Just last night I was able to view the excellent Channel Four documentary “Did COVID Leak from a Lab in China?”, directed by David Malone for DNA Productions, and first broadcast on Sunday August 22nd.
In the space of 47 minutes, this documentary made a compelling case for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has caused the COVID-19 pandemic, having an artificial origin, after escaping from a lab in Wuhan, China.
However, I note that much of the content of the documentary was based on an impressively detailed 83-page report entitled “The Origins of COVID-19: An Investigation of the Wuhan Institute of Virology” that was issued by the Minority Staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Republican Michael T. McCaul, and posted on-line as a PDF on August 2nd, at https://gop-foreignaffairs.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/ORIGINS-OF-COVID-19-REPORT.pdf
This appears to be the contribution made by the Republican side of the House to the debate initiated by Joe Biden in May, in which he requested a report from Congress within 90 days on the likely origins of the pandemic virus. Whatever opinions one might have on the current performance of the Republican Party, as most GOP members of Congress cluster around Trump’s fiction that he won the 2020 election, this comes across as an impressive report, clearly compiled by people who know how to do proper research. I recommend it.
Since there has already been much discussion of these issues on-line, let me attempt to briefly summarise the present state of the debate, with particular reference to these two sources.
I shall end by highlighting the disturbing level of self-interested analysis and flip-flopping on this issue by certain well-known and much-quoted scientists.
- The nearest virus to SARS CoV-2 found in nature, with over 96% homogeneity, is a bat coronavirus discovered in a bat-infested mine-shaft in Yunnan province.
- In 2012 six Yunnan miners developed COVID-19-type symptoms, of whom three died.
- Between 2012 and 2015, researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, led by Professor Shi Zhengli, have repeatedly returned to the mine to gather further samples of virus.
- They began conducting gain of function (GOF) experiments on these bat coronaviruses, which included passing them through other species (including mice genetically modified with human cells) and passaging them in different cell cultures, including human cell cultures.
- GOF research can involve altering the transmissibility and pathogenicity of viruses and is highly dangerous, for even the best labs sometimes experience lab escapes (as for instance in 2007, when a British lab allowed foot-and-mouth disease to escape through a faulty drainage pipe).
- There are reports of low staff levels and of inadequate safety measures being implemented at the WIV labs, and apparently maintenance and repair projects were taking place at the WIV HQ in 2019.
- Moreover, according to Shi Zhengli, some of this GOF research into SARS-CoV-2 was conducted in BioSafety Level 2 (BSL-2) and BSL-3 labs, instead of in the maximum security BSL-4 labs where it should have been conducted.
- The WIV’s new BSL-4 facility, situated 12 miles to the south of Wuhan city centre, only became operational in 2018. Therefore all SARS-CoV-2 research which had been conducted before that date was conducted in other labs which did not have BSL-4 capability.
- In September 2019 the WIV’s online database of samples and viral sequences was suddenly taken off-line in the middle of the night. .
- There is evidence suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 was already circulating in Wuhan by (at latest) November 2019, more than a month before it had previously been mooted, for early SARS-CoV-2 infections from that month have been found in Italy, Brazil and Sweden, three of the countries whose athletes attended the 7th International Military Sports Council Military World Games, held in Wuhan in late October 2019, and attended by over 9,000 athletes in all. In May 2020, a Canadian athlete claimed that he had been very sick during the Games in October, and that 60 of his colleagues had been unwell with symptoms such as coughs and diarrhea on the flight back home.
- Much of the early SARS-CoV-2 research was co-funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and channeled to the WIV via Eco Health Alliance, an organization run by the American scientist, Peter Daszak, who has been actively collaborating with Shi Zhengli’s coronavirus researches since 2013.
- Peter Daszak has played a prominent role in enlisting other scientists to make public statements declaring that the idea that SARS-CoV-2 might be the result of a lab accident is a “conspiracy theory”, and arguing that the scientific consensus is that the virus must have natural origins.
- When the WHO team visited Wuhan to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2021, the three scientists proposed by the US side were not allowed entry by the Chinese authorities, who instead approved the attendance of Peter Daszak.
- Peter Daszak is known to have told a series of untruths about SARS-CoV-2, including his insistence that there have never been dead or live bats at the WIV. He has also proposed to Ralph Baric that they should do their best to keep their own names out of the debate. Shi, for her part, has also frequently contradicted claims made during previous interviews.
- Although the Obama administration initiated a moratorium on GOF research in 2014, this edict did not apply to research that was already underway, allowing scientists such as Shi Zhengli (and Ralph Baric from the US) to continue their GOF research into bat coronaviruses. In May 2021 Baric admitted in interview that the lab leak theory was viable.
- Perhaps the key statement in the McCaul report is that “it is self-evident that Shi and her colleagues, with funding and support from Daszak, were actively genetically manipulating coronaviruses and testing them against human immune systems in 2018 and 2019, before the beginning of the pandemic.” [Page 37]
- Although China’s continued denials and non-cooperation on the subject of SARS-CoV-2 origins are unlikely to ever allow a definitive answer on the question of how the pandemic started, the circumstantial evidence supporting the hypothesis that it arose because of a leak from one of the WIV labs is now very strong indeed.
- However, as Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, points out with respect to any further investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, “If China refuses to take part, we can’t go forward”. In other words, whatever one’s opinions on the likely genesis of this awful pandemic, we can’t expect the present government in China to budge from its political position that a lab origin of the virus is “a myth invented by the West”.
- If it is not a myth, then certain scientists (both Chinese and American) deserve a high level of castigation for their unsafe GOF research, while the governments of the two countries bear a heavy responsibility for their failure to be transparent and courageous in their investigations of the pandemic’s origins.
- But given realpolitik, we clearly can’t expect either of the two governments concerned to meekly accept this verdict. The only realistic chance of our species avoiding a similar catastrophe in future, therefore, may be to keep emphasizing to Beijing and Washington the vital importance of this issue – and hope that the labs and scientists involved will have learned from their mistakes, and will never again conduct such dangerous researches.
- Whether such a hope is realistic is, of course, questionable.
Lastly, let me mention the revealing history of consistent flip-flopping on COVID origin perpetrated by certain scientists, flip-flops that suggest that an active cover-up is taking place.
Page 44 of McCaul’s report shows part of an email sent by Kristian G. Andersen to Tony Fauci, the director of NIAID, on January 31st, 2020, entitled “Mining coronavirus genomes for clues to the outbreak’s origins”. (The email was obtained by Buzzfeed News researchers). It ends: “After the discussions earlier today, Eddie, Bob, Mike and myself all find the genome inconsistent with expectation from evolutionary theory. But we have to look at this much more closely and there are still further analyses to be done, so these opinions could still change.”
And change they did, for the McCaul report goes on to say that on February 2nd, “Dr Fauci, Andersen and others debated this issue via teleconference. Previously they had agreed to keep the debate confidential. Following this debate, Andersen abandoned his claims that the virus was genetically modified.”
On March 17, 2020, Kristian Andersen, Eddie Holmes, Robert Garry, and Andrew Rambaut were among those who published an article titled “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” in Nature Medicine [2020; 26(4); 450-452], in which they stated that their “analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposely manipulated virus”. In a press release, lead author Andersen, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at the Scripps Research Institute, claimed that their research “rules out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin” for the virus.
In a critique of the Andersen article in my “COVID-19 and the Origins of AIDS Debate” blog, published in April 24, 2020, I pointed out that three of these authors (Holmes, Rambaut and Garry) had previously been prominent in the origins-of-AIDS debate, arguing that the OPV theory must be wrong, but doing so on dubious grounds. Moreover, Holmes and Andersen had potentially partisan interests in the outcome of the COVID debate, for both had been conducting research in Chinese labs for several years.
As for the mention of “Eddie, Bob and Mike” in Andersen’s email of January 31, 2020, the first two are clearly Eddie Holmes and Bob Garry, while the third was almost certainly Michael Worobey (who, as we shall see later, is an ally of the others. He is also, as far as I can determine, the only “Mike” to have collaborated on their SARS-CoV-2 papers.) The question for now has to be: Why did Andersen, Holmes and Garry initially state that the virus appeared to have been genetically modified, but less than 7 weeks later publish an article stating that SARS-CoV-2 was “clearly… not a laboratory construct or a purposely manipulated virus”. Why did they flip-flop?
As for Worobey, in May 2021, he was one of 18 scientists to write a letter to Science questioning the findings of the WHO team which had recently visited Wuhan and concluded that a lab origin of the virus was extremely unlikely. He later told the New York Times “the recent WHO report on the origins of the virus, and its discussion, spurred several of us to get in touch with each other and talk about our shared desire for dispassionate investigation of the origins of the virus…I felt I had no choice but to put my concerns out there.” [See my June 25 2021 blog, “Blunders and Blunderbusses” and also the Times article at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/13/science/virus-origins-lab-leak-scientists.html>]
On June 23, 2021, Worobey was extensively quoted in another New York Times article entitled “Scientist Finds Early Virus Sequences That Had Been Mysteriously Deleted”, which further questioned the activities of certain Chinese scientists who appeared to have arranged for the deletion of key early coronavirus sequences from the NIH database. Worobey was said to belong to “an outspoken group of scientists who have called for more research into how the pandemic began”.
Yet within two weeks Worobey had performed a complete flip-flop. On July 7 he was back with his pals Kristian Andersen, Eddie Holmes and Bob Garry. These 4 scientists, together with 17 others, published an on-line article entitled “The Origins of SARS-CoV-2: A Critical Review”, which concluded that: “As for the vast majority of human viruses, the most parsimonious explanation for the origin of SARS-Cov-2 is a zoonotic event”, rather than the escape of a virus from a laboratory.
This argument was mainly a rerun of their previous analysis in Nature Medicine, but it had one significant new element. A series of maps on page 4 of the paper purported to show that almost all the earliest SARS-CoV-2 cases (seen up to February 3, 2020) had occurred near to the Wuhan seafood market (the previously mooted venue for a “natural crossover event”), and nowhere near the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) which, it was stressed, was 12 miles to the south of the centre of Wuhan where the outbreak had begun.
What this rather simplistic epidemiological analysis failed to confront, however, was that by “WIV” they meant the BioSafety Level 4 (BSL4) labs of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which had only opened in 2018. The authors neglected to mention something that was stressed in the McCaul report, namely that the leading bat coronavirus researcher at the WIV, Shi Zhengli, had admitted more than once that from 2014 onwards her efforts to manipulate the coronaviruses they had obtained from Yunnan had, entirely inappropriately, been conducted mainly in BSL-2 labs, which have the level of protection that exists at a normal dental surgery. A small amount of the research had apparently been performed at BSL-3 level.
The McCaul report states that in all likelihood this means that the early Gain Of Function research on these viruses had been conducted at the WIV headquarters in the heart of Wuhan, which has two BSL-2 labs and one BSL-3 lab. As far as I can determine from on-line maps the WIV HQ lies about 8 to 9 miles from the famous seafood market, but well within the circle representing the earliest SARS-CoV-2 cases. This, of course, completely destroys the central tenet of the latest argument by Holmes, Andersen, Garry and Worobey that the COVID-19 pandemic has a “natural origin” and cannot represent a viral escape from the WIV.
So why has Worobey flip-flopped? It has to be said that he has always had the air of a highly ambitious scientist, and that he has a history of swapping sides on politically contentious issues. From the time I first met him while Bill Hamilton was lying in a coma in January 2000 Worobey repeatedly insisted to me that attempts to date the AIDS pandemic using phylogenetic methods simply didn’t work. He used to say that they were “a dog’s dinner”. Yet in 2003 he was offered his own laboratory in Phoenix Arizona, and since then he has made his reputation by publishing sensational dating estimates of HIV-1 which entirely depend on phylogenetic analysis, and which insist that the pandemic AIDS virus originated at the start of the 20th century, well before the 1950s OPV trials in Africa.
Moreover, it appears that he was always expecting to adopt that position. Shortly before she died in 2004 Bill Hamilton’s partner, the Italian science writer Luisa Bozzi, told me that soon after Bill’s death in March 2000 Worobey had confided to her that he wasn’t “going to ruin [his] career over the OPV theory”.
Ed Hooper, August 27, 2021.
The preceding piece was written yesterday afternoon (August 27) and posted on-line by the Webmaster at around 7-30pm (1830 GMT). This was timely, for at 2200 GMT I heard a BBC radio report announcing that the full Biden report into the origins of the pandemic virus had been released.
I have not yet seen a copy of the full report. However, the following is an instant response to BBC radio coverage of the report, including another broadcast that went out at 0730 GMT today (August 28).
The full report by the Biden administration on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic was released yesterday, August 27. It is a compilation of reports that were requested 90 days ago by Joe Biden – not from Congress, as I had previously stated, but from the various US intelligence agencies.
According to coverage on BBC radio, the report on “COVID-19 origins” commissioned by President Biden has failed to reach a firm conclusion, although China is blamed for poor cooperation with the investigation into how the pandemic began. Apparently some intelligence agencies favour a natural origin, whereas at least one (which presumably is a reference to the team headed by Michael McCaul) favours a lab origin. Certainly the hypothesis of a lab escape, initially poorly regarded because it was pushed so hard (and without any detailed supporting evidence) by the Trump team, has now entered the mainstream.
There is an underlying uncertainty about where an investigation might lead: and the question is posed of whether China itself knows. However, US intelligence does uniformly conclude that the pandemic did not come about in the course of biological warfare research, which is an important finding.
China has denied that it has failed to fully cooperate with an investigation. But without a greater degree of international collaboration on this issue, and a greater degree of access to the original samples, a definitive answer may never be found.
An interview followed with Professor Ravi Gupta (one of those who signed the May 2021 letter in Science calling for a fuller investigation into COVID-19 origins). He concurred that “politics has now entered the arena”. He stated that a lab origin was possible, adding that a lot of coronavirus research had been going on at the WIV. He added that it was possible that the virus had been made in large amounts, that there was a breakdown in infection control, and that a lab worker had then inadvertently exported the virus to the outside world. He added that “labs do need to become safer places”.
When asked whether it was important to know where the virus had come from, Gupta answered that in his opinion it was. “It’s part of the scientific endeavour to know the exact origin of a new virus.”
He added that they didn’t know what the intermediate host had been, or what mutations might have taken place to transform the virus into the pandemic variant. However, as pointed out in the “Did COVID Leak From A Lab In China?” film documentary, there may not have been an intermediate host other than Homo sapiens. The crucial mutations may have taken place in a tissue culture of human cells, or during lab passages in “humanised mice”, these being lab mice which carry “functioning human genes, cells, tissues and/or organs”.
Professor Gupta’s final comment was that “the ramifications are immense”, and that the current situation might have been easier had the Chinese authorities been approached from the start on a “no-blame” basis. But at this stage certain details and/or samples might have been concealed. It might therefore already be too late to find out the truth about how the pandemic began.
My own conclusion is that the final Biden report into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be more circumspect than the interim report from the group headed by Michael McCaul, and this might be partly because of the fact that the cost of further threatening the relationship between the US and China is simply too high. Not for the first time, political concerns may be taking precedence over scientific concerns.
Once I have read the full report I shall post another blog only if I feel that there are important new details that need to be highlighted.
Ed Hooper. August 28, 0950 GMT.