I do not believe this was a genetically altered virus, just that it had likely been isolated and cultured in one of the Wuhan labs (WIV or WCDC). I want to be clear that this is only my best guess based on publicly available information and my application of Occam’s razor (primarily that the outbreak began in the one city in China with a level 4 virology lab studying coronaviruses and a CDC right next to the seafood market and that China, like some other countries, has a troubling bio-security history). I have no definitive way of proving this thesis. Full international access to the data and relevant people in China, so far denied, could conceivably help allay some of my very deep concerns. I also in no way seek to support or align myself with any activities that may be considered unfair, dishonest, nationalistic, racist, bigoted, or biased in any way.
As I argued in my Newsweek piece:
Just as we wouldn’t imagine having a plane crash and not immediately trying to figure out what happened, we can’t let the COVID-19 crisis unfold without urgently understanding how our systems have so spectacularly failed. There are plenty of fingers to point, and we must thoughtfully point them now, at all of us, for our own good. For all we know, a new and even worse pandemic could begin even before we have overcome this one… Until we get to the bottom of all these failures and work to fix them, we remain dangerously susceptible to the next pandemic… Whatever the origins of the outbreak, including the possibility of an accidental leak from the Chinese virology lab in Wuhan, China’s dangerous and ongoing information suppression activities are the foundations of this crisis. We have to find out fast where and how this outbreak began… The WHO could have raised hell when China denied access to WHO experts for those critical early weeks, did not need to initially parrot Chinese propaganda and could certainly have sounded the alarm earlier. We have to ask how we can help the WHO do better… The United States had all the information it needed by January to mount a massive response, but Trump actively undermined the findings of his own intelligence and health officials. Worse, he passed misinformation to the American people that potentially led to many thousands of deaths. We’ve got to ask why this happened… Until we get to the bottom of all these failures and work to fix them, we remain dangerously susceptible to the next pandemic… We are all on the same plane with a shared interest in not letting it crash… Let’s work together to safely land the plane.
In this spirit, I think it fair to list some of the publicly available sources I am relying for my assertions. I do not necessarily ascribe to all of the assertions made in these sources. These sources include:
My only mission is to seek to understand where this outbreak originated. I am extremely open to other views and welcome any additional information. If you have anything you believe relevant, I would be grateful for you to pass it along.
As I have already stated publicly, “Even if the coronavirus is an accidental leak from a Wuhan lab, we are all one interconnected humanity who must work together to get through this crisis.” It is my view that Chinese researchers at these institutes were studying these viruses with the best intentions of developing surveillance systems, treatments, and vaccines for the good of humanity. Countries make mistakes, even terrible and deadly ones. I was in the White House when the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. We believed it was an accident but many Chinese people thought it was a deliberate act. I understood why.
Moments like these are inherently difficult and we should all do our very best to find the answers to our most important questions in the most honest, careful, and considered manner possible.
We must all be doing everything we can to build the surveillance, response, treatment, vaccine development, and public health capacities we need to make us safe. This pandemic is terrible but there could very well be much worse facing us in the future.
In this spirit, I have compiled this summary of the available evidence. Because China is still restricting access to the relevant data and people, the case remains speculative by necessity. Those restrictions themselves should concern us all.
Beginning on December 10, 2019, increasing numbers of people, many of who had visited the Hunan Seafood Market in Wuhan, fell ill due to a new disease.
There is strong evidence that the novel coronavirus outbreak did not originate in the seafood market (Lancet). (This was clear early on but Chinese officials held to this story until late May 2020, when the evidence against this claim became wholly indefensible, more below.)
The Huanan Seafood Market didn’t have bats for sale, and most bats species in Wuhan would be hibernating at the time of outbreak. It was reported that 34% of cases had no contact with the market, and ’No epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases.’ (Lancet)
It seems extremely unlikely, perhaps borderline impossible, the outbreak originated in the seafood market. (New Yorker)
This market is less than 9 miles away from The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), Chinese Academy of Sciences, which:
Developed chimeric SARS-like coronaviruses
Conducted ’dangerous’ gain-of-function research on the SARS-CoV-1 virus, some of which had been funded by the US government (Asia Times)
Established a 96.2% match with SARS-CoV-2 and a virus they sampled from a cave over 1,000 miles away from Wuhan
Injected live piglets with bat coronaviruses as recently as July 2019
Published a paper on a close descendant of SARS-CoV-1, MERS-CoV, in November 2019
Was hiring researchers to work on bat coronaviruses as recently as November 2019
United States embassy and consular officials who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology in January 2018 were deeply concerned. Their cable sent to the State Department noted:
“the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory”
“the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. 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.” (Washington Post)
The market is also less than 3 miles away from the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control, which:
Was accused of being the source of the outbreak from a now-withdrawn academic paper from a notable Chinese scholar at the South China University of China
Once kept horseshoe bats, a known reservoir of SARS-CoV-1, within its labs
Once performed surgery on live animals within its labs
Had a researcher who quarantined on two separate occasions; once upon coming into contact with bat blood after being ’attacked’ and another time when he was urinated upon in a cave while wearing inadequate personal protection
Had previously done bad virus research funded by the US NIH (in a grant to EcoHealth Alliance)
possessed the virus that is the most closely related known virus in the world to the outbreak virus, bat virus RaTG13. This virus was isolated in 2013 and had its genome published on January 23, 2020. Seven more years of bat coronavirus collection followed the 2013 RaTG13 isolation. One component of the novel-bat-virus project at the Wuhan Institute of Virology involved infection of laboratory animals with bat viruses. Therefore, the possibility of a lab accident includes scenarios with direct transmission of a bat virus to a lab worker, scenarios with transmission of a bat virus to a laboratory animal and then to a lab worker, and scenarios involving improper disposal of laboratory animals or laboratory waste. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
began its gain of function research program for bat coronaviruses in 2015. Using a natural virus, institute researchers made “substitutions in its RNA coding to make it more transmissible. They took a piece of the original SARS virus and inserted a snippet from a SARS-like bat coronavirus, resulting in a virus that is capable of infecting human cells.” (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
Even before this outbreak, China had a very poor safety record at many of its biosecurity facilities.
In the years since the SARS outbreak, many instances of mishaps involving the accidental release of pathogens have taken place in labs throughout the world. Hundreds of breaches have occurred in the U.S., including a 2014 release of anthrax from a U.S. government lab that exposed 84 people. The SARS virus escaped from a Beijing lab in 2004, causing four infections and one death. An accidental release is not complicated and doesn’t require malicious intent. All it takes is for a lab worker to get sick, go home for the night, and unwittingly spread the virus to others. (Newsweek)
Although it does not appear likely this virus was engineered (Nature Medicine), trying to determine the exact pattern and genomic ancestry of the virus is difficult, particularly as many of the recombinant regions may be small and are likely to change as more viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 are sampled. (Cell)
Using the current standard genetic engineering technology, many alterations of several bases in the RNA genome would be undetectable, including construction of a chimeric coronavirus encoding an unpublished spike protein in an unpublished genome. (Independent Science News)
According to a DIA report, “about 33 percent of the original 41 identified cases did not have direct exposure” to the market. That, along with what’s known of the laboratory’s work in past few years, raised reasonable suspicion that the pandemic may have been caused by a lab error, not the wet market. (Newsweek)
A Broad Institute study asserts that genetic examination of four samples containing the virus from the seafood market to those taken from the Wuhan patient are ‘99.9 per cent’ identical. This suggests it came from infected visitors or vendors, indicating ‘Sars-CoV-2 had been imported into the market by humans’. The authors found no evidence ‘of cross-species transmission’ at the market.
After months of speculation and with the market origin story indefensible, the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally admitted only in late May 2020 that it has ruled the site out as the origin point of the outbreak. According to Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese CDC, “It now turns out that the market is one of the victims.”
Niko-lai Petro-vksy and col-leagues at Flinders Uni-ver-sity in Aus-tralia have found that SARS-CoV-2 has a higher affin-ity for hu-man re-cep-tors than for any other an-i-mal species they tested, in-clud-ing pan-golins and horse-shoe bats. He sug-gests that this could have hap-pened if the virus was be-ing cul-tured in hu-man cells, adding that “We can’t ex-clude the pos-si-bil-ity that this came from a lab-o-ra-tory ex-per-i-ment.” (Wall Street Journal)
China has taken a series of steps since the beginning of this crisis which seem consistent with a coverup. These include:
On December 31, Chinese authorities started censoring news of the virus from search engines, deleting terms including “SARS variation,” “Wuhan Seafood market” and “Wuhan Unknown Pneumonia.” (Daily Telegraph)
Officials closed the market the day after notifying the WHO and sent in teams with strong disinfectants. Samples from animals were taken but, four months later, the results have not been shared with foreign scientists. The actions led to claims that they were deliberately wiping away crucial traces. (Daily Telegraph)
Many China scholars noted that it was quite unusual for Chinese government authorities to identify Wuhan’s Huanan South China Seafood Market so quickly as the source of the outbreak. They thought this behavior so uncharacteristic that it raised suspicions in their minds.
The Hubei health commission ordered genomics companies to stop testing for the new virus and to destroy all samples.
On January 1, an employee of a genomics company in Wuhan received a phone call from an official at the Hubei Provincial Health Commission, ordering the company to stop testing samples from Wuhan related to the new disease and to destroy all existing samples. (Caixin Global)
On January 1, Wuhan Institute of Virology’s director general, Yanyi Wang, messaged her colleagues, saying the National Health Commission told her the lab’s COVID-19 data shall not be published on social media and shall not be disclosed to the media. And on January 3, the commission sent this document, never posted online, but saved by researchers, telling labs to destroy COVID-19 samples or send them to the depository institutions designated by the state. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
On January 3, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) ordered institutions not to publish any information related to the unknown disease and ordered labs to transfer any samples they had to designated testing institutions or destroy them. (Caixin Global)
Even with full sequences decoded by three state labs independently, Chinese health officials remained silent. (AP)
China sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information. Tight controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health system were to blame, according to dozens of interviews and internal documents. (AP)
WHO officials complained in internal meetings that they were making repeated requests to the Chinese authorities for more data, especially to find out if the virus could spread efficiently between humans, but to no avail. “We have informally and formally been requesting more epidemiological information,” WHO’s China representative Galea said. “But when asked for specifics, we could get nothing.” (AP)
Beijing did not notify the World Health Organization of the outbreak for at least four days after Wuhan officials were notified. A WHO investigation team was not allowed to visit Wuhan until three weeks after that, and the team was not given full and unrestricted access even during this preliminary field visit
The Chinese government closed the laboratory in Shanghai that first published the genome of COVID-19 on January 10, explaining that it had been shuttered for “rectification.” Chinese citizens who reported on the coronavirus were censured and, in some cases, “disappeared.” These have included businessman Fang Bin, lawyer Chen Qiushi, former state TV reporter Li Zehua and, most recently, Zhang Zhan, a lawyer. They are reportedly being held in extrajudicial detention centers for speaking out about China’s response to the pandemic. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on Jan. 11. Even then, China stalled for at least two weeks more on providing WHO with detailed data on patients and cases, according to recordings of internal meetings held by the U.N. health agency through January — all at a time when the outbreak arguably might have been dramatically slowed. (AP)
Although international law obliges countries to report information to WHO that could have an impact on public health, the U.N. agency has no enforcement powers and cannot independently investigate epidemics within countries. Instead, it must rely on the cooperation of member states. According to WHO’s chief of emergencies, Dr. Michael Ryan, this type of obfuscation and interference “would not happen in Congo and did not happen in Congo and other places.” (AP)
On Jan. 14, the head of China’s National Health Commission said in a confidential teleconference with provincial health officials that the situation was “severe and complex,” that “clustered cases suggest that human-to-human transmission is possible,” and that “the risk of transmission and spread is high.” The Commission issued a 63-page document on response procedures that same day that was labeled “internal” and “not to be publicly disclosed.” The next day, the head of China’s disease control emergency center, announced on state television that “the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission is low.” This same message was delivered to the World Health Organization. (Washington Post)
Between the day the full genome was first decoded by a government lab on Jan. 2 and the day WHO declared a global emergency on Jan. 30, the outbreak spread by a factor of 100 to 200 times, according to retrospective infection data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (AP)
Offers from the United States to send medical experts Wuhan in early January were rejected by the central government. (Diplomat)
Although WIV officials have commented publicly about social media posting alleging that one of their prior researchers may be “patient zero,” the WIV has not provided any information about that person
A WIV researcher who publicly accused the director of the Institute of selling infected lab animals to vendors on Weibo (with pictures of herself and her employee ID included) later claimed she was ’hacked’ and disavowed her prior allegation
In contrast to its earlier (and inaccurate) assertion that the outbreak originated in the Wuhan seafood market, a Ministry of foreign Affairs spokesperson on March 12 accused the United States Army of intentionally bringing SARS-CoV-2 to Wuhan
Beijing disinfected the Wuhan market before a full international investigation could be conducted and has yet to provide U.S. experts with samples of the novel coronavirus collected from the earliest cases.
The Shanghai lab that published the novel coronavirus genome on Jan. 11 was quickly shut down by authorities for “rectification.” Several of the doctors and journalists who reported on the spread early on have disappeared. (Washington Post)
On Feb. 14, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a new biosecurity law to be accelerated. On Wednesday, The Chinese government has placed severe restrictions requiring approval before any research institution publishes anything on the origin of the novel coronavirus. (Washington Post)
This was followed immediately by a China Ministry of Science & Technology announcement of new guidelines for laboratories, especially in handling viruses. Almost at the same time, the Chinese newspaper Global Times published an article on “chronic inadequate management issues at laboratories, including problems of biological wastes.”
Labs analyzing the pathogen were instructed to destroy samples, a health center that had published the virus’s genome sequence was temporarily shut down the following day, and doctors were prevented from submitting case information to the country’s infectious disease tracking network. (Diplomat)
Reports of health care workers falling ill, an early indicator of human-to-human transmission, were suppressed. More indirectly, state media coverage of doctors being penalized reportedly had a chilling effect on other medical professionals who might have sounded the alarm. (Diplomat)
In March 2020, Beijing announced the expulsion of American journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, the media organizations who have exposed some of the most significant misdeeds and coverups by the Chinese government over recent decades
In April 2020, with the outbreak in full swing, the WIV deleted a press release detailing the January 2019 U.S. State Department visit
The Chinese government has now banned any researcher from publishing anything on the origins of this crisis without prior approval of the Ministry of Science and Technology (Nature)
On April 24, the New York Times reported that Beijing has successfully pressured European Union officials to water down references to China an an EU report. The original language had stated, “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image… Both overt and covert tactics have been observed.”
It appears there may have been a sudden drop in cellphone usage at WIV in early October followed be a cellphone blackout, suggesting the possibility of an accident inside WIV on October 6 followed by a traffic closure. Without further detail about sourcing, however, this information remains speculative. (E-PAI report)
On April 18, 2020, Director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in an interview that “there is no way this virus came from us.”
“At this stage, it is not possible to determine precisely the source of the virus which caused the COVID-19 pandemic,” the World Health Organization said in a statement to Newsweek.
In early May, the World Health Organization’s representative in China, Gauden Galea, publicly complained that China had refused repeated requests to permit the WHO to participate in whatever investigations the Chinese government was undertaking itself. He said that the WHO had not been given access to laboratory logs at the WIV or the Wuhan Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
On May 3, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “There is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.” China’s Global Times, run by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said in an editorial responding to this interview that “The Trump administration continues to engage in unprecedented propaganda warfare while trying to impede global efforts in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.”
On May 4, the Guardian claimed its sources insisted a “15-page dossier” highlighted by the Australian Daily Telegraph accusing China of a deadly cover up was not culled from intelligence from the Five Eyes Network, an alliance between the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Bloomberg reported on May 5 that a majority of the 17 agencies that provide and analyze intelligence for the U.S. government believe the pandemic started after the virus was leaked from the Wuhan lab, but based mostly on circumstantial evidence.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Britain’s National Cyber Security Center recently issued a statement saying hackers are “actively targeting organisations … that include healthcare bodies, pharmaceutical companies, academia, medical research organisations, and local government.” This was widely construed as suggesting that state-sponsored Chinese hackers were attempting to steal COVD-19 research. (NPR)
On May 19, the World Health Assembly agreed to an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the international response to COVID-19. China did not object to the resolution but Chinese president Xi Jinping said the investigation should only take place after the pandemic is contained. This is not likely to happen any time soon.
Investigating the range of possible spillover sites—from the wet market, to an accidental lab or fieldwork infection, or an unnoticed lab leak—requires a forensic investigation. Obtaining case histories, epidemiological data, and viral samples from different times and places, including the earliest possible samples from infected individuals and samples from wildlife, is paramount… A forensic investigation would additionally involve auditing and sampling viral collections at relevant labs that had been studying coronaviruses, examining the types of experiments carried out and the viruses used, and reviewing the safety and security practices in place… A COVID-19 origins investigation will need to be negotiated and begun rapidly before relevant data diminishes or disappears entirely as time passes. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
Determining whether WIV had anything to do with the virus will require a forensic investigation, say several scientists. Investigators would be looking for viruses that matched the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 and, if they found one, any evidence that it could have escaped. To do that, authorities would need to take samples from the lab, interview staff, review lab books and records of safety incidents, and see what types of experiment researchers had been doing. An independent investigation at the WIV facility is probably the only way to convincingly rule out the lab as a possible source of the outbreak, but such a probe is still being blocked by the Chinese authorities. (Nature) This is outrageous.
On June 7, China issued a white paper called, “China’s Actions to Fight the Covid-19 Epidemic.” This document asserted: “China’s action composes the heroic paean to the people’s lives above all else, highlighting the responsibility of a great power to life, the people, history and the international community. China has always adhered to the concept of a community of a shared future for mankind. It has always worked hand in hand with other countries and fought side by side, making unremitting efforts to fight for an early global epidemic prevention and control.” Some observers noted this narrative did not reflect an accurate assessment of the historical record of the COVID-19 pandemic or Chinese history more generally. It is estimated that 47 million people died senselessly under former Chinese Leader Mao Tse Tung.
On July 10, the WHO announced that a two-member advance team of experts has left for China to organise an investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus. It is unlikely this team will have the authority to conduct the type of full forensic investigation that is required.
In my July 29, 2020 Washington Post editorial, I write: “The closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2 is a virus sampled by Chinese researchers from six miners infected while working in a bat-infested cave in southern China in 2012. These miners developed symptoms we now associate with Covid-19. Half of them died. These viral samples were then taken to the Wuhan Institute of Virology—the only facility in China that’s a biosafety Level 4 laboratory, the highest possible safety designation. The Level 4 designation is reserved for facilities dealing with the most dangerous pathogens. Wuhan is more than 1,000 miles north of Yunnan province, where the cave is located. If the virus jumped to humans through a series of human-animal encounters in the wild or in wet markets, as Beijing has claimed, we would likely have seen evidence of people being infected elsewhere in China before the Wuhan outbreak. We have not. The alternative explanation, a lab escape, is far more plausible. We know the Wuhan Institute of Virology was using controversial ‘gain of function’ techniques to make viruses more virulent for research purposes. A confidential 2018 State Department cable released this month highlighting the lab’s alarming safety record should heighten our concern. Suggesting that an outbreak of a deadly bat coronavirus coincidentally occurred near the only level 4 virology institute in all of China—which happened to be studying the closest known relative of that exact virus—strains credulity.”
Understanding the link between the Chinese miners exposed in the Yunnan cave in 2012 and the potential outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019 is essential. Anyone with a serious interest in getting to the bottom of the origins questions should be require to read the July 15 Latham and Wilson Independent Science News paper in full. It states: “We suggest, first, that inside the miners RaTG13 (or a very similar virus) evolved into SARS-CoV-2, an unusually pathogenic coronavirus highly adapted to humans. Second, that the Shi lab used medical samples taken from the miners and sent to them by Kunming University Hospital for their research. It was this human-adapted virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2-, that escaped from the WIV in 2019.”
In my Washington Post editorial, I say: “Not getting to the bottom of this crisis would be the height of absurdity. Too much is at stake. To ensure everyone’s safety, the WHO and outside investigators must be empowered to explore all relevant questions about the origins of the pandemic without limits. This comprehensive forensic investigation must include full access to all of the scientists, biological samples, laboratory records and other materials from the Wuhan virology institutes and other relevant Chinese organizations. Denying that access should be considered an admission of guilt by Beijing.”