COVID-19 Origins: If it was a lab leak, was it caused by biowarfare research?

Some three and a half years have passed since the start of the COVID pandemic, and we now see the first serious article arguing that COVID-19 was the result of biowarfare experiments in Wuhan. 

And it comes from a reputable source: the “Insight” investigative team at the Sunday Times in the UK, whose past successes have included their study of the thalidomide scandal in the 1970s, the background story of the Falklands War and, more recently, investigations into FIFA corruption and doping in world athletics.   That team now consists of Insight editor Jonathan Calvert (a former winner of Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards, and three-time winner of Scoop of the Year) and his deputy George Arbuthnott, (a former winner of Investigation of the Year and Scoop of the Year ).  They have co-written 11 articles on COVID in the last 3 years, including four on its origins, two of them in the last three months.   As far as I can make out neither man is a science specialist, but they are careful and experienced journalists representing what is generally recognised as the leading investigative team in British newspapers (indeed, the only such investigative team that remains in the mainstream British press), which encourages confidence in their findings.

The article is a major piece, over 5,000 words in length.   The headline on page 1 is “Wuhan scientists created mutant virus before pandemic”; the main article starting on page 10 is headed “Inside the Wuhan lab: secret experiments on killer viruses.”  The article summary states: “Fresh evidence drawn from confidential files reveals Chinese scientists spliced together deadly pathogens shortly before the pandemic, the Sunday Times Insight team report”.

The main article begins as follows:

“Scientists in Wuhan working alongside the Chinese military were combining the world’s most deadly coronaviruses to create a new mutant virus just as the pandemic began.  Investigators who scrutinised top-secret intercepted communications and scientific research believe Chinese scientists were running a covert project of dangerous experiments, which caused a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and started the Covid-19 outbreak.  The US investigators say one of the reasons there is no published information on the work is because it was done in collaboration with researchers from the Chinese military, which was funding it and which, they say, was pursuing bioweapons.  The Sunday Times has reviewed hundreds of documents, including previously confidential reports, internal memos, scientific papers and email correspondence that has been obtained through sources or by freedom of information campaigners in the three years since the pandemic started. We also interviewed the US State Department investigators — including experts on China, emerging pandemic threats, and biowarfare — who conducted the first significant US inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak.  Whether the virus emerged as a result of a leak from a laboratory or from nature has become one the most controversial problems in science. Researchers who have attempted to find conclusive proof have been hampered by China’s lack of transparency. However, our new investigation paints the clearest picture yet of what happened in the Wuhan laboratory.”

The first half of the article gives an analysis of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that is mainly based on the lab leak hypothesis (as distinct from the “transfer from another species” or “zoonosis” hypothesis), but the second part (much of which is based on information gathered from unidentified sources, including the US State Department and US intelligence agencies) proposes that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that caused the pandemic, was created after the Chinese military began collaborating with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in a bid to develop a bioweapon (a more lethal version of a human coronavirus), together with a vaccine to protect against it.  This part proposes that three WIV workers became infected with the genetically altered virus in November 2019, and that this marked the moment when the virus escaped into the wider world and the pandemic began.  

I shall attempt to summarise this article below.  Since the first part covers ground already addressed in my previous blogs on the subject [see below], I can deal with this section fairly briefly. 

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The Sunday Times piece of June 11, 2023 records that in 2004 Professor Shi Zhengli of the WIV (popularly known as “Batwoman”), began investigating bats in caves in southern China as she searched for a possible origin of the coronavirus that had sparked the first SARS epidemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-1 virus, which killed 774 persons in 2002.  She was joined by a British bat expert, Dr Peter Daszak, who had obtained a degree in zoology at the University of Bangor before emigrating to the States, where he became a close friend and collaborator of Shi. In 2009 he won a $18 million grant from the NIH to spend five years studying bat viruses in China, with the aim being to identify the SARS-CoV-1 pandemic strain. The project was called “Predict” and the Chinese collaborators from the WIV were awarded a further one million dollars.  Shortly afterwards Daszak was named President of a new group called EcoHealth Alliance. 

In 2012 Shi’s group found a coronavirus that was genetically close to the SARS-CoV-1 virus in the Shitou caves in Yunnan province, southern China: they found it could infect human cells and christened it WIV-1.  Attempts to grow a second virus found in the same caves (SHC014) failed, and so in 2013 Shi contacted veteran virologist Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina, who was an expert in gene mixing, and in testing lab-created viral variants in “humanised mice”. These are mice that have been adapted so they contain lungs and vascular systems (blood circulatory systems) similar to ours.  His ultimate aim was allegedly to find a vaccine that was effective against all SARS-type coronaviruses; a noble objective that has not until now been achieved.  However this type of research, also known as “Gain Of Function” [GOF] research, can also serve other purposes, in that it can artificially create more potent and transmissible versions of viruses, which have the potential to be adapted as bioweapons that are effective against humans, animals or crops.  By 2012 scientists who were aware of the potential risks of GOF research were attempting to circulate warnings about the dangers of the work proposed by Daszak, Shi and Baric, but most virologists seem to have ignored these warnings.

Before long Baric had managed to create a virus that combined a “spike gene” found on the surface of SHC014, the second virus from the Shitou caves, with another coronavirus. By 2014 EcoHealth Alliance was awarded a further $3.7 million by the NIH, with more than a sixth going to Shi’s lab at the WIV.  However, at this point Barack Obama’s government announced a moratorium on all GOF research that might reasonably be expected to increase the lethality of a pathogen.  This might have ended the WIV/EHA/Baric collaboration, except that Baric managed to persuade the NIH that this research was safe and was urgently needed.   In November 2015 Baric published the results of his work with SHC014 showing that the new mutant virus was “a potential mass killer”. It caused severe lung damage in humanised mice and was resistant to existing SARS vaccines.  In his paper Baric admitted that the experiment he had performed might in reality have been too dangerous to stage and Simon Wain-Hobson, a lab head at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, commented “If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory”.

Despite this, the ebullient Peter Daszak remained upbeat about the research, stating that the NIH did not believe it to be GOF research, and emphasising that safety rules were followed at all times in China.  He issued a 2016 progress report stating that the WIV planned to create an infectious version of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus by combining it with bat viruses. (MERS is a coronavirus acquired from camels which sparked a 2012 outbreak that caused over 2,600 human infections and over 900 deaths.)  Again, Daszak argued that this was not GOF research as such, because it was not expected to render the MERS virus more pathogenic. None the less in the same year he admitted to a New York conference that Shi was moving “closer and closer” to creating a virus that “could really become pathogenic in people”.  Meanwhile in 2017 Shi announced that she had tried to create eight mutant viruses from bat viruses found in the Shitou caves, two of which were found to grow in human cells.  This work had been carried out in a BSL-2 laboratory, where safety precautions were said to be similar to those of a dental surgery.  These announcements triggered heightened concerns at the NIH, and in January 2018 a team from the US Embassy went to inspect the WIV, finding that there was “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory”.  A further experiment was staged by the WIV at around this time which involved combining different SARS-like viruses with WIV-1 and then injecting the mutant viruses into the noses of humanised mice, to see whether this might have the potential to spark a pandemic. The mice which had WIV-1 mixed with SHC014 were found to have 10,000 times more virus in their lungs than those merely infected with WIV-1, and 75% of them died, though Daszak neglected to mention this detail in his 2018 progress report to the NIH.  This new hybrid virus was highly infectious early in the illness, before sickness was recognised, meaning that it would be difficult to contain the spread of infection if it ever leaked into the human population. 

By March 2018 Daszak decided to pitch for some American military funding, and applied on behalf of the WIV for another $14 million over 3 years, from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, “which is responsible for emergency technology for use by the military”. This time the project was code-named Defuse, presumably to emphasise that it was an attempt to limit the mayhem that might be caused if any of these novel coronaviruses escaped.   None the less, it involved mixing WIV-1 and SHC014 with new SARS viruses, to see what the result would be.  One aspect of the proposal was to insert a furin cleavage site (which makes coronaviruses more infectious) into the spike protein of different Sars-like viruses. Fortunately DARPA turned down this latest application, so at least some scientists were paying attention to the risks, even if people such as Daszak and Shi seem to have become so excited about their work that they had lost the ability to recognise its dangers.  Nowadays Daszak and Shi give assurances that they never carried out the furin cleavage site experiment although, as the Sunday Times reporters emphasise, “when Covid-19 emerged the following year [2019], it was notable for being the first Sars-like coronavirus with a furin cleavage site”.

It is at this point that, according to the Insight team of Arbuthnott and Calvert, the Chinese military enter the picture.  (Evidently the Chinese were not the only military group that was interested, given the interest that the US military had in the work of Shi and Daszak in 2018 – and probably some years before that.)    Readers of this web-site may recall the blog posted here on May 22, 2022 which related the work of Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson, and the tale of the Mojiang mine.  In 2012 six men who had been drafted in to remove bat guano from an abandoned copper mine at Mojiang in Yunnan province fell sick with symptoms typical of coronavirus, and three later died.  Extensive samples were taken from the miners, both living and dead. Over the next four years, as part of the Predict programme, Shi’s team collected 1,300 further samples from Mojiang, and discovered 293 coronaviruses therein.  A paper published in 2016 mentioned one of these Mojiang viruses, which would later be called RaTG13, and which would eventually turn out to have the greatest similarity to the viruses that caused the initial COVID-19 outbreak in 2019, with 96% homology. However, the Sunday Times says that by 2016 Shi was withholding information from her American collaborators, including Daszak, who were allegedly not informed that three of the miners had died, or that Shi’s team had collected eight further coronaviruses related to RaTG13 from Mojiang.  Apparently the genetic sequences of these 8 viruses would only be released in 2021 (after “sustained pressure” from non-Chinese scientists).  At least one microbiologist has claimed that the work released in 2021 “looks like cheating”, and that the eight sequences that were eventually released by the Chinese could perhaps have been changed. 

At this point the Insight team explain that in 2021 State Department investigators were given access to secret intelligence, including “metadata, phone information and Internet information” from intercepts, on further COVID research that had been going on in China.  They produced a stripped-back 700-word report in early 2021 which stated that the WIV had been doing further research on RaTG13 “and that covert military research, including laboratory animal experiments, was being done at the [Wuhan] institute before the pandemic” broke.  In short, these investigators believed that “the Wuhan institute was running a shadow project that it kept secret, even from Daszak”.  The Insight team spoke to three members of the State Department investigatory team who said they believed that one of the viruses the Chinese were secretly working with (perhaps from Mojiang) “was an even closer variant to Covid-19 than RaTG13”.  Moreover, the three scientists said they had spoken with researchers who were collaborating with WIV workers at the time of the COVID outbreak in late 2019, who said that by then the Chinese scientists “had inserted furin cleavage sites into viruses”.  The investigators also saw evidence indicating that the WIV had been conducting serial passaging experiments on at least one of the Mojiang strains.  (Serial passaging, or rapid passaging, involves introducing a virus into lab animals or tissue cultures, identifying the most significant variation, and then repeating the process with that variant in order to promote mutation into a more deadly strain, “so instead of taking years to mutate, it can take weeks or months”.) 

One source who is named in the Insight report is Dr Steven Quay, an American author, scientist and CEO of the biotech company, Atossa Therapeutics. Quay wrote a letter to a Senate committee explaining that in his opinion Chinese scientists had inserted a furin cleavage site into one of the viruses from Mojiang and then serial passaged the resultant virus through humanised mice.  He believes this explains why by the end of 2019 the pandemic virus was already so well adapted to transmission through humans.  In September 2021 Quay published a book about COVID titled “The Origin of the Virus. The Hidden Truths Behind the Microbe That Killed Millions of People” with British oncologist Angus Dalgleish, which was highly praised in reviews, one of which referred to Quay as an “eminent scientist”.  I know nothing of Quay, but in the mid-nineties I spent an evening interviewing Dalgleish about his thoughts on the origin of HIV-1, and was impressed, finding him to be very bright and a careful user of language. Writing in the Daily Express in March 2023, Dalgleish said that he and colleagues had examined the SARS-CoV-2 virus closely while trying to devise an alternative vaccine strategy, and had concluded that “it had inserts around the receptor binding region – a feature not present on any similar virus”, and was almost certainly an engineered virus. He went on: “We wrote a manuscript and shared it with the Government, Cabinet and scientific advisors saying that it was extremely likely that this was a laboratory escape and had clear and present security implications. Imagine our surprise when we were told quite categorically that there was no way it could have been a laboratory escape and was a natural zoonosis. We tried to publish this on many occasions and each and every one of the top journals, including NatureScienceThe Lancet and many others refused to publish this as it was not in the public interest…There has been secrecy and cover-up of this issue on a truly Orwellian scale.”

But back to the Insight report.  This states that the three investigators who worked on the State Department report all believe that the reason why the latest Chinese work on SARS-CoV-2 has not been reported to the Americans, or to Daszak, is that there is a shadow project at the WIV which has been funded by the Chinese military since 2016 or 2017, and which involved classified research, including laboratory animal experiments. In recent years the WIV has been experimenting on coronaviruses with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS), which is a research arm of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) based at the Beijing Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology.   Some of these military scientists have positions of responsibility at the WIV. Tellingly, a 2015 book by AMMS scientists stated that coronaviruses were involved in a “new era of genetic weapons [which can be] artificially manipulated into an emerging human disease virus, then weaponised and unleashed.”  

The investigators believe that the Chinese military has been trying to develop a vaccine against these viruses, so that the viruses can later be used as bioweapons. “If a country could inoculate its population against its own secret virus, it might have a weapon to shift the balance of world power.”  This indeed is the basic principle behind biological warfare research: one side attempts to create a powerful virus and a protective vaccine that the other side does not have.  Apparently the PLA has a vaccine expert at the AMMS, Zhou Yusen, who collaborated with WIV scientists on a MERS vaccine, and was again working with them at the time of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak.   He lodged a remarkably early patent application for a COVID vaccine in February 2020, one month after China acknowledged the COVID outbreak.  An April 2023 report published by Robert Kadlec, who was responsible for the US COVID vaccine programme, stated that Zhou must have been working on a vaccine from no later than November 2019, which is just as the outbreak began in Wuhan, albeit two months before this was officially acknowledged in China.

November 2019 is significant, because the State Department “investigators also saw communications intercepts that allegedly show three Wuhan Institute researchers working at its level 3 laboratory on coronavirus gain-of-function work had fallen sick with coronavirus symptoms in the second week of November 2019, when many exports believe the pandemic began.” This was more than a fortnight before the official first case of the pandemic on December 1, 2019.  A family member of one of these three workers later died.  One investigator commented that these three researchers were “in their thirties and forties.  35-year-old scientists don’t get very sick with influenza.” 

Substantial evidence supports the hypothesis that this was when the virus escaped from the WIV.  For instance on November 15 the WIV issued a patent for a tourniquet to be used when cuts and needle stick injuries occur. Shortly afterwards, a procurement request was issued for an air purifier for air that was flowing out of the laboratory.  And according to the WIV web-site the safety director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences visited the WIV on November 19, 2019 to address the Institute’s leaders with “oral and written” instructions from China’s president about “a complex and grave situation”.  As an additional clue, within a few months Chinese researchers were frantically collecting further material from mines in southern China, but the site of the Mojiang copper mine had been deemed a no-go area. 

A later study by WIV academics showed the hotspots in Wuhan where, in the opening weeks of the outbreak, people were reporting on social media that they needed treatment for COVID. The study went on until January 23, 2023, when Wuhan was placed in lockdown.  Later these hotspots were made into a COVID “heat map”, which is reproduced in the Insight article.  The map shows that although there was a small low intensity cluster of cases around the Wuhan Seafood Market, a high intensity cluster roughly four times as large was located immediately to the West of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, some eight miles to the south-east of the Market. The epidemiological linkage of the outbreak to the WIV headquarters  is immediately apparent. 

This heat map directly conflicts with maps B to E inclusive in Figure 1 of “The Origins of SARS-CoV-2: A Critical Review”, by Eddie Holmes (lead author); Michael Worobey, Kristian Andersen, Robert Garry, Andrew Rambaut and others; (Cell; [September] 2021; 184; 4848-4856). As discussed in my blog of September 7, 2021, the maps in the Holmes article depict reported cases of COVID from December 8 to December 31, 2019; further maps depict excess deaths from pneumonia from January 15 to February 3, 2020.  The Holmes group insists that the earliest COVID cases in Wuhan came from around the seafood market, and not from the vicinity of the WIV, which allows them to argue that the market was the source of a “natural” outbreak caused by a cross-species transfer or zoonosis, and not from a laboratory leak.  But, as revealed in my blog, the maps in the Holmes article appear to contain a crucial mistake.  The place they identify as the “WIV” on their maps (which they say is “where the coronavirus isolation and control work of Dr Shi Zhengli is performed”) is actually a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab called the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory at Zhengdian Scientific Park, which is located in southern Wuhan, a further 12 miles to the south of the headquarters of the WIV.  As reported in the Insight article, it is the latter lab, the WIV HQ, which has a BSL-3 lab where experimental COVID-like viruses were apparently being inserted into humanised mice, as part of Gain-Of-Function research.  And it is the WIV HQ which lies beside the places where people reported having early COVID infections on social media. 

On the Holmes maps the place marked as “WIV” is the wrong lab. Whether or not this mistake was made in good faith, the net effect in September 2021 was to bolster the authors’ incorrect assertion that the virus lab where SARS-CoV-2 experiments were conducted was not linked epidemiologically to the initial COVID outbreak.  I would accept that it still needs to be confirmed which map is the more accurate (that in the Holmes paper or the Sunday Times paper). But as it stands, given this latest analysis, it appears that the true location of the lab leak was at the headquarters of the WIV, and not at the seafood market eight miles away.  If the virus really escaped from the WIV in the second week of November, then perhaps the cluster of cases around the seafood market a month later was merely evidence of a secondary epicentre, caused by the many people who frequented it on a daily basis.

The Sunday Times of June 11 also features an editorial which calls on China to “come clean about what happened in [the] Wuhan lab.”

Ed Hooper. June 12, 2023.

Since I wrote this piece, some important new information has been released which adds substantial further weight to thestory.

1)  A new article posted on the Public web-site on June 13 by Michael Shellenberger, Matt Taibbi and Alex Gutentag asserts that “multiple US government officials” interviewed by the writers have stated (as did the Insight team) that the three WIV scientists who went down with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019 were working in the WIV lab that was manipulating viruses related to SARS-CoV-2, and inserting gain-of function features into these viruses.  But the Public article goes much further, for it is the first to name the three scientists.  The US government sources apparently identified the scientists in question as Ben Hu, Yu Ping and Yan Zhu, and added that Ben Hu was the man who had headed the GOF research at the WIV.  One of these sources was allegedly asked how certain he and his colleagues were about the identity of the three WIV scientists who fell sick in the fall of 2019, and he answered “100%”.

Another important aspect of the article in Public is that Alina Chan, who co-wrote the well-regarded book “Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19” [London: Harper Collins, 2021] with British scientist Matt Ridley, offers partial confirmation of these claims.  She confirms that Ben Hu was Shi Zhengli’s “star pupil”, adding “He had been making chimeric SARS-like viruses and testing these in humanised mice.  If I had to guess who would be doing this risky viral research and most at risk of getting accidentally infected, it would be him.”  And Jamie Metzl, a former member of the WHO expert advisory committee on human genome editing, who made salient comments on the COVID origins debate in early 2020, commented: “It would be a game-changer if it can be proven that Hu got sick with COVID-19 before anyone else. That would be the smoking gun.  Hu was the lead hands-on researcher in Shi’s lab.”  Of course, the central plank of the story in Public relies on anonymous US government sources that cannot be independently checked, but there again, so does the Insight story.   What is noteworthy, however, is that the two stories seem to have been published independently (for the only mention of the Insight story in the Public article appears towards the end, and appears to have been a last-minute addition), that the two stories confirm each other and, moreover, are consistent with the overall array of arguments made.  In my opinion, both stories have the ring of truth about them.  (However, what has not yet been revealed is the identity and date of death of the family member of one of these three WIV employees, who allegedly died from COVID, and who might therefore represent “Patient Zero” outside the WIV lab.)

2)   In an interview with The Intercept (Sharon Lerner and Mara Hvistendahl) on March 11, 2022, Peter Daszak insisted that after his Project Predict grant application was turned down by DARPA in 2018, he approached DARPA officials to find out the reason, and was told that it was not because of concerns about the GOF research, but because of the amount of money requested ($14M). Indeed, he was told that he might be more successful if he cut back the application and applied for a smaller sum.  If this account is correct, it indicates that only a year before the pandemic broke, elements of the US Department of Defense continued to be actively interested in the potential of working with coronaviruses of artifically increased virulence.  So the Chinese military is not the only military force that has some questions to answer. 

Moreover, as Alina Chan is quoted as saying in the Public article quoted in point (1), above, “It is unclear who in the US government had access to the intelligence about the sick WIV workers, how long they had it, and why it was not shared with the public.”  Once again, questions are being asked about the history of US involvement in this story.  As both Chan and Metzl point out, so much more could have been done to respond to COVID, had these facts about the earliest Chinese COVID infectees been released back in 2020.

3)  Many might question why work that was avowedly designed to limit the threat posed to humanity by coronaviruses required the development of coronavirus variants of extreme virulence. The classic response (as I understand it) is that (a) research tends to move faster when it is carried out with viruses of greater virulence and (b) that you need to challenge the most lethal variants of a pathogen in order to be sure that you have the ability to control the threat posed by all members of the group (such as all coronaviruses).  But clearly such work was extremely risky, especially with a class of viruses as ubiquitous and transmissible as the coronaviruses, so many people are now wondering what on earth the scientists conducting this research were thinking.

The thought that the coronavirus research at the WIV might have been related to biowarfare (BW) research had occurred to me (and I believe to many other commentators) before now, but it had always seemed to me that it was irresponsible to highlight such concerns until such time as there was real substantive evidence to support the BW hypothesis. I believe that that time has now arrived and that, as Jamie Metzl puts it: “The time has come for a full accounting.”

Ed Hooper June 14, 2023