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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

The Last—And Only—Foreign Scientist in the Wuhan Lab Speaks Out

Michelle Fay Cortez wrote . . . . . . . . .

Danielle Anderson was working in what has become the world’s most notorious laboratory just weeks before the first known cases of Covid-19 emerged in central China. Yet, the Australian virologist still wonders what she missed.

An expert in bat-borne viruses, Anderson is the only foreign scientist to have undertaken research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 lab, the first in mainland China equipped to handle the planet’s deadliest pathogens. Her most recent stint ended in November 2019, giving Anderson an insider’s perspective on a place that’s become a flashpoint in the search for what caused the worst pandemic in a century.

The emergence of the coronavirus in the same city where institute scientists, clad head-to-toe in protective gear, study that exact family of viruses has stoked speculation that it might have leaked from the lab, possibly via an infected staffer or a contaminated object. China’s lack of transparency since the earliest days of the outbreak fueled those suspicions, which have been seized on by the U.S. That’s turned the quest to uncover the origins of the virus, critical for preventing future pandemics, into a geopolitical minefield.

The work of the lab and the director of its emerging infectious diseases section—Shi Zhengli, a long-time colleague of Anderson’s dubbed ‘Batwoman’ for her work hunting viruses in caves—is now shrouded in controversy. The U.S. has questioned the lab’s safety and alleged its scientists were engaged in contentious gain of function research that manipulated viruses in a manner that could have made them more dangerous.

It’s a stark contrast to the place Anderson described in an interview with Bloomberg News, the first in which she’s shared details about working at the lab.

Half-truths and distorted information have obscured an accurate accounting of the lab’s functions and activities, which were more routine than how they’ve been portrayed in the media, she said.

“It’s not that it was boring, but it was a regular lab that worked in the same way as any other high-containment lab,” Anderson said. “What people are saying is just not how it is.”

Now at Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Anderson began collaborating with Wuhan researchers in 2016, when she was scientific director of the biosafety lab at Singapore’s Duke-NUS Medical School. Her research—which focuses on why lethal viruses like Ebola and Nipah cause no disease in the bats in which they perpetually circulate—complemented studies underway at the Chinese institute, which offered funding to encourage international collaboration.

A rising star in the virology community, Anderson, 42, says her work on Ebola in Wuhan was the realization of a life-long career goal. Her favorite movie is “Outbreak,” the 1995 film in which disease experts respond to a dangerous new virus—a job Anderson said she wanted to do. For her, that meant working on Ebola in a high-containment laboratory.

Anderson’s career has taken her all over the world. After obtaining an undergraduate degree from Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, she worked as a lab technician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, then returned to Australia to complete a PhD under the supervision of eminent virologists John Mackenzie and Linfa Wang. She did post-doctoral work in Montreal, before moving to Singapore and working again with Wang, who described Anderson as “very committed and dedicated,” and similar in personality to Shi.

“They’re both very blunt with such high moral standards,” Wang said by phone from Singapore, where he’s the director of the emerging infectious diseases program at the Duke-NUS Medical School. “I’m very proud of what Danielle’s been able to do.”

On the Ground

Anderson was on the ground in Wuhan when experts believe the virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2, was beginning to spread. Daily visits for a period in late 2019 put her in close proximity to many others working at the 65-year-old research center. She was part of a group that gathered each morning at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to catch a bus that shuttled them to the institute about 20 miles away.

As the sole foreigner, Anderson stood out, and she said the other researchers there looked out for her.

“We went to dinners together, lunches, we saw each other outside of the lab,” she said.

From her first visit before it formally opened in 2018, Anderson was impressed with the institute’s maximum biocontainment lab. The concrete, bunker-style building has the highest biosafety designation, and requires air, water and waste to be filtered and sterilized before it leaves the facility. There were strict protocols and requirements aimed at containing the pathogens being studied, Anderson said, and researchers underwent 45 hours of training to be certified to work independently in the lab.

The induction process required scientists to demonstrate their knowledge of containment procedures and their competency in wearing air-pressured suits. “It’s very, very extensive,” Anderson said.

Entering and exiting the facility was a carefully choreographed endeavor, she said. Departures were made especially intricate by a requirement to take both a chemical shower and a personal shower—the timings of which were precisely planned.

Special Disinfectants

These rules are mandatory across BSL-4 labs, though Anderson noted differences compared with similar facilities in Europe, Singapore and Australia in which she’s worked. The Wuhan lab uses a bespoke method to make and monitor its disinfectants daily, a system Anderson was inspired to introduce in her own lab. She was connected via a headset to colleagues in the lab’s command center to enable constant communication and safety vigilance—steps designed to ensure nothing went awry.

However, the Trump administration’s focus in 2020 on the idea the virus escaped from the Wuhan facility suggested that something went seriously wrong at the institute, the only one to specialize in virology, viral pathology and virus technology of the some 20 biological and biomedical research institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Virologists and infectious disease experts initially dismissed the theory, noting that viruses jump from animals to humans with regularity. There was no clear evidence from within SARS-CoV-2’s genome that it had been artificially manipulated, or that the lab harbored progenitor strains of the pandemic virus. Political observers suggested the allegations had a strategic basis and were designed to put pressure on Beijing.

And yet, China’s actions raised questions. The government refused to allow international scientists into Wuhan in early 2020 when the outbreak was mushrooming, including experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who were already in the region.

Beijing stonewalled on allowing World Health Organization experts into Wuhan for more than a year, and then provided only limited access. The WHO team’s final report, written with and vetted by Chinese researchers, played down the possibility of a lab leak. Instead, it said the virus probably spread via a bat through another animal, and gave some credence to a favored Chinese theory that it could have been transferred via frozen food.

Never Sick

China’s obfuscation led outside researchers to reconsider their stance. Last month, 18 scientists writing in the journal Science called for an investigation into Covid-19’s origins that would give balanced consideration to the possibility of a lab accident. Even the director-general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the lab theory hadn’t been studied extensively enough.

But it’s U.S. President Joe Biden’s consideration of the idea—previously dismissed by many as a Trumpist conspiracy theory—that has given it newfound legitimacy. Biden called on America’s intelligence agencies last month to redouble their efforts in rooting out the genesis of Covid-19 after an earlier report, disclosed by the Wall Street Journal, claimed three researchers from the lab were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms in November 2019.

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

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

Not only that, many of Anderson’s collaborators in Wuhan came to Singapore at the end of December for a gathering on Nipah virus. There was no word of any illness sweeping the laboratory, she said.

“There was no chatter,” Anderson said. “Scientists are gossipy and excited. There was nothing strange from my point of view going on at that point that would make you think something is going on here.”

The names of the scientists reported to have been hospitalized haven’t been disclosed. The Chinese government and Shi Zhengli, the lab’s now-famous bat-virus researcher, have repeatedly denied that anyone from the facility contracted Covid-19. Anderson’s work at the facility, and her funding, ended after the pandemic emerged and she focused on the novel coronavirus.

‘I’m Not Naive’

It’s not that it’s impossible the virus spilled from there. Anderson, better than most people, understands how a pathogen can escape from a laboratory. SARS, an earlier coronavirus that emerged in Asia in 2002 and killed more than 700 people, subsequently made its way out of secure facilities a handful of times, she said.

If presented with evidence that such an accident spawned Covid-19, Anderson “could foresee how things could maybe happen,” she said. “I’m not naive enough to say I absolutely write this off.”

And yet, she still believes it most likely came from a natural source. Since it took researchers almost a decade to pin down where in nature the SARS pathogen emerged, Anderson says she’s not surprised they haven’t found the “smoking gun” bat responsible for the latest outbreak yet.

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

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

Getting authorization to create a virus in this way typically requires many layers of approval, and there are scientific best practices that put strict limits on this kind of work. For example, a moratorium was placed on research that could be done on the 1918 Spanish Flu virus after scientists isolated it decades later.

Even if such a gain of function effort got clearance, it’s hard to achieve, Anderson said. The technique is called reverse genetics.

“It’s exceedingly difficult to actually make it work when you want it to work,” she said.

Anderson’s lab in Singapore was one of the first to isolate SARS-CoV-2 from a Covid patient outside China and then to grow the virus. It was complicated and challenging, even for a team used to working with coronaviruses that knew its biological characteristics, including which protein receptor it targets. These key facets wouldn’t be known by anyone trying to craft a new virus, she said. Even then, the material that researchers study—the virus’s basic building blocks and genetic fingerprint—aren’t initially infectious, so they would need to culture significant amounts to infect people.

Danielle Anderson
Anderson is convinced no virus was made intentionally to infect people and deliberately released—one of the more disturbing theories to have emerged.
Photographer: James Bugg/Bloomberg
Despite this, Anderson does think an investigation is needed to nail down the virus’s origin once and for all. She’s dumbfounded by the portrayal of the lab by some media outside China, and the toxic attacks on scientists that have ensued.

One of a dozen experts appointed to an international taskforce in November to study the origins of the virus, Anderson hasn’t sought public attention, especially since being targeted by U.S. extremists in early 2020 after she exposed false information about the pandemic posted online. The vitriol that ensued prompted her to file a police report. The threats of violence many coronavirus scientists have experienced over the past 18 months have made them hesitant to speak out because of the risk that their words will be misconstrued.

The elements known to trigger infectious outbreaks—the mixing of humans and animals, especially wildlife—were present in Wuhan, creating an environment conducive for the spillover of a new zoonotic disease. In that respect, the emergence of Covid-19 follows a familiar pattern. What’s shocking to Anderson is the way it unfurled into a global contagion.

“The pandemic is something no one could have imagined on this scale,” she said. Researchers must study Covid’s calamitous path to determine what went wrong and how to stop the spread of future pathogens with pandemic potential.

“The virus was in the right place at the right time and everything lined up to cause this disaster.”


Source : Bloomberg