There is much to be gained from learning how new diseases emerge. This applies to the origins of the AIDS pandemic, which has now killed over 50 million people globally. I (and to my knowledge many scientists) believe that a full and convincing explanation of how AIDS began has still not been provided by the scientific community, despite claims to the contrary by many prominent figures. The COVID-19 pandemic is even more worrying in its potential impact on global health, and so there is even more need for a prompt and open-minded investigation into its origin.
We are in the midst of a public health crisis that is unprecedented in our life-times. In the last couple of months I have been approached for comment and interviews about the COVID-19 pandemic by several persons, including scientists, film producers and readers of this web-site. I have until now held back from making any public comment. I don’t pretend to be an expert in coronaviruses, and I did not want to offer opinions which might not be well-founded or well-based in science.
However, one recent approach came from an eminent American professor from a top-ranking university who enquired whether lessons from the “Origins of AIDS” controversy had perhaps not been learned. I declined his request for a radio interview, explaining that I did not feel qualified to speak about the COVID-19 crisis. But then I thought back to the Royal Society meeting and all the misinformation that was offered as “evidence” by the people who made the polio vaccines, and the flawed and unwarranted conclusions that were reached by Professor Robin Weiss both in his closing speech, and in his follow-up article in Nature, where he concluded that “Some beautiful facts have destroyed an ugly theory”. And I had to agree with the American professor. Most of the issues I raised in The River had been ignored. Lessons had not been learned. And opportunities for a reappraisal of how Science has been conducted, both in the 1950s and in more recent times, had not been taken.
And so I decided to put together an essay encapsulating my thoughts on the matter. I repeat: I have not made a study of coronaviruses. But as someone who has been involved for the last 28 years in the debate about how AIDS began, and whose hypothesis of origin (that the AIDS pandemic was iatrogenic, meaning that it was caused by the interventions of physicians) has still not been disproved (despite repeated claims to the contrary), I believe that my observations on COVID-19 may have some relevance. I also have some experience now in reading scientific articles and being able to sort the wheat from the chaff.
So here, in no particular order, are my thoughts on the subject.
1) The city of Wuhan in Hubei province, where it is apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic started, is the most populous city in central China, with a population of just over 11 million. There are two major hypotheses that seek to explain how the pandemic came into being, and both involve zoonoses: animal diseases which pass to humans. They are not mutually exclusive, and there may be variants of these hypotheses which will come to light in the future.
The first, the theory that is currently the standard scientifc view, is that COVID-19 started because a virus passed to humans from one of the creatures present as bushmeat in the Wuhan “wet” market (known locally as the Wuhan seafood market), and initiated a global pandemic. The second, which at present bears the reputation of being a dangerous hypothesis, is that the zoonosis occurred because coronaviruses were being experimented upon at one of the virus laboratories in Wuhan, and that one of these viruses ended up being released into the outside world, with disastrous consequences.
2) For the historical background to the official Wuhan bushmeat theory, I quote from my pal Meryl Nass and her usually excellent blog, <anthraxvaccine.blogspot.com>. She mentions an article by Jon Cohen, which appeared in Science on February 19th, entitled “Scientists ‘strongly condemn’ rumors and conspiracy theories about origin of coronavirus outbreak.” (As an aside, Cohen is a well-known correspondent for Science magazine who was prominent in opposing the OPV theory in 2000.) Cohen wrote that “scientists from several countries who have studied [the COVID-19 virus] overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife….Conspiracy theories do nothing but spread fear, rumours and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus”. [https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/02/scientists-strongly-condemn-rumors-and-conspiracy-theories-about-origin-coronavirus#]
Then on March 7th a significant letter was published in the Lancet, entitled “Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19”. In the letter 27 leading scientists, some of whom, according to Meryl, have worked in biodefense, stated that they wanted to “stand with” their colleagues in China, and (in her words) they “circled their wagons to protest against conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin”. [<htpps:///www.thelancet,com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30418-9/fulltext>]
On March 17th 2020, a 3-page letter entitled “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2” was published on-line by Nature Medicine, which purported to back up the natural origin theory with some “scientific evidence”. [See <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9>.] (SARS-CoV-2 is the official name for the virus which has caused the COVID-19 pandemic. “Proximal” was an interesting and quite telling word to choose for the title; in this context it means “near” or “approximate”.)
The authors begin by stating that their “analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposely manipulated virus”, and conclude: “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. This letter has been widely cited by others in the last month as proof that COVID-19 was not created in a lab and released, either accidentally or deliberately. And yet, importantly, the arguments in the letter fall well short of supporting these conclusions.
The authors say that a very similar coronavirus to SARS-CoV-2 (with 96% homology) has been identified in bats. This suggests that bats may well represent the reservoir of the virus, but to date there is no known instance of a bat coronavirus crossing directly to humans. Previous coronavirus outbreaks, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 have involved a bat virus first passing through an intermediate host, such as civet cats or dromedaries, respectively.
The authors examine three possible theories of origin.
The first is that SARS-CoV-2 developed in another animal host, such as a bat or pangolin species, and then there was a single transmission of an adapted virus to a human, in whom it proved to be both pathogenic and easily transmissible.
The second is that an existing virus transferred to a human from a bat or pangolin (a scaly anteater), and that further passages between humans then occurred, during which the virus acquired its deadly adaptations. The former theory is clearly favoured over the latter, and the authors argue that the fact that some pangolin coronaviruses have strong similarity to SARS-CoV-2 in the receptor-building domain (RBD) in the spike protein “clearly shows” that this adaptation “is the result of natural selection”. It is also stated that SARS-CoV-2 is “optimised for binding to human-like” cells, called ACE2.
Then they move to the third theory. The authors assert that “the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus” (as might, for instance, be found in a bioweapon). However, they do not properly explain why. They are less certain about “the possibility of an inadvertent laboratory release” of the virus, saying only that “a hypothetical generation of SARS-CoV-2 by cell culture or animal passage would have required prior isolation of a progenitor virus with very high genetic similarity, which has not been described.” (They do not support this unexpectedly dogmatic assertion. Moreover, all this means is that nobody has admitted to discovering such a virus; it does not mean that it hasn’t happened or couldn’t have happened.) They report that recently a coronavirus from pangolins which has very similar mutations to SARS-CoV-2 has been described, and claim that this “provides a much stronger and more parsimonious explanation of how SARS-CoV-2 acquired these by recombination or mutation.”
Their conclusion, therefore, is that SARS-CoV-2 developed by natural selection, probably after a bat virus jumped to pangolins and then crossed to humans, rather than by laboratory manipulation. However, there is very little in the paper apart from assertion to support these conclusions. The authors do not, for instance, explain why they think that the pangolin virus or the bat virus could not have been manipulated or experimented upon in one of the virus labs. Meryl Nass called their analysis “a specious argument”, claiming that “These scientists set up a straw man to knock down.”
There was an accompanying press release from The Scripps Research Institute entitled: “The COVID-19 coronavirus has a natural origin, scientists say”. [<https://www.scripps.edu/news-and-events/press-room/2020/20200317-andersen-covid-19-coronavirus.html>.] The SRI was founded in 1993 and is funded by the Scripps family fortune which is based on its media empire and estimated to be around $7.5 billion. It may be the world’s largest private research facility with 1000 to 5000 employees (this wide range for the estimated work-force indicates that the SRI operates with limited public scrutiny).
The Scripps press release (as press releases often do) went further than the paper itself. Lead author Kristian Andersen, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at the SRI, stated that their research “rules out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin” for the virus. Josie Golding, a professor from the Wellcome Trust in London, stated that the article is “crucially important to bring an evidence-based view to the rumours which have been circulating about the origins of the virus causing COVID-19.” She went on to claim that the authors “conclude that the virus is the product of natural evolution, ending any speculation about deliberate genetic engineering.”
The Scripps background paper proposes that the virus cannot have been genetically engineered because it is so effective at binding to human cells. It also proposes that if someone were trying to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have used a different molecular structure, one from a known human pathogen, rather than the molecular structure that is the backbone of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is similar not to known human coronaviruses, but to coronaviruses of bats and pangolins. However, this assumes that the authors know how other researchers with other motivations would proceed.
In short, there appears to be very little evidence for the assertions in the Andersen letter, apart from the hunches, the gut feelings, of the authors. In fact, documents from one of the Wuhan virology labs [see below] have demonstrated that bat viruses and coronaviruses have been the subjects of study there for some time. As several scientists have pointed out, one of the subjects being studied would have been why such viruses had the capacity to infect humans. Under these circumstances it is entirely likely that the viruses were being passaged in tissue cultures, and very possibly placed in other hosts: genetically manipulated, in other words. Therefore the claim in the press release that the Andersen letter “end[s] any speculation about deliberate genetic engineering” is inherently false.
It appears increasingly likely that one of the reasons for the publication of the Andersen letter was as an attempt to shut down rumours of a possible laboratory origin of the virus. However, the complete rejection of such iatrogenic (physician-caused) theories is not justified by the research conducted to date.
The situation would seem to have much in common with the ongoing attempts to shut down inquiry into the origin of HIV/AIDS. Note especially the way in which the Nature Medicine article achieved rapid publication, for the first paragraph of the letter refers to March 11th, so it was certainly written no earlier than that, and it was published on March 17. For such a crucially important subject this is a very short time for external peer review, even if one suspects that responses might have been expedited by all concerned. Note the widespread adoption of the research as the final word on the subject. Note also that the burden of proof has been placed on alternatives to the Wuhan wet market bushmeat theory, but not on the theory itself. In just the same way, the main organiser of the Royal Society meeting on the “Origins of HIV and the AIDS epidemic” in 2000 made a concluding speech in which he placed the burden of proof firmly on the OPV theory, and made no such demands on the chimp bushmeat theory which he and many of his colleagues preferred.
3) Next let’s take a look at the co-authors of the letter of March 17th in Nature Medicine. I realised, to my considerable surprise, that I had already encountered three of the five co-authors of the Andersen article, and they were not people whose work had impressed me on the subject of identifying the origins of diseases. Two of them were Eddie Holmes from the University of Sydney and Andrew Rambaut from the University of Edinburgh. Twenty years ago both men were working in Bill Hamilton’s old department, the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford. (Hamilton was my mentor and greatest supporter from 1993 until his death in 2000, and he wrote the foreword to my book “The River”.) Interestingly, several of the young students in the Zoology Department, including Holmes, Rambaut, Oliver Pybus and Michael Worobey, have since Hamilton’s death in March 2000 been quite outspoken opponents of the OPV/AIDS theory. In the period before and after the Royal Society meeting on “Origins of HIV and the AIDS Epidemic” in September 2000 I spoke at some length with Holmes and had a lengthy exchange of emails with Rambaut. Later, both men published articles which insisted that the OPV theory of origin could be disproved. At the time I did not feel equipped to counter them. However, as I later realised, many of their arguments (which I shall not revisit in this essay) did not stand up to scrutiny.
It’s worth noting that these days Eddie Holmes is not only based at the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at the University of Sydney, but has also been working for some time at Chinese institutions, such as the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center and School of Life Science at Fudan University, Shanghai and the Zhejiang Forest Reserve Monitoring Center in Hangzhou. It is therefore possible that he is unconsciously sympathetic to Chinese colleagues, and sensitised to avoiding the causing of embarrassment to his hosts. [See: Gao, Holmes, Zhang et al., “Newly identified viral genomes in pangolins with fatal diseases”; Viral Evolution; 2020; 6(1); veaa020, published on April 12th. This article reports the identification of two new viruses in pangolins; however, neither were coronaviruses, and no coronaviruses were detected.]
Now we come to Bob Garry, the final author of the Andersen piece, who has what is sometimes referred to as “a chequered history”, as evidenced in the narrative below. He is known by some of his peers for publishing on a wide variety of subjects, including some which fall outside his expected range. In 1991 [?] I went to New Orleans to interview Professor Garry, because he claimed to have positive Western blot tests from a mooted early case of AIDS (Robert R, a teenager from St Louis Missouri, who died in 1969). Garry turned out to be an unexpectedly colourful character. We arranged to meet on a street corner in New Orleans, which was unusual, and he left me standing there in near-40C heat for more than half-an-hour. Finally I returned to my hotel room to take a shower, only for him to knock on my door 5 minutes later, to say that he had been watching me from his car, and that this had been a necessary security measure. Days after my return to the UK, I phoned Garry to ask some follow-up questions, and he now claimed that some of the Western blots from Robert R. had been stolen from his lab, that this had happened around the time of my visit to New Orleans, and that he suspected me of involvement. I was flabbergasted, and quickly disavowed him of that notion.
However, in 1997 I heard rumours that Garry was getting results from Polymerase Chain Reaction analysis of the Robert R. samples, and so I phoned him to find out more. He told me that the PCR sequences from Robert R. were “very strong” and that they diverged by only around 3% from early isolates such as LA1 from France and Gallo’s HTLV-III. Two years later he and co-authors reported their findings. They appeared not in a medical article, but in an abstract presented at the 11th Conference of Virology in Sydney, Australia [VW69.01, on page 64 of the Proceedings]. A brief article in New Scientist [“Old adversary”; New Scientist; August 21st 1999, page 18] claimed that the PCR sequences from Robert R were over 99% genetically similar to HIV samples from 1983 which, said Garry, suggested that HIV had existed in humans for “hundreds of years”. However, people who are experienced in PCR work point out that this degree of homology with lab clones such as LA1 and HTLV-III strongly suggested that there might have been contamination involving the control samples used in the lab. I phoned John Sninsky, a man from the Cetus Corporation who had apparently been involved in the PCR testing, who would only say that he had withdrawn his name from the work, and wanted nothing to do with it. [See The River, pages 778 and 133-137.]
Later, after The River was published, in which I proposed that OPVs prepared in chimpanzee kidneys might have been used to prepare Koprowski’s vaccines in the Belgian Congo, and might represent the source of the AIDS pandemic, Garry was quick to write to Science, to state that “this assertion is vigorously disputed by Hilary Koprowski and others directly involved in producing the vaccines used in the trials in central Africa in the late 1950s.” [R.F. Garry, “Chimpanzee Kidneys Not Used to Prepare Oral Poliovirus Vaccines”; Science; 2000; 288; 1757-1758.] Koprowski and his colleagues claimed that the Congo vaccines had been prepared in the US. However, their claims have since been contradicted by Belgians and Congolese who were directly involved with preparing these polio vaccines locally in Stanleyville, based on the vaccines that Koprowski had sent out from Philadelphia. These witnesses were interviewed on camera in the award-winning 2003 film documentary “The Origins of AIDS”, and they said that chimp kidney tissue culture had been prepared for many years in Stanleyville, and handed to Paul Osterrieth, the virologist who was preparing the Koprowski polio vaccines in his lab. That chimp kidney cells were being used to prepare the vaccines in Stanleyville was further confirmed by the Belgian technician, Piere Doupagne, when I re-interviewed him 3 weeks before his death in 2008. [See: “The death of a truthful man. Pierre Doupagne, 1923-2008” on this site.]
To sum up, all three men who helped write the Andersen article (Holmes, Rambaut and Garry) have been prominent in the OPV debate, arguing that the OPV theory must be wrong, but doing so on dubious grounds. The fact that they are also Andersen’s co-authors raises questions about their roles in debates about how new diseases get started in Homo sapiens. Science journalist Jon Cohen is another person who has appeared prominently as a sceptic in both debates. It appears possible that these are men who have decided that writing articles such as these, which seek to refute theories that might otherwise cause embarrassment to senior members of the scientific community or to certain powerful governments, is not likely to harm their careers. This hypothesis would be strengthened if other well-known OPV nay-sayers such as Stanley Plotkin, John P. Moore, Michael Worobey, Beatrice Hahn or Paul Sharp were to take up similar positions in the COVID-19 debate.
4) Potential objections to the laboratory theory have alteady been discussed above, and so it is appropriate to also discuss potential objections to the wet market bushmeat theory. (a) It has been reported that bats were not for sale in the Wuhan market, even if pangolins apparently were, for it seems that Chinese pangolins were being illegally imported from southern China, for instance from Guangdong province, and that Sunda pangolins (which are thought to be infected with viruses close to SARS-CoV-2) were being smuggled in from Java. The scale of the problem is indicated by the fact that pangolin scales are widely used in Chinese medicine, and can sell for $3,000 a kilogram on the black market. Although an international trade ban on all eight species of pangolin started in 2017, I learn from an on-line dictionary that “pangolins are believed to be the world’s most trafficked mammal, accounting for as much as 20% of all illegal wildlife trade.” The upshot is that even if bats were not being sold in the Wuhan market this may not be crucial, for in theory an imported pangolin could already have acquired viral infection from a bat, perhaps via a vector such as a tick, or by ingesting bat faeces or inhaling dust from dried bat faeces. (b) An important article published in the Lancet claimed that 27 of the first 41 recognised cases in China (66%) involved people who had links to the Wuhan seafood market, although the first recognised case, a man whose first symptoms began on December 1st 2019, apparently had no known links to the market or to any other of the early cases. [C. Huang et al., “Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China”; Lancet; 2020; 395; 497-506.] But again this may not be crucial, for it may be that the true index case was not recognised, and was someone who was infected before, or at around the same time as, this man. Therefore, both of these potential objections to the wet market theory can be disregarded.
5) It is now time to examine online coverage of the COVID-19 origins debate. Because of the dramatic impact of the pandemic, the level of coverage in real time has been unprecedented. Some of the first articles that highlighted the possible role played by the top-level biosecurity (BSL-4) lab in the Wuhan Institute of Virology were published on a web-site called ZeroHedge, a site with right-wing leanings which is apparently published by…the owners of a hedge fund. A typical heading on their daily dispatch might read: “Click Here To Learn The Secret To Turning $5,000 Into $1,100,000 (It’s 100% Free).” All of its correspondents on issues such as the COVID-19 epidemic go under the generic name of “Tyler Durden”, who was the Brad Pitt character in the cult 1999 movie, “Fight Club”. The fact that the authors of these articles are not revealed is worrying, for although some articles have good hyperlinks to source articles and are professionally written; others are anything but. One piece from January 26th, entitled “Did China Steal Coronavirus From Canada and Weaponize it?” carries a series of unsupported allegations about bioweapons research being conducted at the WIV. The article comes with a sub-heading “Submitted by Great Game India”, which suggests that this particular version of Tyler Durden might be an avid supporter of Indian cricket.
Another dangerous article, “Is This The Man Behind The Global Coronavirus Pandemic?” appeared on January 29. It is better-sourced, but again it makes wild and unsupported accusations. It singles out Dr Peng Zhou, who is said to have received a PhD from WIV in 2010; it is alleged that he had researched “mutant Coronavirus strains that overcame the natural immunity of some bats”, and had worked on bat virus immunology in Australia and Singapore. The article shows a copy of an job advert which had allegedly been posted on the FIV web-site on November 18th 2019 by Peng Zhou PhD, described as “Leader of the Bat Virus Infection and Immunization Group.” (The job ad had then been translated, using Google translate.) The ad called for one or two post-docs, who would use “bats to research the molecular mechanism that allows Ebola and SARS-associated coronaviruses to lie dormant for a long time without causing diseases.” However, being the man who undertook this research hardly equates with being the man who started COVID-19, and the author then compounded this leap of logic by ending his piece with the suggestion that if anyone wanted to find out who started the pandemic “they should probably pay Dr Peng a visit. Or at least start with an email”. Peng’s email and phone number were then supplied, apparently copied from his web-site.
I did an online search, which quickly established that Peng Zhou was lead author of a number of well-researched articles published in journals such as Nature. One described an outbreak of coronavirus which had killed over 24,000 piglets on 4 farms in Guangdong province, near to the source of the previous SARS outbreak. [P. Zhou et al., “Fatal swine acute diarrhoea syndrome caused by an HKU2-related coronavirus of bat origin”; Nature; 2018; 556; 255-258.] Another, published on March 12th this year, is an impressively detailed analysis of the Wuhan COVID-19 outbreak; [P. Zhou et al., “A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin”; Nature; 2020; 579; 270-273. Both articles list him as being from the CAS Key Laboratory of Special Pathogens and Biosafety at the WIV. In short, Peng Zhou is a bona fide researcher who had written some notable coronavirus-related articles. As a result of its “Man Behind the Pandemic” article, ZeroHedge was quite rightly banned from Twitter, a decision which appears to have gone down badly with those who run the site. One can imagine that Chinese scientists such as Peng Zhou must be irate and distraught at such libellous statements about their work.
6) It is now time to examine some of the more serious coverage of COVID-19 in the press. An important article was published on April 14th in the Washington Post, entitled “State department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses.” The writer, Josh Rogin, had managed to obtain a copy of a diplomatic cable sent to the State Department in January 2018, following a visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology by US officials based in China. The WIV had been the first lab in China to achieve the highest level of biosecurity (BSL-4), which it did in 2015. The cable (one of a series sent back to Washington by concerned US officials) warned their superiors that the BSL-4 lab, which they had visited on a number of occasions, posed a serious health risk which warranted U.S. intervention. The cable stated: “Most importantly, the [Chinese] researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor…This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases….From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”
The cable reported that “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they [the US visitors] noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” In a remarkably prescient passage, the writers further warned that the lab’s work on “SARS-like coronaviruses in bats”, combined with the shortage of appropriate safety procedures could result in the escape of a virus that was transmissible by humans, thus potentially causing a “future emerging coronavirus outbreak”. A US official commented to Rogin that “the cable was a warning shot. They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on”.
An article in the National Review of the same date (“U.S. Diplomats Warned about Safety Risks in Wuhan Labs Studying Bats Two Years before Coronavirus Outbreak”, by Tobias Hoonhout), reported that in November and December 2019 the WIV had been posting job adverts for scientists interested in undertaking “long-term research on the pathogenic properties of bats carrying important viruses”. In December the WIV announced that it had confirmed the origin in bats “of major new human and livestock infectious diseases.” Much of that work was led by a Chinese scientist who had trained in the U.S., Shi Zheng-Li, who was allegedly known colloquially as “Bat Woman”. The work performed on bat viruses was carried out a lower safety level (BSL-2), such as exists at the Centers for Disease Control lab in central Wuhan, less than 300 metres from the seafood market. Professor Shi has been carrying out research into bat coronaviruses since at least 2008, as evidenced by a paper written in that year. [“Ren, Shi et al., “Difference in Receptor Usage between Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Coronavirus and SARS-Like Coronavirus of Bat Origin”; J. Virol.; 2008; 82(4); 1899-1907.] One of the co-authors on the paper came from the School of Life Science at Fudan University in Shanghai, where Eddie Holmes has been working more recently.
7) As an aside, a report of a later visit to the WIV on March 27th 2018 by Rick Switzer, Counselor of Environment, Science, Technology and Health Section of the Embassy of the United States in China, and Jamison Fouss, the U.S. Consul General in Wuhan, together with a photograph of the Chinese scientists and their American visitors, was once on the WIV web-site, but has apparently been been removed iin recent days. However, an archived link to the report exists on “Chairman Of Jt. Chiefs Admits US Intel Has Taken ‘Hard Look’ At Wuhan Lab As Origin Of COVID-19” on ZeroHedge, dated April 14th.
This new tendency by the Chinese government to delete on-line documents relating to the WIV and to issues surrounding the origin of the virus was examined in an article published on April 11th in The Guardian (UK), entitled “China clamping down on coronavirus research, deleted pages suggest.” It opened by stating that “China is cracking down on publication of academic research about the origins of the novel coronavirus in what is likely to be part of a wider attempt to control the narrative surrounding the pandemic, documents published online by Chinese universities appear to show.” A notice posted by Fudan University in Shanghai on April 9th called for “strict and serious” management of papers researching the source of the outbreak. Several deleted pages were accessed from online caches with the help of a source who preferred to remain anonymous, but who expressed concern at what “appeared to be an attempt by Chinese authoriries to intervene in the independence of the scientific process.”
One article which might be expected to suffer from the crackdown would be a brief paper entitled “The possible origins of 2019-nCoV coronavirus”, published in mid-February on ResearchGate by Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao, who appear to be a husband-and-wife team based at Huazhong University and Tian You Hospital in Wuhan. The article expressed scepticism that the epidemic could have begun in the Wuhan seafood market, adding that they had identified two nearby labs conducting research into bat coronaviruses: the WIV and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The former is located about 12 kilometres from the seafood market, while the latter is less than 300 metres distant; a useful map of the centre of Wuhan was included. Having listed the coronavirus research taking place at both institutions, the authors concluded by speculating that the COVID-19 virus “or its derivative might leak from the laboratory”. See: “Smoking Gun? Chinese Scientist Finds ‘Killer Coronavirus Probably Originated From A Laboratory In Wuhan’.”; ZeroHedge, February 14th, 2020.] In an ideal world this report by Xiao and Xiao would prompt either an investigation ofthe virus labs cited, or else a reasoned response from the Chinese medical authoritiees. Instead it was banned in the same manner as the ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who blew the whistle on what was happening in Wuhan, and who later died from COVID-19. [See: https://www.aao.org/headline/
8) In recent weeks the lab origin theory has been heavily pushed by rightwing outlets such as Fox News in the US. But just as “all that glitters is not gold”, so all that comes out of Fox News is not necessarily vulpine (fox-like, crafty, or “clever and dishonest”). Meanwhile, President Trump has fuelled the controversy in his normal way by publishing tweets which refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus”, and which claim that he will demand payment from China for the damage caused to the US economy.
One presumes that Trump is less sanguine about a counter-theory which proposes that COVID-19 was developed at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, and then deliberately released around Wuhan in order to cause havoc in China and to destabilise world markets, allowing opportunities for speculators. The determined conspiracy theorist could argue that the BSL-4 lab at the WIV was receiving support from another BSL-4 facility, the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston. The UTMB is the oldest medical school in Texas, which was directed in the 1950s by the highly-respected Charles M. Pomerat, who was then the doyen of cell culture research in America. (Nowadays UTMB is a massive establishment with a staff of about 11,000; in February 2019 it received an endowment of $560 million. Its BSL-4 facility is the largest on an academic campus in the world.) Whatever one might think of the plausibility of the US-made COVID-19 theory, it should once again not be dismissed out of hand. I am certainly not suggesting that this might have happened, but the fact remains that Galveston scientists and US embassy officials seem to have had access to the inner workings of the WIV, and one of them could theoretically have exploited that access for covert ends.
9) According to BBC journalist Mark Urban, the lab origin theory is currently still “a very, very minority view” among British scientists, while the UK intelligence community believes it is “plausible but not provable.” By contrast, many more American scientists are prepared to take the lab origin theory seriously. Indeed, the US is now engaged in a war of words with China, with Trump threatening that he will call for reparations. China replies that “the irresponsible spreading of conspiracy theories by certain people in the US” will only harm cooperation between the two countries. [Reporter Mark Urban on “Newsnight”, BBC TV, April 20th, 2020.] I had not previously realised that the term “conspiracy theory” is also a common form of disclaimer in China.
10) My gut feeling is that the term “conspiracy theory” is a new weapon in the armoury of those who would like to shut down legitimate enquiry into mistakes and wrongdoing by governments and other centres of power. Of course there are many ill-supported and ill-reasoned conspiracy theories in existence; it is well understood that they tend to flourish online and on social media, where people can pretty much write what they want. However, there are also several genuine conspiracies to worry about, and it is important that babies don’t get thrown out with the bathwater. In short, not all alleged conspiracies (or acts of wrongdoing by the great, the good, the rich and the corrupt) should be dismissed as conspiracy theories. The term “conspiracy theory” is one of those catch-all phrases that can be readily rolled out (without anything substantive in the way of evidence) to tar the reputation of an opponent, and it is also highly emotive, a bit like calling someone a Holocuast denier or a paedophile.
I speak as someone who in January this year watched the “OPV/AIDS theory” be redesignated “the OPV/AIDS conspiracy theory” on Wikipedia. The Talk pages revealed that the decision to redesignate the page on OPV/AIDS was made in an exchange of a dozen or so words between two editors who apparently understood little or nothing of the issues involved. So it is that one’s research and writing of the last 30 years is dismissed with a casual flourish from a Wikipedia editor’s pen!
On April 8th the New York Times published one of its less impressive pieces of journalism, an article entitled: “Why Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Flourish. And Why It Matters”. <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/
11) What lies in the future? It is clear that, despite the initial explosion of the virus in China, the Chinese government has managed to neutralise the threat of the COVID-19 outbreak, at least for the time being, largely through some draconian public health measures. Life is not yet completely back to normal in Wuhan, but it soon will be, and if nothing else this huge city (just like some other places such as South Korea) does provide a beacon of hope for the rest of the world as to how things may look once the pandemic is finally brought under control.
However, there is no guarantee that exposure to COVID-19 means that infectees will have future immunity to the virus. Although acute viral exposure does bring immunity for the infectee in the case of most viruses, such as poliovirus, this does not apply in every instance. The most frequently quoted exception to the rule is the common cold virus, for those who get a cold are not immune to catching another cold a few weeks later. However, this is because there are many different strains of cold virus in circulation whereas, as far as is known, there is (to date!) only one strain of COVID-19 in humans. In recent weeks there has been much talk of “herd immunity”. For a couple of days soon after the start of the epidemic it was apparently UK government policy to allow the virus to infect a large enough number of people to create herd immunity in the nation which, it was felt, would reduce onward transmission rates and eventually curtail the epidemic. However, this would have involved allowing COVID-19 to infect perhaps 70% to 80% of the population, which would have caused a huge death toll. Thankfully the government had a rethink, and quickly abandoned this policy. Sweden is now the only major European nation which has refrained from resorting to a general lockdown of its citizens. Instead they advised their citizens to “be sensible” and exercise self-restraint. Perhaps the Swedes have more self-control than the rest of us, for up to now their deaths rate per head of population appear to be lower than that of most other European nations.
What this means is that most of us are relying on a vaccine to get us out of the woods, and (at least in the case of the elderly and vulnerable) our homes. Although various teams appear to be working on some promising candidate vaccines, the best of the bunch will still need to be carefully tested for efficacy and safety. It is unlikely that any COVID-19 vaccine will be produced before 2021, especially when what is needed is a vaccine not just for one nation, but for the whole world. Let’s hope that there are no unexpected hitches or hold-ups, for without such a vaccine (or an effective treatment), the outcome would be too dreadful to contemplate. The world would have to learn to live with COVID-19, with people continuing to get infected for many years to come until eventually, as is the wont with viruses, the impact of the pathogen on the new host slowly becomes more benign.
12) But even if we get to the stage when a COVID-19 vaccine has been developed, there may still be more battles that need to be fought. I include the following potted history because I believe it provides a salutary lesson. It involves a vaccine horror story, in which corporate interests were allowed to play havoc with the health of a large population group. In 1997 the Department of Defense announced plans to vaccinate every member of the US Armed Forces against anthrax. Admiral William J. Crowe Junior, then serving as US Ambassador to the UK, got wind of these plans and passed them on to a senior member of Porton International, a privatised biotechnology arm of the UK’s former BW centre, Porton Down. Porton International was part of a corporate shell company owned by a German-U.S. citizen, Fuad El-Hibri. and his father, Ibrahim. In 1998 a cabal of businessmen including Fuad El-Hibri and Wiiiam Crowe bought up America’s sole manufacturer of anthrax vaccine, a state-owned and financially-troubled company called Michigan Biologics Products Institute, which had been desperately looking for a buyer. They brought in several people from Porton International and created a new company called BioPort, which has since had a chequered history. Admiral Crowe was made a director and given 10% of company stock, although he had not personally invested a cent in the new company. The American private equity company The Carlyle Group, which was run by several well-connected former members of the government such as Frank Carlucci III, the former Deputy Director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense, is said to have invested heavily in BioPort. Within months the new company received over $69 million in military contracts and grants, and had won the exclusive right to produce the anthrax vaccine. Much of the money was allegedly spent on executive offices, rather than the vaccine factory, and BioPort failed in its targets to get the factory licensed and to produce a safe and effective anthrax vaccine.
Despite this, top Pentagon officials bailed out the company by providing an extra $24 million, and agreeing that it could charge $10.64 instead of $4.36 for a dose of vaccine, a rise of 144%. During this period many soldiers who had been injected with the vaccine began complaining of headaches, joint pains, loss of memory and other more serious symptoms. Some were even disabled for life, but the company vigorously contested personal injury claims. By 2001 a view was growing within the Pentagon that it might be better to cut losses and abandon BioPort altogether. But then 9/11 and the anthrax letters episode occurred, creating widespread concern about further anthrax attacks. This naturally reignited interest in an anthrax vaccine, thus saving BioPort’s perilous pisition, and allowing them to lobby successfully for further vaccine contracts. In 2004 BioPort executives, perhaps fearing that the name was tainted, changed its name to “Emergent Biosolutions”, and in recent weeks that company has gone into partnership with Novovax, and is making preparations to produce a COVID-19 vaccine. The scheme is apparently being strongly supported by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which is backed by Bill Gates. The partnership has recently won a contract for blood plasma treatment which allows it access to the blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients, and some observers believe that it may be in pole position to dominate the US COVID-19 vaccine market. [See: “A Killer Enterprise: How One of Big Pharma’s Most Corrupt Companies Plans to Corner the Covid-19 Cure Market”, by Whitney Webb and Paul Diego; The Unz Review (Online); April 9th 2020.]
I should probably add that I am also not a specialist in economics. However, I know enough about this particular history from other sources to be confident that the core details of the foregoing account, based on the article by Webb and Diego, are accurate. This would seem to be a classic example of corporate greed being allowed to hold sway, even when it runs against the interests of the general public. When the focus of the story is on a vaccine against the virus causing the current public health crisis, one can only hope that American citizens will start demanding an enquiry into the background of a company that is allegedly hoping to corner the market in COVID-19 vaccine production.
13) I began this essay by wondering if there were any lessons from the origins of AIDS debate which might have relevance to the debate about the origins of COVID-19. I have touched base with some friends and collaborators on this, and together we have come up with two. The first involves testing, and the second the regulation of medical trials
At the end of my 1999 book “The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS” I proposed 17 “experiments and investigations that could be conducted to shed further light on the OPV/AIDS hypothesis”. The first two of these involved the testing of ancient samples of pools of CHAT vaccine which were known to be held in certain freezers. (CHAT was the oral polio vaccine fed to nearly a million Africans in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi in 1957-60, which I believe was associated with the genesis of the AIDS pandemic.) Over the next year these tests were indeed carried out, which was gratifying. The upshot was that no evidence was found of any chimpanzee DNA or chimpanzee SIV, which might have indicated contamination of these vaccines with a precursor of HIV-1. However, in response, I stressed that different batches of these pools of vaccine had been made in different labs and in different substrates. Some of the scientists involved complained that they had done what I asked, and yet I was still not satisfied. It later turned out that none of the vaccine samples that were tested had been anywhere near Africa, where many of the vaccine batches had been prepared locally. For this reason, the tests had actually had no relevance. What received little or no coverage was that none of the other 15 suggestions I made were taken up, in particular No. 8: “Blood samples could be taken from longtime residents of Kisangani, the Ruzizi Valley and Lake Tanganyika towns such as Rumonge – especially from those persons who are likely to have been fed with one of the early batches of CHAT vaccine…Any HIV-positive samples could be sequenced, to see if they bear any unusual characteristics.” (A Pasteur Institute study from 1989 had shown that Rumonge had HIV-infection levels of nearly 12% in adults in 1981, which was extraordinary, and way higher than anywhere else in the world at that time. [J.Morvan et al., “Enquete sero-epidemiologique sur les infections a HIV au Burundi entre 1980 et 1981“; Bull. Soc. Path. Exot.; 1989; 82; 130-140.]) I got in contact with a senior scientist at the UK’s National Institute of Medical Research in the hope of persuading him to mount such an nvestigation, but after two years of negotiations I was told that the proposed study could not be funded. To my knowledge, one American retrovirologist also attempted to organise such a study, but he too failed. A study could still be mounted today, but nowadays one would expect to find far fewer vaccinees from 1958 still alive. I believe that a study such as this would have represented a real opportunity to investigate the OPV/AIDS hypothesis, and possible early traces of the AIDS pandemic on the ground. It also might have provided material with which to launch a vaccination programme. In similar fashion, a study of persons who may have been early infectees with COVID-19 (both those who visited the seafood market, and persons working at the two virology labs in Wuhan) could usefully be mounted, and would be especially worthwhile if carried out through an impartial international organisation such as the WHO.
Secondly, any research conducted into microbiology in the 1950s does not have to dig very deep before coming up with evidence of medical and vaccine trials, often conducted without proper supervision or care, many of which were carried out in parts of the Third World (nowadays “the developing world”). Many of these trials were carried out with support from individuals or medical institutions from the US, the UK, France, the Soviet Union and other countries, and some of them resulted in illness and death among the populations of those nations. Sometimes military instututions were involved. (If you want to hear a frank appraisal of the risks that were taken, then generally it is better not to approach one of the senior physicians who were working back in the fifties. This may be because the medical profession has, by and large, a tendency to be conservative and to protect its own. But it may also be because some of these doctors may have been involved or implicated in some of these trials. However, just try talking to a senior veterinarian who knows something of this era. Buy him a beer or two, and have a listen to what he – and most vets were men in the 1950s – has to say.) Anyway, let me be clear: although I believe that irresponsible and unregulated medical research may have been involved in the origins of AIDS, I have no evidence to suggest that this was the case with COVID-19. What I’m instead saying is that many labs situated in the developing world have in the past operated in secrecy, and without proper supervision, and have conducted trials which endangered the lives of local people. Moreover, this is still going on today. An example might be the trials of a candidate AIDS vaccine that were recently being conducted in Uganda, using a vaccine based not on a locally-found strain of HIV-1, but instead HIV-1 subtype B, the “Euro-American strain”, which is almost exclusively found in America, Europe and Australasia. So why was Uganda being used for such a trial? Those who believe that dangerous new viruses come only from bushmeat like to focus their attention on bushmeat practices and markets. I say: yes, investigate bushmeat by all means, but also let’s ensure that we have closer supervision and regulation of medical trials, especially those that are carried out in the developing world. An expanded WHO might be one body that could provide such supervision, or perhaps an entirely new international organisation needs to be founded. But without it, we stand the risk of further nasty viral surprises, like those provided by AIDS and COVID-19, whatever their origins.
14) OK, I’m now climbing down from my soap-box, because now it is time to sum up. In my opinion there is circumstantial evidence to support both major hypotheses of COVID-19 origin: that involving bushmeat from the Wuhan wet market, and that proposing an accidental release of a virus being investigated at the local virology lab. But for Kristian Andersen to claim that the work by his colleagues and himself “rules out” the lab origin theory, and for Josie Golding to claim that it “end[s] any speculation” along such lines, is clearly premature and inaccurate. There are no such disproofs. I believe that as it stands at present, the lab origin hypothesis is at least as plausible a hypothesis as that of origin from Wuhan bushmeat.
15) At present, the world is still in the midst of fighting the virus. But as Wuhan returns to a semblance of normality, one would hope that some serious planning is taking place for an international investigation into how the COVID-19 pandemic began. In my opinion the Chinese authorities would do well to invite the WHO (or some similar international organisation) to convene a multi-national team of scientists (and perhaps a couple of laypeople) to participate in a detailed investigation of how this pandemic began.
Without doubt, there are vitally important questions that need to be asked. For instance: did the virus cross to humans because a bushmeat market brought certain species (and their viral passengers) together in an unprecedented way? If so, how can the risk of similar outbreaks in the future be minimised, especially when pangolin scales are selling for $3,000 a kilo? Presumably it would require more than just the closing down of markets where bushmeat is sold, because that might drive the trade underground, which would make regulation even more difficult. Alternatively, if there are other factors which came into play, such as viral research which was insufficiently contained, or too dangerous to sensibly undertake, and if such factors allowed a dangerous new virus (perhaps a modified virus) to escape from the confines of a research laboratory, then what repercussions does this have for the WIV and for China? What can be done to bring such research under tighter supervision and control? What can be done to minimise the danger of a repeat event, perhaps an even more serious event, in the future?
Given the gravity of the present situation, it is clearly vital that any such investigation should be far-reaching and transparent, and it would surely benefit greatly if scientists and public health experts (and perhaps certain informed lay people from outside the scientific community) from several countries were invited to contribute their different ideas and areas of expertise. It would also demonstrate that on a vital issue of global public health concern the Chinese authorities are open to scrutiny and are acting in good faith.
I have heard some commentators insisting that no investigation can take place until the present crisis is over, but I don’t agree. Indeed, there is some historical precedent. During the Korean War in 1952, China called on the world to send a team of independent scientists to investigate Chinese and North Korean claims that the USA was dropping biological weapons on their territories. A six-person team led by Professor Joseph Needham of Cambridge University made its way to Beijing and Pyongyang, and within a few months produced a massive report which largely supported the Communist claims. All this took place while the Korean War was still raging. The COVID-19 pandemic, in my opinion, is serious enough to justify a similar multi-national investigation being launched without delay.
16) At present the world is facing the two greatest threats to human health of the last 100 (and probably the last 100,000) years, these being the COVID-19 pandemic and catastrophic climate change. It is a tragedy that at this pivotal moment in world history at least five of the nine most populous countries in the world are being run by men (and yes, they are all men) who tend to respond to these threats by making biased and boastful political statements, instead of relying on cool judgement and scientifically reliable information. (And as an aside, I have to admit that my own country, the UK, now has a leadership which talks a good talk, but which so far has failed to deliver on many of its promises.) There really could not be a worse time for so many nations to be saddled with the leadership of so many egotistical and self-serving leaders.
17) On a more positive note, we are told that there has been an unprecedented response from scientists and physicians across the world, who have worked quickly and collaboratively to share information about the nature of the COVID-19 virus, thus speeding the process whereby treatments and vaccines will hopefully be developed. This exceptionally altruistic behaviour, which has only come about because scientists have themselves been shocked by the seriousness of the crisis, gives one some hope that we, the people, can challenge the amorality, vested interests and chauvinism of inadequate leaders and greedy power-brokers, and arrive at a new way of living our lives. For without a sea-change, we can only expect more of the same.
18) (Note added on May 1st, 2020.) I’ve had a lot of encouraging feedback to this post, but at this point I would like to announce the end of my investigation into COVID-19. This is partly because the virus has had such a dramatic impact globally that the Internet is awash with rumours and theories, many of which are clearly misguided. I would estimate that there must be 10,000 other investigators who have spent more time looking at this subject then I have, some of whom have fairly extreme political views (at both ends of the spectrum), and I don’t want to get drawn into a vitriolic debate. I will, however, add one further detail that I believe has not to date been much discussed in the mainstream media. The 7th CISM Military World Games were held in Wuhan between October 18th and 27th, 2019. These were the first such Games to be held outside a military base, and were attended by more than 9,000 athletes. The U.S. apparently had a team of some 300, including both military athletes and support staff. George Webb, an American investigative reporter who bears a slight but unsettling resemblance to the actor John Goodman, and who seems to be a committed conspiracy theorist, has alleged that a female American athlete who attended the Games was the first person in the world to get infected with COVID-19, and that her husband also got infected. He then enlarges this idea by claiming that three other people who happen to share the same surname may also be somehow involved. When interviewed by Doni O’Sullivan of CNN and asked for evidence to support his claims, Mr Webb rather sheepishly claimed that his source was an unnamed person at a local community hospital. The aforementioned couple, meanwhile, deny that they have ever had COVID-19 or been tested for it, and say that Webb’s claims have ruined their lives. Mr Webb’s theories are, to say the least, far-fetched, but the coincidence of timing of the Games is intriguing. This particular viral origin story is very specific in its timing, and so the fact that several different unusual events occurred during October and November 2019 only adds to the feeling that something very much out of the ordinary must have happened.
19) (Note added May 18th, 2020.) I have been thinking recently of the performance of women leaders in recent months, as compared to that of their male counterparts. And I wonder if it might not be time for a new global law that permits only women to be elected as heads of state for, say, the next 100 years. Or perhaps 200! Of course, as soon as I write that, I am brought back to earth by the memory of Dame Margaret “the lady’s not for turning” Thatcher. Despite that disturbing thought, one cannot help feeling that our planet might stand a better chance in the coming century or two if women were in charge.
My concluding thought is that the human species has had serious warnings before, and has generally failed to heed those warnings. One hopes this time for an outcome that falls well short of the worst possible outcome. But surely we cannot persist in ignoring these warnings , for otherwise sooner or later our species will have to pay its bills in full.
I wish us all good sense and good luck.
Ed Hooper, April 24th 2020, updated on May 18th.