alliance head would become an Ahmed Chalabi-like presence, leading the media with claims of evidence of zoonotic spillover. Daszak would become almost as ubiquitous a media figure as Dr. Anthony Fauci, his government benefactor. This blitz included Daszak being uncritically interviewed, cited, or tapped as a talking head by The Guardian, CNN (on multiple occasions), The New York Times (on multiple occasions), NPR, Slate, The Washington Post, 60 Minutes, Wired US and Wired UK, Associated Press, Bloomberg News, CBS News (on multiple occasions), Science magazine, the Los Angeles Times, NBC News, Vox, Now This, ABC News, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and many others.

In these appearances, Daszak, a zoologist who studies zoonosis, advanced three other important threads of the broader media narrative about the coronavirus pandemic. The first was that the virus jumped to humans from animals, almost certainly, he claimed, from bats. This was a point Daszak really hammered home, and which the media accepted as all-but-proven, despite an ongoing lively debate among scientists who are experts in these fields.

The second was that the pandemic is directly related to humanity’s problematic relationship with the natural environment. Daszak penned one of The New York Times’ first COVID-related op-eds, in which he attributed pandemics like COVID-19 to “spillover” from animals as a result of humanity’s collision with nature in the form of “road-building, deforestation, land clearing and agricultural development.”

Third, Daszak would claim repeatedly that China was continuing to do exemplary work in the fight against zoonotic viruses—and that anyone who denied it was motivated by an anti-Chinese agenda. “China has done a lot to deal with this virus before us. They know a lot about how to control it,” Daszak told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, in an interview subsequently cited by Chinese propaganda outlets. “I think we started to see the conspiracy theories, the pointing of the finger at China, and just this sort of politicization which means countries cramp up and it’s really unfortunate.”

The media enthusiastically embraced this notion as it reported on China as a global model for fighting the pandemic and handling major crises more generally. Outlets as diverse as business analysis company Gartner (“How Chinese Companies Successfully Adapted to COVID-19”), NBC (“As Covid-19 runs riot across the world, China controls the pandemic”), The New Yorker (“How China Controlled the Coronavirus”), Wired (“How China Crushed Coronavirus”), and even The New York Review of Books (“How Did China Beat Its Covid Crisis?”) pursued the storyline that China had beaten the virus not in spite of the authoritarian state, but because of it. In one representative piece, “Power, Patriotism and 1.4 Billion People: How China Beat the Virus and Roared Back,” The New York Times reported on Feb. 5, 2021:

In the year since the coronavirus began its march around the world, China has done what many other countries would not or could not do. With equal measures of coercion and persuasion, it has mobilized its vast Communist Party apparatus to reach deep into the private sector and the broader population, in what the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, has called a “people’s war” against the pandemic—and won.

Why the media, in its coverage of China’s real and perceived successes, would go as far as to declare the fight against the pandemic essentially over, and that China “won,” when the country is still seeing outbreaks and refuses to release real national health data (if it exists) is unclear. It may just be the combination of corporate media heads who don’t want to run afoul of Chinese business or authorities, and the desire of reporters to be “on the right side,” which means that if “Republicans” are for it, then all right-thinking people must be against it.

And if Republicans are against China, then why not uncritically present even the most questionable claims by the CCP? One New York Times article from August 2020 admiringly pointed to China’s official reports of a death toll as low as 4,634, with no further explanation for the statistic. In February 2021, the Times repeated the CCP’s official pandemic statistics, claiming that the total number of dead stood at 4,636 (where it still stands today)—meaning, in a country of 1.4 billion people, there had been a total of two coronavirus deaths in a six-month period.

While Daszak was promoted by the media, those with views about lab leak that diverged from Daszak’s were consistently ignored. For example, on topics related to public health, lockdowns, virus transmission, and vaccines, The New York Times had previously cited Stanford microbiologist David Relman at least 20 times, Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch at least 64 times, and Yale immunobiologist Akiko Iwasaki at least 67 times. But it did not turn to any of these experts—all of whom were in favor of exploring the lab leak hypothesis—on the question of the virus’s origins. By contrast, in 2020 Peter Daszak was cited by the Times at least a dozen times as an authority on the virus’s origins.

With Daszak leading the way, the media successfully couched lab leak as a conspiracy theory with roots in Trumpian politics, environmental denialism, and anti-Chinese sentiment. Together, these formed what we might call Daszak’s triangle, a mental model that made lab leak a social and political impossibility for anyone who did not want to be branded as an anti-science, right-wing xenophobe. Conversely, the “correct” (as distinct from “true”) theory of the pandemic’s origins was tied to animal spillover through the well-accepted notion of catastrophic environmental damage caused by human greed. The lead sentence of a September 2020 New York Times piece (which quoted extensively from Daszak) about a Times documentary, “Who’s to Blame for the Pandemic?” answered the question by stating: “The pandemic is your fault. Yes, yours.”

Daszak’s triangle made it impossible to even consider that partial responsibility for the origins of the pandemic might rest with the Chinese government. With reports of a global backlash of anti-Asian racism, some proponents of the anti-lab-leak narrative began claiming that any investigation into the origins and course of the pandemic was an act of pure bigotry. This narrative was able to conflate anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism (a very real and disturbing phenomenon) with a desire to question CCP claims concerning the pandemic’s origins.

In late February 2020, Slate published an article, “Where the Coronavirus Bioweapons Theory Really Came From,” which stated, “It does not matter how effectively we counter conspiracies claiming evidence that the virus shows signs of being engineered. That’s because the rumors of a lab escape or a bioweapon stem from historical amnesia, a caricatured villain, and good old-fashioned racism.”

As late as spring and summer of 2021—after the media had started to moderate its anti-lab-leak stance—journalists and commentators were still making the case that the theory is an inherently racist idea. In May, New York Times science and health reporter Apoorva Mandavilli tweeted (and later deleted): “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots.” A month later, CNN medical analyst Leana Wen similarly tweeted that “speculation over the lab leak theory will increase anti-Asian hate.”

In May 2021, Donald G. McNeil Jr., previously The New York Times’ lead pandemic reporter but ousted from the paper in February for an unrelated incident, penned an apologia, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lab-Leak Theory,” including an explanation of why he thought the media worked so hard to discredit lab leak. McNeil, who has decades of experience in science and medical reporting (including on pandemics), dove into the rationale, including the relevant science, for why he and many of his colleagues had considered lab leak implausible, and zoonotic spillover the more credible answer.

McNeil demonstrated much of the flawed argumentation from Daszak’s triangle, including the idea that “the leak idea was just too conveniently conspiratorial” and that the Trump administration’s perceived lack of credibility was the real obstacle, but he was not able to explain the immediate, simultaneous, and almost reflexive reaction by the media—including but certainly not limited to the Times—to cast lab leak as unscientific and fringe. Which theory is more likely—lab leak or zoonotic spillover—is of course the key question for science. The question for the media is why it chose sides so quickly, so vigorously, and so collectively, before there was enough evidence either way.

The day after Mandavilli’s tweet about the racist roots of lab leak, Nature published a news article stating that “rhetoric around an alleged lab leak has grown so toxic that it’s fueling online bullying of scientists and anti-Asian harassment in the United States …” The article provided no evidence for the latter claim, not even a glance at statistics involving cases of anti-Asian hate crimes in the relevant timeframe.

Why would a scientific journal (of all things) make a charged claim it couldn’t bother to support? The answer lies in the second half of the sentence quoted above. In addition to fueling anti-Asian hate, Nature averred that exploring lab leak risked “offending researchers and authorities in China whose cooperation is needed” [emphasis added]. In these few words—more ham-fisted but also more revealing than anything you’d find in a leading consumer news outlet—Nature drew back the curtain on not just the connection the media drew between lab leak and racism, but the media’s broader take on the role that China played in the pandemic.

As Paul D. Thacker, the investigative journalist who conducts extensive scientific, medical, and environmental reporting (including for many of the outlets mentioned above) and now authors the DisInformation Chronicle, explained to me in an email exchange:

When it comes to the science media, I rarely refer to many of them as “science reporters.” They are “science writers” because their job is to tell a story that makes science look good, not to do actual reporting. That’s why so many of them have done such a terrible job and called the lab leak a “conspiracy theory” or said that it was anti-Asian bias. Why is it anti-Asian to say that the pandemic started in a Wuhan lab, but not anti-Asian to say it started in a Wuhan wet market?

While this might explain the false narrative that emerged about lab leak in the science media, it still leaves us wondering why the consumer news media took much the same approach.

This question is at the core of what might be one of the greatest journalistic scandals of our generation. That there appears to be no accountability, self-reflection, or Iraq-WMD-style reckoning on the horizon only compounds the problem. If and when it does, we are likely to conclude that the false narrative around the pandemic’s origins represented a tipping point—a comprehensive failure in journalistic quality and mores in a time of national emergency, caused in large part by an overconcentration of corporate power in media, decades of economic and technological turbulence, and a disturbingly supine approach to an authoritarian hegemon. We might also discover that public trust in an institution essential to democracy was damaged beyond repair.

Source : Tablet

In Major Shift, NIH Admits Funding Risky Virus Research in Wuhan

Katherine Eban wrote . . . . . . . . .

Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared to be channeling the frustration of millions of Americans when he spoke those words during an invective-laden, made-for-Twitter Senate hearing on July 20. You didn’t have to be a Democrat to be fed up with all the xenophobic finger-pointing and outright disinformation, coming mainly from the right, up to and including the claim that COVID-19 was a bioweapon cooked up in a lab.

The immediate target of Dr. Fauci’s wrath was Senator Rand Paul, who was pressing the nation’s top doctor to say whether the National Institutes of Health had ever funded risky coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Based on new information disclosed by the National Institutes of Health, however, Paul might have been onto something.

On Wednesday, the NIH sent a letter to members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that acknowledged two facts. One was that EcoHealth Alliance, a New York City–based nonprofit that partners with far-flung laboratories to research and prevent the outbreak of emerging diseases, did indeed enhance a bat coronavirus to become potentially more infectious to humans, which the NIH letter described as an “unexpected result” of the research it funded that was carried out in partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The second was that EcoHealth Alliance violated the terms of its grant conditions stipulating that it had to report if its research increased the viral growth of a pathogen by tenfold.

The NIH based these disclosures on a research progress report that EcoHealth Alliance sent to the agency in August, roughly two years after it was supposed to. An NIH spokesperson told Vanity Fair that Dr. Fauci was “entirely truthful in his statements to Congress,” and that he did not have the progress report that detailed the controversial research at the time he testified in July. But EcoHealth Alliance appeared to contradict that claim, and said in a statement: “These data were reported as soon as we were made aware, in our year four report in April 2018.”

The letter from the NIH, and an accompanying analysis, stipulated that the virus EcoHealth Alliance was researching could not have sparked the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, given the sizable genetic differences between the two. In a statement issued Wednesday, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said that his agency “wants to set the record straight” on EcoHealth Alliance’s research, but added that any claims that it could have caused the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic are “demonstrably false.”

EcoHealth Alliance said in a statement that the science clearly proved that its research could not have led to the pandemic, and that it was “working with the NIH to promptly address what we believe to be a misconception about the grant’s reporting requirements and what the data from our research showed.”

But the NIH letter—coming after months of congressional demands for more information—seemed to underscore that America’s premier science institute has been less than forthcoming about risky research it has funded and failed to properly monitor. Instead of helping to lead a search for COVID-19’s origins, with the pandemic now firmly in its 19th month, the NIH has circled the wagons, defending its grant system and scientific judgment against a rising tide of questions. “It’s just another chapter in a sad tale of inadequate oversight, disregard for risk, and insensitivity to the importance of transparency,” said Stanford microbiologist Dr. David Relman. “Given all of the sensitivity about this work, it’s difficult to understand why NIH and EcoHealth have still not explained a number of irregularities with the reporting on this grant.”

The disclosures of the last four months—since Vanity Fair was first to detail how conflicts of interest resulting from U.S. government funding of controversial virology research hampered America’s investigation into COVID-19’s origins—present an increasingly disturbing picture.

Early last month, The Intercept published more than 900 pages of documents it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the NIH, relating to EcoHealth Alliance’s grant research. But there was one document missing, a fifth and final progress report that EcoHealth Alliance had been required to submit at the end of its grant period in 2019.

In its letter Wednesday, NIH included that missing progress report, which was dated August 2021. That report described a “limited experiment,” as the NIH letter phrased it, in which laboratory mice infected with an altered virus became “sicker than those infected with” a naturally occurring one.

The letter did not mention the phrase “gain-of-function research” that has become so central to the bitter clashes over COVID-19’s origins. That type of controversial research—the manipulation of pathogens with the aim of making them more infectious in order to gauge their risk to humans—has divided the virology community. A review system established in 2017 requires federal agencies to particularly scrutinize any research proposals that involve enhancing a pathogen’s infectiousness to humans.

Dr. Fauci’s spokesperson told Vanity Fair that EcoHealth Alliance’s research did not fall under that framework, since the experiments being funded “were not reasonably expected to increase transmissibility or virulence in humans.”

However, Alina Chan, a Boston-based scientist and coauthor of the book Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, said the NIH was in a “very challenging position. They funded research internationally to help study novel pathogens and prevent against them. But they had no way to know what viruses had been collected, what experiments had been conducted, and what accidents might have occurred.”

As scientists remain in a stalemate over the pandemic’s origins, another disclosure last month made clear that EcoHealth Alliance, in partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was aiming to do the kind of research that could accidentally have led to the pandemic. On September 20, a group of internet sleuths calling themselves DRASTIC (short for Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19) released a leaked $14 million grant proposal that EcoHealth Alliance had submitted in 2018 to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

It proposed partnering with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and constructing SARS-related bat coronaviruses into which they would insert “human-specific cleavage sites” as a way to “evaluate growth potential” of the pathogens. Perhaps not surprisingly, DARPA rejected the proposal, assessing that it failed to fully address the risks of gain-of-function research.

The leaked grant proposal struck a number of scientists and researchers as significant for one reason. One distinctive segment of SARS-CoV-2’s genetic code is a furin cleavage site that makes the virus more infectious by allowing it to efficiently enter human cells. That is just the feature that EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology had proposed to engineer in the 2018 grant proposal. “If I applied for funding to paint Central Park purple and was denied, but then a year later we woke up to find Central Park painted purple, I’d be a prime suspect,” said Jamie Metzl, a former executive vice president of the Asia Society, who sits on the World Health Organization’s advisory committee on human genome editing and has been calling for a transparent investigation into COVID-19’s origins.

The claims of a lab origin, made without evidence in April 2020 by President Donald Trump, have turned into a legitimate, long-haul hunt for the truth that even U.S. intelligence agencies cannot seem to determine. This summer an intelligence review ordered by President Joe Biden drew no definitive conclusions but left open the possibility that the virus leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

The NIH’s letter to Congress stated that the agency is giving EcoHealth five days to submit any unpublished data from the experiments it funded. Republican leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, who in June asked the NIH to demand such data, said in a statement Wednesday that “it’s unacceptable that the NIH delayed asking EcoHealth Alliance to submit unpublished data about risky research that they were required to under the terms of their grant.”

Meanwhile, members of the DRASTIC coalition have continued their research. As one member, Gilles Demaneuf, a data scientist in New Zealand, told Vanity Fair, “I cannot be sure that [COVID-19 originated from] a research-related accident or infection from a sampling trip. But I am 100% sure there was a massive cover-up.”

Source : Vanity Fair

China PCR Test Orders Soared Before First Reported COVID Case

See large image . . . . . .

Masaya Kato wrote . . . . . . . . .

Purchases of PCR tests in China’s Hubei Province surged months before the first official reports of a novel coronavirus case there, according to a report from researchers in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

About 67.4 million yuan ($10.5 million at current rates) was spent on PCR tests in Hubei during 2019, nearly double the 2018 total, with the upswing starting in May. The report, released by a research team that includes former intelligence officers, is based on records from a website aggregating information on bids for public sector procurement contracts.

The report casts further doubt on China’s official line about the origins of the virus, a topic that has fueled tensions between Beijing and Washington.

PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, tests are used to detect the presence of a particular genetic sequence in a sample, and they have applications beyond COVID-19 testing. But the report alleges the unusual uptick likely signals awareness of a new disease spreading in and around Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province.

Orders doubled from universities, jumped fivefold from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and surged tenfold from animal testing bureaus. Purchases from hospitals declined by more than 10%.

Monthly procurement data shows a spike in orders in May, especially from CDC buyers and the People’s Liberation Army.

“We believe the increased spending in May suggests this as the earliest start date for possible infection,” the report said.

Purchases rose sharply from July through October as well, in particular from the Wuhan University of Science and Technology. The institution spent 8.92 million yuan on PCR tests in 2019, about eight times its total for the previous year.

The university, along with local hospitals and public health authorities, plays a direct role in responding to outbreaks of new diseases, according to the report.

The involvement of these groups provides evidence that “the increase of purchasing was most likely linked to the emergence of COVID-19 in Hubei Province in 2019,” the report said. “We assess with high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the [World Health Organization] about COVID-19.”

The U.S. and China have butted heads over the issue since the early days of the pandemic. Beijing told the WHO that the first symptomatic case was recorded Dec. 8, 2019. But some in the U.S. allege that the virus was circulating in humans before then, with claims that it leaked from a research laboratory.

“We can’t say for sure with just” the public procurement information, said Akira Igata, a visiting professor at Tama Graduate School of Business in Tokyo who examined that data independently, “but it’s strong information for making the case that there was awareness of a virus outbreak around Wuhan several months to half a year before that December.”

“This report could provide an opportunity for countries to press China for information again,” Igata said.

Satellite images from Wuhan hospital parking lots show a sharp increase in activity starting in August 2019, according to a study last year by researchers from Harvard and other institutions. But a report in August by U.S. intelligence agencies found no confirmation as to whether the disease spilled over from an animal host or leaked from a lab.

“There has been no sharing of usable data from China regarding how and when COVID-19 started,” said David Robinson, one of the authors of the latest report. “Zero transparency has fueled a lot of hypothesis, theory, misinformation as well as heartache for the victims.”

“Internet 2.0 has used our skills to try and provide some reliable data for the world coming to terms with the impacts of this pandemic,” he added, referring to the cybersecurity company that published the report.

Source : Nikkei Asia

Inconclusive Review of Virus Origins Prompts Calls for More Probes: ‘We Have to Get to the Bottom of This’

Dan Diamond, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Joel Achenbach and Lenny Bernstein wrote . . . . . . . . .

An array of activists, scientists and politicians said Wednesday that the Biden administration’s inconclusive report on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the need for further probes, even if that leads the United States into delicate geopolitical territory.

“It is good they did that review, but I don’t think we should all move on just because it was inconclusive,” said Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “I’m actually disturbed that much of the scientific and public health community seems complacent to make their best guesses and move on without getting to the root cause of the pandemic.”

The administration’s classified review, with portions set to be publicly released as soon as this week, doesn’t rule out that the virus emerged in the wild or that it leaked from a laboratory, officials said. Its pending release has sparked an outcry in China, where officials have bristled at inquires into the possibility of a laboratory leak and state media this week preemptively blasted the U.S. findings.

The findings also caused a stir in the United States, with close observers concluding that the White House report supports their existing positions on covid-19 — even when their positions directly conflict.

“I’m not surprised that the intelligence community would come up with the similar conclusion that the scientific community has, which is you can’t rule out either a natural hypothesis … or this lab leak hypothesis,” said Michael Worobey, head of the University of Arizona’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who said far more evidence favors that the virus jumped from animals to humans.

“There is no mystery: Overwhelming evidence indicates the COVID-19 virus originated in the Wuhan lab in China,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) countered in a statement. “The failure of the Biden administration to reach a definitive conclusion on the origins of COVID-19 shows this was not a serious, objective effort.”

The report, commissioned as a 90-day review, was prompted after President Biden received a May report from the nation’s intelligence agencies saying they had “coalesced around two likely scenarios” but had not reached a conclusion. The president disclosed that two agencies leaned toward the hypothesis that the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal, while a third leaned toward the lab scenario.

Debate over the pandemic’s origins sparked partisan brawls last year, fueled by President Donald Trump’s public claims that the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, and Democrats’ insistence that the Trump administration was seeking to evade responsibility for mismanaging the response. But most Americans, including 59 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats, say they believe the virus emerged from a lab rather than from human contact with an infected animal, according to a Politico-Harvard poll released last month.

Several scientists said the question of the virus’s origin is important to understand, stressing that the lessons would be vital for preventing future pandemics. But they lamented that the search for an origin has become highly politicized. Many said they were not surprised the report was inconclusive and remained skeptical there would ever be a definitive answer.

“This investigation was never going to be able to nail it down, and it’s not remotely surprising that it’s inconclusive. Unfortunately, that means the partisans will be further entrenched in their views,” said William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Cicero, the Johns Hopkins expert, noted that national commissions were established to probe tragedies such as the 1986 Challenger explosion and Deepwater Horizon oil spill — but no similar effort has been established to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, despite its far larger death toll.

“What’s at stake here is trying to figure out for the future how do we reduce the risk of future pandemics, both naturally occurring or otherwise or accidentally released,” she said. “At the very least, there should be a concerted international effort, a feverish hunt for the natural animal host if that’s what most people presume, and I just don’t see that.”

Jamie Metzl, a member of a World Health Organization expert committee and a former aide to Biden when he was a senator, said he was heartened by early reports that the administration reviewed an array of possibilities, sparked by new information provided by the intelligence community.

“I’m actually a bit encouraged that there will be additional little nuggets of information that will advance our process of digging until we get to the right answer,” said Metzl, who has been leading calls for a probe. “I never felt this review was going to be determinative. It is only a beginning.”

Some former Trump administration officials said they didn’t expect the 90-day review to turn up definitive answers, citing ongoing tensions with China.

“I am not surprised that the [intelligence community] landed in the same place they started,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a former National Security Council director under Trump and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “China is stonewalling a real investigation, and Biden does not have a plan to compel Beijing’s cooperation. Now that the 90-day review is complete, Biden must detail his strategy to address Beijing’s coverup that cost the lives of more than 630,000 Americans.”

“It’s exactly what we knew it would be,” said a former Department of Health and Human Services official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address the Trump administration’s probe into the pandemic’s origin. “Even if they have the smoking gun, what’s the outcome of revealing it?”

The Biden administration is also navigating complicated domestic politics, with activists having warned that any finding that faults China for the virus’s origin could foster threats to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a constituency that broke heavily for Biden in last year’s election.

The Asian American Foundation “is deeply concerned that the debate over the origins of the pandemic — and some of the rhetoric driving the debate — could further fan the flames of anti-AAPI hate,” the group said in a statement this week.

On Capitol Hill, several lawmakers cited the report in calling for congressional investigations into the origin question.

“We’re just scratching the surface. And we have to get to the bottom of this,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who this month convened a bipartisan briefing on the virus’s origins with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Marshall contrasted the level of interest in investigating the origins of the coronavirus with the many probes into the January attack on the Capitol, with Democrats investigating Trump’s role in sparking the insurrection.

“My goodness, we’ve got what — 15 investigations on Jan. 6? But no hardcore active investigations in Congress on the origins of covid?” Marshall said. “Obviously, the White House has a lot on its plate right now … but this seems to be very low priority to them.”

Many observers said they worried that the Biden administration’s inconclusive findings would be misrepresented.

“When the conclusion of a report is that it’s inconclusive, the danger is that partisan politicians will use that as proof that it was a lab leak or that it came from research from NIH,” said Leslie Dach, a former Obama administration official who chairs Protect Our Care, a health advocacy committee, referring to the U.S. National Institutes of Health. “And the report will not say that, and there is zero proof of that.”

“Unfortunately, there’s a big industry in conspiracy theories when it comes to Donald Trump, when it comes to covid,” Dach added. “My fear is, that engine is going to rev up … and these conspiracy theories are a threat to our safety.”

Worobey, who said his lab continues to try to examine the viral genomes published out of China in hopes of more definitive answers, said he leans toward the zoonotic hypothesis, citing evidence that illegal wildlife was being sold at a wet market in Wuhan and that people with “long-term associations” with that market were among the first cases in a city of 11 million people.

“Because you can’t rule out one [theory] or the other definitively … that’s not the same as saying they’re both equally likely,” he said.

Source : The Washington Post

The World Needs a Proper Investigation into How COVID-19 Started

In March the joint study reported that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus had been released in a laboratory accident. Dr Ben Embarek revealed that this conclusion did not come from a balanced assessment of all the relevant evidence but from a steadfast refusal by the Chinese members of the joint study to support anything stronger. Indeed they only allowed even that minimal assessment on the condition that the report did not call for further investigation into the question. He also pointed out that the idea that the point of spillover was someone collecting bat samples for research purposes belongs in the “likely” basket, along with other human interactions with wild bats.

Problems in the joint study had long been clear. Within the who one source describes it as “riddled with compromises and sloppiness”. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the who’s director-general, was uneasy about the way it was carried out. He pushed back at the marginalisation of the lab-leak hypothesis, particularly when the final report was released in March. He has since called for further investigations into it, as well as into other possibilities.

The further unravelling of the joint study matters because, more than a year and a half after the covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, a city in Hubei, was first recognised as the work of a new pathogen, there has been nothing like a thorough international investigation of how that pathogen, sars-cov-2, got into humans and spread round the world. The pandemic’s death toll stands at 9m-18m, according to a model which The Economist has built on the basis of excess-mortality reports and other indicators. The question of how it started matters both for the relatives of the dead and for those who wish to prevent such an outbreak happening again. China’s efforts to stop the world from answering it are both shabby and, to an extent, self-defeating. The more the truth seems hidden, the more it seems suspicious.

Earnest calls for an international investigation into the origins of covid-19 began in April 2020, voiced most clearly by Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia. The next month the World Health Assembly, the gathering of government representatives which serves as the who’s decision-making body, passed a motion calling for a study into the origins of the pandemic. But in order to be acceptable to China—which had reacted furiously to Mr Morrison’s original suggestion—the work was set up as a joint research project between two teams of scientists, one Chinese, one international. And it was to be based on “scientific and collaborative field missions”, rather than a targeted and forensic inquiry into all the relevant circumstances.

The terms of reference, which were subsequently negotiated behind closed doors, allowed the Chinese hosts to frame the joint study’s work in the way which best suited them. The study was set up to build on pre-existing Chinese research, not to delve into unvetted data. Investigating the laboratories that had been working with coronaviruses like sars-cov-2 in Wuhan was not part of its terms of reference.

After a lot of wrangling, the international team got to China in January this year. Data about the first reported covid-19 cases, those from December 2019, were one subject of friction with their hosts. The Chinese had reported 174 such cases, but would not share the underlying data on which those reports were based. Hearing that these vital data were not being made available worried Dr Tedros enough that he lobbied the Chinese government for access. The authorities declined, citing concerns over citizens’ privacy. It could have been anonymised.

Elsewhere the team appears to have been knowingly misled. Take, for example, the live-animal trade at the Huanan seafood and wildlife market, a site associated with a number of Wuhan’s earliest recorded cases of covid-19. In its final report, the study group took at face value claims there was no credible evidence that live mammals were sold there in 2019. A lot of eyewitness accounts gainsay that; so does a study published in Scientific Reports, a journal, this summer.

One report and no more

The Scientific Reports paper found that 18 species of mammal had been for sale in Wuhan between May 2017 and November 2019; gunshot wounds and trapping injuries suggested that almost a third of them were taken from the wild. Although the paper was published only recently, it was submitted to the journal in October 2020. Chinese law requires that all covid-19 research be reviewed by the government before it is sent to a journal. Some Chinese authorities would have known of its contents before the team arrived.

The market is not the only way for animals and the pathogens they carry to get into Wuhan. The horseshoe bats in which the closest wild relatives to sars-cov-2 have been found do not live anywhere near the city, but the two laboratories there that were known to have engaged in coronavirus research received samples from bat caves around the country. The joint-study team was not allowed to investigate the procedures around, or documentation of, this research; when it visited the laboratories the team was shown presentations on safety procedures but no more.

When the researchers left Wuhan the who’s Geneva headquarters told them that their report needed to be laid out scientifically and could express dissenting opinions; the international members and the Chinese members did not have to reach a consensus. However, according to sources within the who, the team felt committed to producing a joint report with their Chinese counterparts. Dr Tedros was so unhappy with what finally emerged from the processes that he nobbled the report as it left the starting blocks, rejecting its contention that the possibility of a lab leak needed no further investigation.

On May 26th President Joe Biden ordered America’s intelligence services to report on the pandemic’s origins in 90 days (time will be up on August 24th). When he and his fellow g7 leaders met in June they joined in calling for a timely, transparent and science-based follow-up study. On July 16th Dr Tedros laid out the next steps which the who wants to see taken. They include further work on the Wuhan animal markets, studies of early cases and audits of local laboratories.

The Chinese government has reacted angrily to the idea of further studies on its territory. Zeng Yixin, the vice-minister of China’s National Health Commission, said he was “shocked” by the plan to investigate a lab leak, saying it was “impossible” to accept. According to the Global Times, a tub-thumping tabloid run by the Communist Party, 55 countries have sent written complaints about the proposal for further investigations to the who. Dr Tedros, elected director-general with China’s support in 2017 and derided by President Donald Trump as China’s puppet, may now face a Chinese-backed candidate when he looks for reappointment later this year.

In the absence of any hope that China will co-operate, sources of data beyond its control have become increasingly important. One area of interest is genetic sequence data. Another is early cases exported from China.

See what you did there

An online open-source-intelligence group which calls itself drastic has been scouring sequencing data to get insight into activities at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (wiv). When researchers publish sequences they typically post the raw data from which those sequences are assembled to public databases such as the sequence-read archive at America’s National Centre for Biotechnology Information. Contamination events in the laboratory, or within sequencing machines themselves, mean these data sometimes contain sequences not meant to be there. In theory such evidence could reveal nefarious goings-on.

Such work, while promising, takes a lot of resources. If you have the sort of supercomputers available to America’s national labs it gets easier. Gilles Demaneuf, a data scientist who works with drastic, says he has a hunch the American intelligence community’s 90-day study is working the same angle. It is conceivable that the intelligence services might have been able to filch raw sequence reads directly from Chinese sequencing machines, thus picking up even more data.

Sequencing data only offers a way forward if the virus did indeed leak out of a lab, something which remains a possibility but which is far from proven. The study of early cases should be useful whatever route it took; the closer you get to understanding the when and where of the crossing-over from animal to human, the easier it should be to learn something of the how.

On the basis of information provided by China the joint study concluded it was unlikely for there to have been any substantial transmission in Wuhan before December 2019. That is unlikely to be true. For one thing the South China Morning Post, a newspaper based in Hong Kong, obtained government documents in 2020 which showed one to five new cases a day in Wuhan from November 17th 2019 onwards. Further evidence has strengthened the possibility that the virus could have been in circulation much earlier than the official story allows.

That circulation need not have been limited to China. There is increasing evidence suggesting early infections elsewhere. These cases would have been exported from China; no virologists doubt that Hubei was where the virus got going within humans. But if circulation in Hubei goes back further than thought and cannot be directly assessed through studies there, the presence of cases elsewhere offers an alternative way to get an idea of the timing. If a specific travel link were identified, that might help identify a group in Hubei which was infected early on.

A recent study of blood samples from 9,144 adults in 12 different regions of France found seven which contained antibodies against sars-cov-2, all of them taken in November 2019. An Italian lung-cancer screening trial has found samples taken in September 2019 which seem to contain anti-sars-cov-2 antibodies. Another antibody study suggests the virus was circulating at a low level in northern Italy at the same time, notably in Lombardy, a region which has close connections to Wuhan through the garment trade, and saw Europe’s first major outbreak of covid-19 in March 2020.

Antibody tests can give false positives. In a preprint published on August 6th by the Lancet, researchers in Lombardy reported on looking instead for sars-cov-2 gene sequences. Examining 289 swabs and urine tests taken from people who had presented with a rash as far back as the second half of 2019, they found sars-cov-2 sequences in 13, the earliest of which was taken on September 12th.

Sudhir Kumar of Temple University in Philadelphia says the Lancet preprint is likely to inspire other investigators to go back and look at retrospective hospital samples. That should help his own research into the origins of the virus. A family tree Dr Kumar and his colleagues have built from vast numbers of published sars-cov-2 genomes allows them to predict the sequence of the progenitor virus from which they are all descended. This sequence differs in three places from that found in the earliest samples taken from patients in Wuhan, meaning there had been enough spread for a certain amount of viral mutation to take place before December. Dr Kumar says that an analysis of the Lombardy sequences suggests that the timeline for the origin of the virus in China might now extend back to the late summer.

More systematic international research into these early infections and their circumstances is needed. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of emerging diseases and zoonoses at the who, suggests it may be possible to prioritise work in areas which saw the earliest outbreaks in America, France, Italy and Spain. “I think the floodgates will open one day,” says Dr Kumar.

A last line of light

An early origin would fit with the timeline that lab-leak proponents tend to favour. Early this August, the minority Republican staff on the House foreign-affairs committee released an 84-page report arguing this case. It makes much of a small but deadly disease outbreak which took place at an abandoned copper mine in Yunnan in 2012. As drastic showed last year, a virus studied at wiv which had been taken from that mine is the closest known relative to sars-cov-2.

The report sees importance in the removal, on September 12th 2019, of a database containing details of sequences and samples from the wiv. This is read as the beginning of a cover-up, and thus as the point when the authorities first knew something had gone amiss, arguing for a leak in late August or early September. The wiv says it was a response to cyber-attacks.

A leak is not the only research-related possibility. The first person infected could have been someone employed by the wiv or another lab to collect bats and samples—the prospect to which Dr Ben Embarek pointed in his television interview. And it is important to remember that some other form of spillover outside the lab, either directly from a bat or by way of some other species, may well be to blame.

China clearly does not want lab-leaks investigated; but that does not mean it knows one happened. It is also being misleading about Huanan market, denying access to early-case data and obfuscating in various other non-lab-leak-specific ways. The most obvious explanation is that it does not really want any definitive answer to the question. An unsanitary market, a reckless bat-catcher or a hapless spelunker would not be as bad in terms of blame as a source in a government laboratory. But any definite answer to the origin question probably leaves China looking bad, unless it can find a way to blame someone else. To that end China has called for an investigation of Fort Detrick in Maryland, historically the home of American bioweapons research; state media regularly publish speculations about its involvement.

The possibility of spillover from wild bats does not have to be studied in China. Yunnan abuts onto Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, and bats are not sticklers in matters of territory. Samples taken outside China could provide a good idea of viral diversity the other side of the border. A thorough evaluation of the existing farm-animal and wildlife trade in the region would also be useful.

Yet there is an inherent risk in such work that needs to be considered. Efforts to uncover the roots of covid-19 by seeking out a natural reservoir of something very like sars-cov-2 would, by definition, expose people to the sort of risks that can seed pandemics. Ironically, the very possibility of a lab leak raises questions about how most safely to pursue investigations into other possibilities.

When he called for further inquiries in July, Dr Tedros also announced the formation of a new permanent group of pathogen hunters, the International Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens (sago). He wants it to organise further studies of sars-cov-2. But it will also need to look at more general questions for the future—such as how to be sure that, come what may, studies of pathogens involved in past disease outbreaks never create further outbreaks of their own.

Source : The Economist

Danish WHO Chief: Employee in a Laboratory in Wuhan May be Infected by Bats as the First COVID-19 Patient

Peter Møller wrote . . . . . . . . .

Despite the WHO’s conclusion that laboratory emissions were “extremely unlikely”, the chief investigator now says that patient zero may well be a laboratory employee.

The first outbreak of coronavirus in China in the fall of 2019 may well have been started by an employee at one of the city’s laboratories who has been infected by a bat during fieldwork or at one of the laboratories in Wuhan.

An employee who was infected in the field by taking samples falls under one of the probable hypotheses

Peter Embarek, Head of WHO Mission to Wuhan in January 2021
This is the assessment of Peter Embarek, who was the leader of the team of experts that the World Health Organization (WHO) sent to China in the spring of 2021 to investigate the origin of the disease.

In fact, he now tells TV 2 that it belongs to one of the probable theories that a person associated with a laboratory was the first infected.

From “extremely unlikely” to “likely”

The WHO experts otherwise published a report after the trip to China, in which the theory that the corona infection began with a discharge from a laboratory in Wuhan was described as “extremely unlikely”.

In turn, according to experts, it was “likely” that the pandemic began when a bat infected a human.

And now Peter Embarek says that the infection may well have happened by collecting – or working with – bats in connection with the research that took place in Wuhan.

That is, an infected laboratory worker is a likely scenario despite the wording of the report.

– An employee who was infected in the field by taking samples falls under one of the probable hypotheses. This is where the virus jumps directly from a bat to a human. In that case, it would then be a laboratory worker instead of a random villager or other person who has regular contact with bats. So it is actually in the probable category, says Peter Embarek to TV 2.

He stresses that WHO experts found no direct evidence that the coronavirus outbreak is related to the bat research conducted at Wuhan’s laboratories.

I ask the management: “How old is the laboratory?” And then they say, “Well, it’s from December 2019”

But the experts found several things that, according to Peter Embarek, should be investigated further.

A difficult cooperation with China

The bats are central in the investigation of where the disease comes from, as the closest known relative to the virus, which is to blame for the pandemic, lives in bats of the species equine cones.

None of that type of horseshoe bat lives outdoors in the Wuhan area, and the only people who are known to have been close to horseshoe bats are employees of the city’s laboratories.

Yet it was difficult for the WHO expert team to discuss the laboratory theory with the Chinese at all.

– Until 48 hours before we finished the whole mission, we still had no agreement that we would talk about the laboratory part of the report, so it was until the very end that it was discussed whether it should be included or not, says Peter Embarek.

However, the experts managed to visit two laboratories in Wuhan.

Both laboratories work – or have worked – with bats, and here the Chinese authorities made sure to gather a group of employees who could answer questions.

– We did not get to look at laboratory books or documents directly from the laboratory. We got a presentation, and then we talked about and asked the questions we wanted to ask, but we did not get to look at any documentation at all, says Peter Embarek.

The second laboratory in Wuhan

Although the top-secure laboratory at Wuhan’s Institute of Virology has received the most attention, according to the head of WHO’s experts, there is also reason to look at the other, which is run by the Chinese health authorities (CDC).

– Their last publication about working with bats was from 2013, but that does not mean that they have not worked with bats since. As far as we understand, they work mostly with parasites, and not so much with viruses, so they have worked with parasites from bats, says Peter Embarek.

During the visit, he made a startling consideration.

– I ask the management: “How old is this laboratory?” And then they say: “Well, it’s from December 2019. There we moved to these new laboratories on December 2, 2019”, says Peter Embarek.

CDC’s new premises are located just 500 meters from the market that was the epicenter of the pandemic in the first weeks of December 2019.

– It is interesting that the laboratory moved on 2 December 2019. This is the period when it all started, and you know that when you move a laboratory, it is disruptive to everything, says Peter Embarek.

He adds that there is a need to gather more knowledge about what has gone on if one wants to become wiser about what role the CDC’s laboratory may have played.

– You also have to move the virus collection, the sample collection and other collections from one place to another. This whole procedure is always a disruptive element in a laboratory’s daily workflow, so at some point it will also be interesting to look at that period and this laboratory, says Peter Embarek.

The four options

He says that the WHO’s visit to Wuhan was of a scientific nature and not a real investigation.

Therefore, most of it depended on the goodwill of the Chinese.

At first, they did not want anything to do with the laboratory

When the final report was to be written, there was also intensive negotiation with the Chinese about what might stand.

– In the beginning, they did not want anything about the laboratory with, because it was impossible, and therefore one should not waste time on it. We insisted that we take it with us, because it was part of the whole problem of where the virus came from, says Peter Embarek

He boiled down the possible scenarios for how the pandemic began, down to four pieces.

Either a bat had infected a human directly.

Or a human being had been infected by a product that was infected with bat virus.

Or a bat had infected another animal that had infected a human.

Or it had begun in one of Wuhan’s laboratories.

“Extremely unlikely” was a compromise

The possibility that a laboratory was involved was very difficult to get through with Peter Embarek’s Chinese negotiating partner.

– I said: “Listen now. We must have this with us, otherwise we have no report. It will not be approved or accepted as a sensible, credible report”, and he could see that, but he told me also that for them it is difficult to accept that discussion about a laboratory, says Peter Embarek.

Eventually, however, it succeeded if the laboratory theory was categorized as “extremely unlikely.”

Peter Embarek himself tended that the theory was “unlikely”, but compromised.

– There were other things I wanted in place before we finished. So it was a conscious choice, he says.

He himself has thought about why the laboratory theory met so much resistance.

– It’s probably because it means that there is a human error behind such an incident, and they are not very happy to admit it. There is partly the traditional Asian feeling that you should not lose face, and then the whole system also focuses a lot on the fact that you are infallible and that everything must be perfect. It could also be that someone wants to hide something. Who knows? says Peter Embarek.

The important details

When the expert group’s report was published, all four possible scenarios were included, but even though the laboratory theory was described as “extremely unlikely”, Peter Embarek now says that one should not look so narrowly at the expert group’s definitions.

– You have to be careful not to divide and separate those four hypotheses completely from each other, because they are very closely linked, and you may have some scenarios where you go from one hypothesis to another, he says and comes with an example.

– The laboratory discharge hypothesis actually covers several scenarios. One of them is that an employee in the laboratory gets infected out in the field while he or she collects samples in a bat cave. Although it is part of laboratory emissions, it is also part of the first hypothesis we have, ie direct transmission from bats to humans, and we have considered that hypothesis as a probable hypothesis, says Peter Embarek.

A completely different type of study

According to Peter Embarek, if the theory that coronavirus might have escaped from a laboratory or got into Wuhan from a laboratory worker were to be investigated, it would require a completely different level of cooperation from the Chinese side.

– Then it is no longer scientific studies, then it is more like some audits , where you make an almost police-like investigation and go in and check everything that is in such a laboratory, he says.

– One should check safety books, laboratory books, research plans and bio collections. You go through it all and interview all the employees separately. So it is a completely different type of work than scientific research, says Peter Embarek.

One of the researchers who supports a further study of the conditions in China is the Danish evolutionary biologist and professor at UC Berkeley in California Rasmus Nielsen.

– I have been out before and argued relatively hard that it was not a laboratory leak. It was not very likely, says Rasmus Nielsen to TV 2.

However, he is no longer quite so dismissive.

In early June, for example, he wrote on Twitter that he would like to know if there was actually a leak.

He wants clarity because the Chinese authorities have suddenly begun to exercise strict control over research into the origin of the disease in China.

– When I still think we should investigate the hypothesis of a laboratory leak, it is for several different reasons. One of them is the way the Chinese government has behaved. They have tried to suppress all research in this area. We do not know if it is because they just want to try to control the story, or if it is because they have something to hide, he says.

So far, the Chinese authorities have only addressed the laboratory theory in one place, namely in the WHO report.

And while the Chinese are extremely dismissive, chief negotiator Peter Embarek believes it was a victory at all to get them to talk about it.

– There are only four pages in the report about it, but it is four very special pages. Four golden pages I would say we have here. It’s the only place where people talk about it from the Chinese side, he says.

Following the WHO’s visit to Wuhan, China has only addressed the possibility of a laboratory spill in dismissive terms.

On July 16, 2021, the WHO came up with a plan for further studies in China.

Here, the organization proposes, among other things, to conduct audits , which are in-depth police investigations of relevant laboratories in Wuhan.

But China’s deputy health minister, Zeng Yixin, flatly rejected a new visit.

– When I first saw the WHO’s second phase in the investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, I was, to be honest, very surprised, said Zeng Yixin.

– In the plan, the hypothesis that China has violated the laboratory procedures and caused a laboratory leak is prioritized as one of the things to be investigated. In that regard, I think the plan overrides common sense and is contrary to science, the board’s representative said.

Note: The text was translated from Danish using Google Translator.

Source : TV2

Opinion: China Olympics 2022 – COVID Cover Up by Country’s Leaders Means They Should Forfeit Games

John Ratcliffe wrote . . . . . . . . .

With the summer Olympics kicking off in Japan in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this is a good time to remember that in a matter of just six months, another Olympic Games is scheduled to take place in Beijing, where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership coordinated — and continues to perpetrate — a massive cover up of the virus’s origins and the circumstances surrounding its initial outbreak.

As Director of National Intelligence during much of the pandemic, I know this particularly well.

The 2022 Winter Games should go on. We should not punish hard-working athletes who have dedicated their lives to preparing for this moment. But the world — and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — should not allow Beijing to enjoy the benefits of hosting a massive global event while rejecting transparency and refusing to allow inquiries into, much less answering for, the deaths of millions of people around the world.

Biden admin must ramp up pressure on China on COVID, ‘genocide’: Morgan OrtagusVideo
Just last week, China rejected the World Health Organization’s (WHO) plan to investigate the theory that the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan. This was remarkable not only because of China’s continued belligerence, but also because the WHO was once complicit, caving to the CCP’s initial pressure to dismiss the lab leak theory and downplay the CCP’s coverup. But now the facts are too hard for even the WHO — and hopefully the IOC — to ignore.

I had access to all of the U.S. government’s most sensitive intelligence related to the pandemic. My informed opinion is that the lab leak theory isn’t just a “possibility,” at the very least it is more like a probability, if not very close to a certainty.

More than 18 months after the virus first leaked into the world, I still have not seen a single shred of scientific evidence or intelligence that the virus outbreak was a naturally occurring “spillover” that jumped from an animal to a human.

Conversely, although the CCP has gone to great lengths to ensure there is no “smoking gun,” every piece of evidence I have seen points to the pandemic’s origin being a leak out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Quite simply, the lab leak theory is the only one supported by science, intelligence and common sense.

There is scientific consensus that the outbreak began in Wuhan, in spite of the fact that coronaviruses are not naturally occurring there. In fact, the nearest bat caves where the virus conceivable could have originated are in Yunnan province, which is as far from Wuhan as New York City is from Atlanta. If the bats had flown (their range is only about 30 miles) or been transported that far, there would presumably have been cases popping up along the route, which did not happen. Meanwhile, Wuhan scientists were openly studying bat coronaviruses in their lab.

Common sense holds that if the CCP could, they would dispel the notion that COVID-19 leaked from a lab under their control and that they attempted to cover it up — because nothing undermines China’s ambitions as an emerging global superpower more than being culpable for the deaths of millions of people around the world.

Instead, the CCP’s every move has been to stonewall legitimate investigations, quell critical voices, and engage in a worldwide propaganda campaign to divert blame from themselves, even going so far as to absurdly assert that the virus was created by the U.S. military.

The CCP has not provided any exculpatory evidence in a crime that had devastating impacts on nearly every person on earth because, in short, they can’t.

In January of this year, I worked with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to have the State Department issue a fact sheet drawing on classified intelligence, cleared by my office, stating that “several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and seasonal illnesses.”

This declassified intelligence has since been corroborated by public reporting with more details. Even so, some in the media unwittingly helped the CCP in its disinformation efforts, dismissing the lab leak theory as a “conspiracy theory,” while Facebook affixed warnings of “false or misleading” to anyone who dared speak of it.

Unfortunately, President Biden’s 90-day timeline for the intelligence community to dig into the origins of the virus falsely suggests that the intelligence community’s collection has been the problem. That is simply not the case.

Before leaving office, we tried to balance the need to protect sensitive sources and methods with providing clarity and answers in the public interest.

By releasing the State Department fact sheet, we hoped to jumpstart international momentum toward holding China accountable. But in light of their continued rejection of transparency and accountability, the Biden’s administration must now go further and declassify and publicly release additional intelligence because it is vital to the national and global interest.

World leaders owe it to the billions of people harmed by this virus — and to the families of those who lost their lives — to get to the bottom of its origins, for the sake of justice and to ensure this never happens again.

That effort should start with the United States government sharing what it knows. From there, it should continue by the International Olympic Committee denying the CCP the ability to burnish its global image despite its crimes.

The seven Olympic values are friendship, excellence, respect, courage, determination, inspiration and equality. The CCP’s coverup of the virus’s origins have proven once again that they are no friend of the world.

They have shown a commitment to excellence in little else other than their efforts to suppress the truth. They continue to disrespect the memory of millions of COVID-victims and attempt to bully anyone who shows the courage and determination to stand up to them.

Their entire system is designed to only inspire fealty to their oppressive regime, which rejects equality — and even basic dignity — to minorities living under its rule.

Beijing should not be allowed to host the 2022 Olympic Games.

Source : Fox News