The COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory Is More Than a 2003 Iraq WMD-Style Hoax
Last week, the Chinese embassy in the United States lambasted proponents of the theory that COVID-19 was released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in 2019 while comparing the alleged “lies” to the claim of Iraq’s “possession of weapons of mass destruction 12 years ago.” China’s rhetoric comes amid growing speculation that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated from the Wuhan laboratory and not the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, as has been claimed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and scientists working on the behalf of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The allegation of Saddam Hussein’s possession of a clandestine weapon of mass destruction (WMD) program was used by the United States and the United Kingdom in their casus belli of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Following the invasion, a fact-finding mission established that the country had no stockpiles of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, with the group’s head Charles Duelfer affirming that Iraq's nuclear capability had been abated as promised following the 1991 Gulf War. In the words of journalist Jeremy R. Hammond, the false allegation, which was largely dismissed by the media as nothing more than a “remarkable CIA mea culpa,” was an extremely successful disinformation campaign coordinated by the CIA to justify the United States’ long-standing goal of seeking regime change in Iraq.
Writing on Twitter, the Chinese embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu asserted that the origins of the coronavirus were a “matter of science” that should not be “politicized.” The Beijing representative proceeded to declare that “any conclusion [concerning the virus] must be drawn in line with WHO procedures and following science-based methods.”
On May 27th, US President Joe Biden ordered intelligence officials to “redouble” their efforts to investigate the origins of COVID-19 after tensions arose within the federal intelligence community as to whether the pathogen had escaped from the WIV, a ‘BSL-3’ laboratory conducting biological experimentation.
I. Peter Daszak’s Delegitimisation Campaign
Historically, the WIV has worked in collaboration with US firms such as EcoHealth Alliance, a “nonprofit non-governmental organization” operating in the field of global health and pandemic prevention. The firm, which allocated $3.4 million in United States National Institute of Health (NIH) funding to the WIV in early 2020, is headed by disease ecology expert and virologist Peter Daszak.
A strident critic of the coronavirus lab-leak theory, Daszak is a long time collaborator of WIV director Shi Zhengli and has continuously refuted claims that COVID-19 was the product of an experiment. Shi has been involved in performing “gain-of-function” research, a controversial practice among virologists involving the introduction of mutations to a virus that could potentially infect humans or animals with the goal to make it either more transmissible, lethal, and/or pathogenic for humans. She is known in China as ‘Bat Woman’ for being one of the first scientists to identify horseshoe bats as the natural reservoirs of SARS-CoV-1 following the 2002 outbreak that killed over 700 people. The findings from such gain-of-function research, which included the discovery that SARS had the potential to re-emerge from coronaviruses diffused across wild bat populations, were elaborated upon by Daszak in a This Week in Virology podcast episode filmed in December 2019.
“We went out to southern China and did surveillance of bats across southern China. We’ve now found after six or seven years of doing this, over a hundred new SARS-related Coronaviruses, very close to SARS. Some of them get into human cells, in the lab; some of them can cause SARS disease in humans and are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals and you can’t vaccinate against them with a vaccine. So these are a clear and present danger, we’ve even found people with antibodies in Yunnan to SARS-related Coronaviruses, so there’s human exposure. We’re now doing surveillance, we’re just beginning another five years of work to look at cohorts in southern China.”
Daszak went on to emphasise the pliability of SARS-CoV viruses and noted how laboratory research had involved genomic sequencing and the artificial replication of the spike protein fundamental to the “zoonotic [animal to human] risk” of coronavirus pathogens.
“We insert [the sequence] into the backbone of another virus and do some work in the lab. So you can get more predictive when you find a sequence - you’ve got this diversity. Now, the logical progression for vaccines is, if you’re going to develop a vaccine for SARS, people are going to use pandemic SARS as the backbone but let’s try and insert some of these other related viruses and get a better vaccine.”
On February 19th, 2020, antecedent to the catastrophic effects of the pandemic, the highly respected and influential medical journal The Lancet released a statement “in support of the scientists, public health and medical professionals of China.” Declaring its supposed non-partisan nature, the statement expressed “solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China” before asserting: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” The letter was signed by 27 top scientists.
A set of Daszak’s emails obtained by freedom of information activist group US Right to Know revealed that he had drafted the Lancet statement and urged his colleagues at EcoHealth Alliance to sign and “circulate it among some eminent scientists.” Sent on February 6th, 2020, the emails explained that the letter’s “careful” formulation was meant to “avoid the appearance of a political statement.”
“[The] current statement neatly refutes most of [the conspiracy theories] by saying that ‘We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that 2019-nCoV [as the virus was then known] does not have a natural origin.’ Please note that this statement will not have the EcoHealth Alliance logo on it and will not be identifiable as coming from any one organisation or person, the idea is to have this as a community supporting our colleagues.”
In a further email, sent under the subject line “No need for you to sign the ‘Statement’, Ralph!,” Daszak wrote to Ralph S. Baric of the University of North Carolina. The email supposedly came as the result of a conversation between Daszak and Professor Linfa Wang of Duke-NUS Medical School’s Programme in Emerging Infectious Diseases, where it was decided that certain key figures should be omitted from the letter for strategic purposes.
“I spoke with Linfa last night about the statement we sent round. He thinks, and I agree with him, that you, me and him should not sign this statement, so it has some distance from us and therefore doesn't work in a counterproductive way. Jim Hughes, Linda Saif, Hume Field, and I believe Rita Colwell will sign it, then I'll send it round some of her key people tonight. We'll then put it out in a way that doesn't link it back to our collaboration so we maximize an independent voice.”
Ultimately, Daszak and six other EcoHealth Alliance beneficiaries, employees or ex-employees signed the statement. Baric did not. In the words of Gilles Demaneuf, a New Zealand data scientist and member of the D.R.A.S.T.I.C. research team investigating the origins of COVID-19, the statement, which would be “nailed to the doors” of the institutions practising the orthodoxy of the virus’ natural origin, lacked crucial supporting evidence and information.
“[It was] totally nonscientific … Everyone had to follow it. Everyone was intimidated. That set the tone.”
Indeed, the letter was employed by organisations such as Facebook as the main citation for its COVID-19 fact-checking algorithm which censored articles advocating the “rumours and conspiracy theories” associated with the lab leak theory in the early months of the pandemic. To Jamie Metzl, a former high-level Clinton administration staffer who now sits on the World Health Organization’s advisory committee on human genome editing, the Lancet letter was an “outrag[eous]” characterisation of “scientific propaganda and a form of thuggery and intimidation.” In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Metzl asserted he had been labelled a “conspiracy theorist” and a “right-wing nut job” by proponents of Daszak after pondering in a blog post on April 15th, 2020, that COVID-19 could have escaped from a Chinese laboratory and that the communist state’s “active and ongoing information suppression and propaganda campaigns” had exacerbated the crisis.
“The small number of people who were raising this issue early last year were labelled conspiracy theorists - I know because I was one of them. And yes, there were some people who were called right-wing nuts. But I’m not a right-wing nut. I’m actually a progressive Democrat.”
II. China’s Early Censorship
The resistance to the “conspiracy theories” surrounding the coronavirus’ origin was not just confined to the United States. As reports of “pneumonia” cases in Wuhan spread across China, Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat, YY and Weibo became filled with rumours, hoaxes, and videos.
In early February of 2020, Chinese state media reports indicated that an ophthalmologist named Li Wenliang had posted a message in December 2019 in a WeChat group with 150 students. A leak of the contents of the chat, which exhibited Li’s warning of a “possible outbreak of an illness in Wuhan, Hubei province,” later led authorities back to the doctor, who became one of eight people detained by Chinese authorities and forced to sign a “Law of Admonition” statement for allegedly “spreading rumours.” Li later died as a result of COVID-19 in February 2020, days after he told The New York Times:
“If [Chinese] officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”
Li’s arrest resembled those of other coronavirus whistleblowers in Wuhan. State authorities arrested several journalists for the “publishing or forwarding [of] false information on the internet without verification,” with three journalists, Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua, who had posted videos on social media, going missing.
On March 3rd, a Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab found that Chinese social media had censored chatter referencing the virus’ spread, with YY adding 45 keywords, including phrases such as “Unknown Wuhan pneumonia” and “SARS outbreak in Wuhan” to its blacklist on December 31st. WeChat was found to have censored 132 keyword combinations between January 1st and 31st, with a further 384 keywords being added between February 1st and 15th. On February 2nd, 2020, the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s director Shi Zhengli herself responded to the speculation, writing in a WeChat post:
“The 2019 novel coronavirus is a punishment from nature for humanity’s uncivilized habits. I, Shi Zhengli, guarantee on my life that it has nothing to do with our lab. May I offer some advice to those people who believe and spread bad media rumours: shut your dirty mouths.”
III. Daszak’s Research and Cooperation with Fauci
For Daszak, an ally in the fight against the “myths being spun around the virus’ origins” was found inside the US government. As revealed in the recently released emails of the United States’ chief medical advisor, Daszak thanked Dr Anthony Fauci in April 2020 for his “bravery” in fending off the lab leak “conspiracy theory.” Daszak and Fauci have had a long-standing relationship extending as far back as 2016, when Fauci, then the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), appeared as a guest speaker at an EcoHealth Alliance presentation on the Zika virus.
At a House Appropriations subcommittee on May 22nd of this year, Fauci confirmed that he had earmarked $600,000 for Daszak and the Wuhan lab to conduct a five-year program in southern China. Labelling the program as “a modest collaboration with very respectable Chinese scientists,” Fauci was quick to deny that the money had gone toward gain-of-function research. Such research is not new to EcoHealth Alliance, who in May 2014 secured $3.7 million in NIAID funding to perform gain-of-function experiments to determine which animal viruses were able to jump to humans.
In 2015, the results of a gain-of-function study, conducted at the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) laboratory by the aforementioned Ralph S. Baric and Shi Zhengli, were published in Nature. The research involved the insertion of the spike protein from the rufous horseshoe bat coronavirus strain SHC014-CoV into the molecular structure of the 2002 SARS virus, which was then injected into the lungs of genetically modified mice. The study concluded that viruses with the SHC014 spike protein could replicate efficiently in primary human airway cells to a similar extent as the original SARS-CoV, with further experimentation revealing that the virus’ replication could not be mitigated with available SARS-based immune therapeutics, preventive drugs and antibody therapies, and vaccine approaches failed to neutralise and protect the mice from infection.
A week after the publication of the paper, Dr Declan Butler reported in an article for Nature that Shi and Baric et al’s creation of a “chimaera” had sparked concerns in the scientific community over the “risks” involved in gain-of-function research. Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, asserted that the research had created a novel virus that “grew remarkably well” in human cells and Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and biodefence expert at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, noted: “The only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk.” Wain-Hobson went further, affirming:
“If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory.”
Indeed, the perils of gain-of-function research had already been on the radar of the US government. The study was the final known project of its kind to have taken place on US soil, with the Obama administration pausing funding to such studies in an October 2014 moratorium. The ban was lifted under the Trump administration, who instead installed the so-called ‘HHS P3CO Framework for Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight’. Reportedly, the P3CO framework was largely sidelined within the NIH, and Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance continued to benefit from up to $15 million a year in federal grant funding before Trump pulled the funding over concerns of Chinese gain-of-function research on April 17th, 2020.
In July 2020, the NIH reinstated Daszak’s grant. Nevertheless, the Director of the NIH, Dr Francis Collins, affirmed during Fauci’s House Appropriations subcommittee hearing that researchers at the Wuhan lab “were not approved by the NIH for doing gain-of-function research” before adding: “We are, of course, not aware of other sources of funds or other activities they might have undertaken outside of what our approved grant allowed.”
IV. An Unnatural Genome?
On June 6th, 2021, a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, widely circulated in the media, pointed to COVID-19’s genomic blueprint and stressed that genetic outliers exhibited in the “supercharged” virus gave credence to the theory of its unnatural origin. The scientists behind the article, Dr Steven Quay, the founder of Seattle based biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics, and Richard Muller, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of California Berkeley and a former senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, focused their analysis on the virus’ arginine amino acids - organic substances used in the biosynthesis and production of proteins.
Every organism has a preference for the combination of DNA and RNA it will use to produce amino acids. A process dictated by its genomic blueprint, a virus’ amino acid production is explained using 64 three-letter ‘codons’ that represent 20 distinct amino acid sequences. Sequencing of COVID-19’s genome identified a double ‘CGG-CGG’ sequence, which, when combined with the codons ‘CCU’ and ‘GCA’ on either side form a furin cleavage site.
COVID-19’s furin cleavage site (FCS) is characterised by a unique enzyme-like protein protrusion that binds to certain proteins on the surface of human cells, allowing for the ‘cleavage’ of the viral spike protein and subsequent fusion of the viral cell with the human cell. This process, which allows the virus to inject genetic material into the human cell, is key to COVID-19’s infectivity and transmissibility as it allows for the conditions in which viral cells can replicate in the human body.
Quay and Muller postulated that the presence of the FCS in SARS-CoV-2’s structure constituted a “dramatic difference” when compared to other coronaviruses of the same class. They proceeded to argue that the virus’ CGG-CGG mutation, a feature they conceded could have theoretically materialised naturally, would more likely have come from “gene splicing” experiments conducted in gain-of-function research.
Quay and Muller’s analysis, however, omitted several facts. Although rare, similar furin cleavage sites have been found in other coronaviruses, such as MERS-CoV, sequenced in 2013. Moreover, the ability for virus’ to experience recombination - the exchange of genetic material between organisms to overcome selective pressures and to adapt to new environments and hosts - is well documented, with William R. Gallaher of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Parasitology at Louisiana State University, New Orleans, speculating in a July 2020 paper that COVID-19 had evolved as a consequence of a ‘copy-choice error’ involving the natural reshuffling of genetic material from the bat coronavirus RaTG13 into the base sequence of the novel coronavirus which became SARS-CoV-2.
RaTG13 was first identified in 2013 by Shi Zhengli of the WIV, who wrote in a paper published at the onset of the pandemic that COVID-19 exhibited a 96% match to the strain. Shi reported that RaTG13 had been detected in a bat faecal swab in “Yunnan Province,” southern China, providing no more clarity on the location in which the swab had been taken. However, in the following months, researchers from the MACS Agharkar Research Institute in Maharashtra, India, who had been investigating the origins of COVID-19, found that RaTG13 was “100% similar” to that of bat coronavirus BtCoV/4991, which had been detected in a sample taken from an abandoned mineshaft in the Moijang Hani Autonomous County in 2012. Likewise located in Yunnan Province, the Moijang mine shaft had been ground zero for an infection that caused a “severe pneumonia” like illness in six mineworkers, killing three. On this basis, the MACS institute paper, published in May 2020, posited that “similarities” and the synonymity of “RaTG13 and BtCoV/4991 on the Chinese bat database” would indicate that RaTG13 and BtCoV/4991 were the same virus.
The omission of the details outlined in the MACS paper sparked questions on whether Shi Zhengli and the WIV had attempted to cover up the sample’s connection to the Yunnan mine and whether she had been conducting gain-of-function research on the samples. A 2016 research paper written by Shi examining the “coexistence of multiple coronaviruses in several bat colonies in an abandoned mineshaft” addressed the virus procured from the Moijang mine as BtCoV/4991, whereas the February 2020 Nature paper on the novel 2019 coronavirus referred only to RaTG13. In July 2020, under increasing scrutiny and pressure to clarify whether BtCoV/4991 and RaTG13 were the same and whether SARS-CoV-2 was related to the sample, Shi admitted in an interview with Science magazine that she and her colleagues had “changed the name as we wanted it to reflect the time and location for the sample collection.”
“13 means it was collected in 2013, and TG is the abbreviation of Tongguan town, the location where the sample was collected.”
Nevertheless, the issue of laboratory manipulation of coronaviruses has appeared in several studies citing the RaTG13 strain since the beginning of the pandemic. A publication by Li-Meng Yan et. al. of the University of Hong Kong in September 2020 argued that “SARS-CoV-2 shows biological characteristics that are inconsistent with a naturally occurring, zoonotic virus” and evidence led to the conclusion that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a laboratory by “using bat coronaviruses ZC45 and/or ZXC21 as a template and/or backbone.” Li-Meng presented three lines of evidence in her argument, including the assertion that the ZC45 and ZXC21 bat coronaviruses had been discovered between July 2015 and February 2017 and were isolated and characterized by military research laboratories in the Third Military Medical University in Chongqing, China and the Research Institute for Medicine of Nanjing Command, in Nanjing, China. Moreover, the publication contended that SARS-CoV-2’s furin-cleavage site was “completely absent in the particular class of coronaviruses found in nature,” and “rare codons associated with the additional sequence suggested the strong possibility that the furin-cleavage site was not the product of natural evolution.” It was an argument mirrored in a study published in February 2020 by Bruno Coutard et. al., which placed similar attention on the absence of COVID-19’s furin cleavage site from “coronaviruses of the same clad,” and pointed to gain-of-function research as a possible explanation.
In December 2020, two months after Li-Meng’s paper was published, a study by Rossana Segreto of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and Yuri Deigin of Youthereum Genetics, concluded that the theory of SARS-CoV-2’s artificial origin was “not a baseless conspiracy.” Imploring researchers to “consider all possible causes for SARS-CoV-2’s emergence,” the study called for a “thorough investigation on strain collections and research records in all laboratories involved in [coronavirus] research before the SARS‐CoV‐2 outbreak.” Also mentioned in Segreto and Deigin’s paper was the WIV’s viral database. Deleted from the web in May 2020, the database’s removal annulled over 60 Mb of data and followed the 2019 deletion of another database reportedly containing over 16,000 virus samples and sequences.
V. Chinese Lab Leak History and the WHO’s ‘Fact-Finding’ Mission
On January 14, 2021, 13 international experts arrived in Wuhan to begin a month-long mission to “enhance the understanding of the evolving COVID-19 outbreak in China and the nature and impact of ongoing containment measures.” In collaboration with 17 Chinese experts, the fact-finding mission concluded that COVID-19 had developed naturally, finding its way to the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan where it was transmitted to the wider population. Overall, the investigation was conducted by 25 representatives from China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Nigeria, Russia, Singapore, the US and the WHO. Upon invitation from the WHO in July 2020, the US had recommended three experts to the mission including an FDA veterinarian, a CDC epidemiologist, and an NIAID virologist, though none were chosen. Eventually, Peter Daszak would be the sole representative from the United States to travel to Wuhan, who commented on his ‘selection’ for the investigation in December 2020.
“It is an honour to be part of this team. There hasn’t been a pandemic on this scale since the 1918 flu, and we’re still close enough to the origin to really find out more details about where it has come from.”
Daszak’s appointment to the team garnered criticism from some in the scientific community, with Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University, stating that the EcoHealth Alliance president’s ties to the WIV and close relationship with Shi Zhengli “could raise a conflict of interest.” Daszak’s relationship with Shi was captured in a November 7th Twitter thread, where he joked with Rasmussen about holding a “party in a bat cave.”
During their investigation, the WHO team would only visit the WIV once, with the report omitting any mention of the laboratory and its experimentation with bat-borne coronaviruses. The day after the fact-finding mission arrived in China, a US State Department fact-sheet demanded transparency on the part of Chinese authorities over the WIV’s activities and noted Chinese “gain-of-function research” in “animal-derived coronaviruses under conditions that increased the risk for accidental and potentially unwitting exposure.” Lambasting the CCP for their “deadly obsession with secrecy and control,” the factsheet went further to reveal previously undisclosed intelligence relating to the infection of WIV staff with a mysterious illness in autumn 2019.
“The US government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses. This raises questions about the credibility of WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s public claim that there was 'zero infection' among the WIV’s staff and students of SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses.”
China is no stranger to the accidental release of biological pathogens. In 1977, the influenza virus subtype responsible for the 1918 Spanish Flu which killed an estimated 100 million people re-emerged in China. It is believed the strain, H1N1, may have escaped from a Chinese lab that was attempting to prepare an attenuated H1N1 vaccine in response to worries in the United States of a potential swine flu outbreak. While it caused low fatalities, the 1977 emergence of H1N1 sparked concerns that China and the Soviet Union had conducted gain of function experiments. Then, in 2004, Chinese laboratory safety was once again called into question after eight people were infected with the 2002 SARS-CoV virus after it escaped on two separate occasions from a BSL-3 laboratory at the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing. The release of the coronavirus strain, which had previously killed 800 people worldwide between 2002 and 2004, precipitated intense scrutiny of Chinese research with Antoine Danchin, an epidemiologist with the Hong Kong University-Pasteur Research Centre, saying at the time:
“Normally, it's not possible to contaminate people even under level two confinement, if the security rules are obeyed, with the appropriate hoods, and so on. [Since SARS work requires level three], it suggests there has been some mishandling of something. The lab might have all the right rules, but the people may not comply! For example, notebooks are not supposed to be taken out, a lot of things like that. A virus doesn't jump on people!”
At a news conference in Manila on April 25, 2004, the then-Western Pacific Regional Director for the WHO, Shigeru Omi, criticized the laboratory's safeguards and declared that safety was “a serious issue that has to be addressed.”
Even directly in China, concerns around domestic laboratory safety standards remained present, with a 2015 opinion piece in the CCP-owned newspaper China Daily noting that the “government [would] have to tighten supervision and monitoring of research on dangerous and exotic pathogens and strengthen the management of the facilities where such research is carried out.”
“Besides, the tools equipped to counter risks must be battle-ready and under good control to ensure that they work properly in time, and not backfire and cause harm to the people. This is very important because as a country we cannot afford another accidental leakage of pathogens like the one in 2004.”
Nevertheless, the WHO was quick to snub the idea that the WIV researchers had been afflicted with anything other than a “seasonal” sickness in 2019, with Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist working with the WHO fact-finding mission telling NBC News that “occasional illnesses” were normal.
“There were occasional illnesses because that’s normal. There was nothing that stood out. Maybe one or two. It’s certainly not a big, big thing.”
The US State Department factsheet’s wish for the WHO mission to be granted “transparent access” to the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s “facilities, samples, personnel, and records” was not fulfilled. That wasn’t a problem for Daszak, however, who at an online Chatham House independent policy event on March 10th, 2021, supported Shi Zhengli’s removal of the viral database and labelled the move “absolutely reasonable” in light of “about 3,000 hacking attempts on it.”
“We did not ask to see the data. As you know, a lot of this work has been conducted with EcoHealth Alliance ... I’m also part of that data and we do basically know what’s in those databases … I got to talk with both sides about the work we’ve done with the Institute of Virology and explained what’s there. We do basically know what’s in those databases. There is no evidence of viruses closer to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13 in those databases, simple as that.”
Members of the World Health Organisation’s fact-finding mission concluded their investigation with a vote on the likelihood of several scenarios of the origins of COVID-19:
Accompanying the 193-page-long report, which in its entirety addressed the lab leak theory in less than two pages, was an annex on “conspiracy theories.” Apparently, WIV director Shi Zhengli had raised the issue with the WHO team and “reiterated that the Institute had worked with the media to stress the need to respect science in the fight against COVID-19 and to rebut the theories.” The report proceeded to state that Shi had “categorically refuted” the rumours of a leak from the laboratory and all coronavirus research had been executed in full protective equipment.
In her rebuttals, Shi pointed to the BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories’ “strong biosafety management systems” and noted that “13,000” experiments over a 13-year period had left no staff members with any “reported” infections. These statements were in direct contradiction with the claims made in the January 15th US State Department fact-sheet, and also with Shi’s own historic accounts. In a June 2018 lecture for the Chinese conference program Yixi, Shi revealed that “in most cases” of fieldwork research, researchers would wear “simple protection, and it’s okay.” Tian Junhua, a “bat-hunter” from the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention conducting similar research of bat-borne viruses to Shi Zhengli, once told the state-run Wuhan Evening News he had been neglectful in his use of personal protective equipment during a sample collection exhibition and was splattered with bat urine, leading him to quarantine at home for two weeks. On other occasions, bat blood was squirted onto his skin while he was trying to grasp the animals with a clamp. Shi, showing a slide of her research team collecting bats and sorting samples in a similar fashion to Tian in her 2018 lecture, commented:
“Under what situation would we increase our protection? For instance, when there are too many bats in the cave, and lots of dust even as you’re entering.”
Indeed, the US State Department’s fact-sheet questioning the “credibility” of Shi Zhengli’s public rhetoric was ignored by the WHO task force. A US government analysis published in the wake of the WHO’s report presented the WHO’s findings as lacklustre. Stricken by a “lack of definitive conclusions,” the analysis declared that the fact-finding mission’s difficulties in “interacting with Chinese colleagues” had exacerbated the problems associated with tracing COVID-19’s origins. On this question, the US government expert also noted that the WHO team’s report had not “included a description of how the hypotheses [of COVID-19’s origins] were generated, would be tested, or how a decision would be made between them to decide that one is more likely than another.” It added that the WHO’s “cursory” examination of the lab leak hypothesis would necessitate a more thorough investigation, with the “evidence presented by the WHO seeming insufficient to deem the hypothesis ‘extremely unlikely.’”
One of the WHO report’s unlikely critics was Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general. Ethiopia’s former Minister for Health, Tedros was the Minister for Foreign Affairs under the government of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of far-left wing parties cooperating closely with China. In March, on the day the fact-finding mission’s report was released, Tedros acknowledged the report’s shortcomings and noted that the probe had not been “extensive enough.”
“As far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table. This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do. Finding the origin of a virus takes time and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again. No single research trip can provide all the answers.”
VI. The Lab Leak Theory Goes Mainstream
Amid growing speculation in the wake of the WHO’s inconclusive investigation, Shi Zhengli again found refuge in referring to the scientific ‘consensus’ mobilised by Daszak which had been so successful in silencing the defenders of the lab leak theory. Writing in an April 2021 editorial for the journal Infectious Diseases & Immunity, Shi declared:
“The scientific community strongly dismisses these unproven and misleading speculations and generally accepts that SARS-CoV-2 has a natural origin and was selected either in an animal host before zoonotic transfer, or in humans following zoonotic transfer.”
Then, on May 14th, Daszak’s ‘consensus’ was shaken to its roots. Writing in a statement published in Science Magazine, 18 prominent scientists mirrored Tedros’ criticism in calling for a “transparent and objective” investigation into COVID-19’s origins and declared solidarity with the declarations made by the European Union, the United States and 13 other countries in asking for “greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic.” The group of scientists, who implored officials to “take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” included an unlikely member - Ralph S. Baric - who had conducted gain-of-function research in collaboration with Shi in 2015 and helped draft the hallowed Lancet letter. It was not the first time Baric expressed doubts about the virus’ origin. During an advisory panel session in January 2021 with the then-Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation Christopher A. Ford, Baric stated that SARS-CoV-2’s hypothetical emergence from a “strong animal reservoir” would have been accompanied by “multiple introduction events,” rather than a single outbreak, though this in itself did not prove “an escape from a laboratory.” Notably, such an “animal reservoir” has not yet been found.
The renewed interest in the lab leak theory was epitomized in President Joe Biden’s May 27th order for further investigation, with the president later confirming in a statement that the US and its allies would commit to pressuring “China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation.” Revealing that two factions in the US Intelligence Community (IC) had “coalesced with low or moderate confidence around two likely scenarios,” Biden’s statement read:
“Two factions in the IC lean toward the former scenario and one leaning more toward the latter. The majority of [IC officials] do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”
Amid mounting questions, the Biden administration’s mission for clarification continued this week with the announcement that a federal watchdog would begin a probe into the NIH’s management of its grant allocation program. The investigation, announced by the office of the US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) principal deputy inspector general Christi Grimm, will undoubtedly cast its eye over Fauci’s actions, despite his continuous denial that the NIH ever provided funding for gain-of-function research at the WIV. Noting that the HHS had “previously [identified incidents] of the NIH's oversight of grants to foreign applicants as a potential risk to the Department meeting program goals and the appropriate use of federal funds,” the HHS watchdog said:
“[The] NIH must manage and administer federal awards to ensure that federal funding is expended and associated programs are implemented in full accordance with statutory and public policy requirements. To do so, NIH must monitor grantee performance and grantee use of NIH funds. Grantees are responsible for complying with all requirements of the federal award, including maintaining effective internal controls over the federal award. Grantees that function as pass-through entities must monitor the activities of sub-recipients, including foreign sub-recipients, to ensure that sub-awards are used for authorized purposes in compliance with relevant laws and the terms and conditions of the sub-award. We will review NIH's monitoring of selected grants, and grantee use and management of NIH grant funds in accordance with federal requirements.”
The credence to the lab leak theory within the upper echelons of the US political circles was further exemplified this week when the former Center for Disease Control (CDC) director Robert Redfield told Fox News that he “supported the [lab leak] hypothesis.”
“I didn't think it was biologically plausible that COVID-19 went from a bat to some unknown animal into man and now had become one of the most infectious viruses … That's not consistent with how other coronaviruses have come into the human species. And, it does suggest that there's an alternative hypothesis that it went from a bat virus, got into a laboratory, where, in the laboratory, it was taught, educated, it evolved, so that it became a virus that could efficiently transmit human to human … I'm just giving my best opinion as a virologist, and I don't think it's plausible that this virus went from a bat to an animal - we still don't know that animal - and then went into humans and immediately had learned how to be human-to-human transmissible.”
The former CDC director went on to claim that Fauci was “holding on” to the hypothesis of COVID-19’s zoonotic origin “because scientists sometimes bite into a bone on a hypothesis and it's hard for them to move on … I guess if I’m disappointed about anything about the early scientific community it's that there seemed to be a lack of openness to pursue both hypotheses.”
Later, Redfield lambasted the WHO for being “compromised” to the extent of “being incapable of compelling China to adhere to the treaty agreements they had with global health,” and, referring to the Wuhan fact-finding mission, posited that the WHO had allowed China to dictate the members of the investigation team.
VII. “To Question the Scientist Is to Attack the Science”
In 2003, Tony Blair’s Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, accused Blair and former US President George Bush of “duping” the public into thinking the Iraq war was justified. While the true origins of the COVID-19 pandemic are yet to be seen, and the question of whether they will ever come to light is debatable, the summary of the circumstantial evidence available regarding COVID-19’s origin already makes the lab leak hypothesis a much more credible proposition than the possibility of Iraq’s possession of WMDs.
What we do know is that there is a viral research laboratory in Wuhan. That laboratory is located 15 miles away from the Huanan seafood wholesale wet market, the supposed ‘ground zero’ of the COVID-19 outbreak. The laboratory, and its senior researchers, are connected to extensive, peer-reviewed and published research on coronaviruses of bat origin, of which some research was gain-of-function research.
So what else do we know? For the virus to have emerged in Wuhan, there are two possibilities - it emerged in the wet market or from the laboratory. Investigations of both hypotheses so far have been inconclusive, though the former is widely accepted as gospel. For the latter, the fact remains that no zoonotic intermediate, or “animal reservoir,” has been found, and the fact that the virus was first spotted in the wet market does not help prove that it had emerged prior to infecting ‘patient zero’ in the wet market.
Ultimately, the question falls on which scenario is more likely. We can not say for certain whether there has been a cover-up following an accidental lab leak, nor that the virus emerged naturally and all parties tied to the WIV are innocent. However, the sustained suppression of the lab leak theory since the beginning of the pandemic is telling. Even if Shi Zhengli wanted to admit to a leak, it is understandable that gain-of-function facilitators like Daszak and Fauci would do everything in their power to hide their involvement - and that is not to mention the CCP’s abysmal record on transparency.
In the coming weeks, a study by the British oncology Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian virologist Dr Birger Sørensen will be published, proposing that “SARS-Coronavirus-2 has no credible natural ancestor” and that it is “beyond reasonable doubt” that the virus was created through “laboratory manipulation.” Similar studies at the beginning of the pandemic were heavily suppressed and even discredited by members of the Fauci and Daszak consensus. However, with the increasing pressure from the Biden administration, the reception today may turn out to be different.
“If you are trying to get at me as a public health official and a scientist, you’re really attacking not only Dr Anthony Fauci, you are attacking science.”
Thanks to Firat Guloglu (BSc Biochemistry) for certifying the veracity of the biological section of this investigative report.