Fox News reports that there is increasing confidence among American intelligence agencies, based upon both classified and open-source documents and evidence, that the COVID-19 outbreak likely originated in a Wuhan level 4 bio-laboratory, most probably as part of China’s attempt to demonstrate that its expertise in the field is equal to or greater than the capabilities of the United States.
In response to the report, President Trump remarked at a coronavirus press briefing last week, “More and more we’re hearing the story… we are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation.”
Fox News said that many of its sources believe that the outbreak started when a strain of a naturally occurring virus found in bats that was being studied in the lab mutated, enabling it to jump from bats to humans and infecting one of the workers at the lab, who became “patient zero,” and who then transmitted it, unwittingly, to others with whom he came into contact in Wuhan.
Others inside the Trump administration, as well as the intelligence and epidemiological communities, and some conservative conspiracy theorists are more skeptical about whether the virus mutated naturally or was man-made. However, there is no doubt that the extensive early Chinese attempts to suppress data and information about COVID-19 orchestrated was deliberate. and may be the costliest government cover-up of all time.
Chinese government officials actively suppressed reports by doctors caring for the first coronavirus victims in Wuhan hospitals which noted the similarities to the SARS virus outbreak in 2002 and indications that the disease was being spread by human-to-human transmission. Instead, after first word of the outbreak started to spread, Chinese public health officials identified a live animal market in Wuhan as the point of origin in an apparent attempt to deflect blame away from the bio-laboratory, known as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, not far from the live animal market.
WAS THE VIRUS MADE IN A WUHAN LAB?
The French government helped China upgrade the existing research facility in Wuhan to a level 4 biosafety lab (BSL-4) in response to criticism of China for the escape of the SARS virus from a laboratory in Beijing. Work started in 2003 and was completed in 2015. The United States contributed funding to the project and helped train the lab’s staff.
US molecular biologist Richard Ebright had expressed concern about the pace and scale of China’s plans to open a level 4 biolab, dealing with the most dangerous organism. But he later appeared to be satisfied with the quality of the work that was being done at the upgraded Wuhan facility. However, a 2017 article in the journal Nature said that, “some scientists outside China worry about pathogens escaping” from the Wuhan lab.
The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported last week that US Embassy officials stationed in China sent classified cables to the State Department in January 2018 warning of inadequate safety precautions at the Wuhan lab which was conducting risky research on a common form of coronavirus found in bats.
Responding to that report, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed “that we have taken a keen interest in that [report] and we’ve had a lot of intelligence take a hard look at that. I would just say at this point, it’s inconclusive, although the weight of evidence seems to indicate [a] natural [source], but we don’t know for certain.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News: “What we do know is. . . that this virus originated in Wuhan, China. We know there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology just a handful of miles away from where the wet market was. There is still lots to learn. You should know that the United States government is working diligently to figure it out.”
When asked about the 2018 State Department cables warning about safety problems at the Wuhan laboratory, Pompeo said the installation “contained highly contagious materials — we knew that they were working on this program, many countries have programs like this. In countries that are open and transparent, they have the ability to control them and keep them safe, and they allow outside observers in to make sure all the processes and procedures are right. I only wish that that had happened in this place.”
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told Fox News, “Even today, I see them [China] withholding information and I think we need to do more to continue to press them to share.” He added that he wouldn’t speak to “intelligence reporting,” but that “most people believe it [the virus] began naturally — it was organic, if you will.”
THE INITIAL CHINESE COVERUP
There is no doubt that during the early stages of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese government deliberately suppressed and changed medical data. Samples were destroyed, contaminated areas scrubbed, some early reports on the outbreak by Chinese doctors were erased, and academic articles were stifled.
Some doctors and journalists were “disappeared” for trying to warn of the early spread of the virus and for reporting its contagious nature via human to human transmission. On Jan. 2, a government run laboratory identified the new coronavirus, but Chinese officials did not announce the outbreak until a week later. On Jan. 5, a Shanghai lab was able to map the virus’ genome, but that information was withheld from the World Health Organization (WHO) until Jan. 12. The delays prevented the international community from responding promptly to the outbreak and slowed efforts by scientists to find a cure and start developing a vaccine.
Questions were first raised about the accuracy of case reporting in Wuhan in early January. After two weeks during which the number of new cases being reported in Wuhan daily was increasing at an alarming rate, suddenly there were several consecutive days during which Chinese officials did not report any new cases. During those days, an important meeting of Chinese Communist Party leaders was being held, raising suspicions that government officials were attempting to minimize the outbreak while important political decisions were being made.
On Jan. 7, Chinese President Xi Jinping took personal charge of the government’s response to the outbreak.
On Jan. 14, Ma Xiaowei, the head of China’s National Health Commission, held a teleconference briefing for provincial health officials in which he talked about the danger of widespread human-to-human coronavirus contagion, but those findings were kept secret from the Chinese public.
President Xi chose to wait for six more days before announcing those findings on Jan. 20, and then waited another three days before putting the city of Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province under a strict lockdown.
Meanwhile, the city of Wuhan was permitted to host a mass Lunar New Year banquet for tens of thousands of people, and millions more were permitted to travel across China to celebrate the holiday with their family members, bringing the virus with them.
Dr. Zuo-Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the six-day delay in announcing the outbreak in Wuhan was particularly crucial, because it prevented public health officials from organizing an effective effort to halt the spread of the virus before it overwhelmed the local medical system.
President Xi Jinping finally warned the Chinese public that a viral outbreak was in progress on Jan. 20. But by that time, more than 3,000 people had been infected, according to internal Chinese health data.
TRUMP’S CHINA TRAVEL BAN WAS NOT ENOUGH
President Trump banned passengers from China arriving on international flights from entering the US on Jan. 31, but Chinese travelers were still being permitted to fly to Europe. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, some of those who were infected by Chinese travelers in Europe then brought the virus with them when they visited the US.
Once it arrived at New York area international airports, the coronavirus was able to spread rapidly throughout the region due to the highly concentrated population.
After it became clear that COVID-19 was spreading around the world, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials sought to deny that the virus had originated in their county. They accused US and Italian military personnel who visited Wuhan to attend an international military conference there as the true sources of the virus.
HOW THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION FAILED
China eventually did suppress the original COVID-19 outbreak, but not before it had exported the virus to the rest of the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) was complicit in helping China cover its tracks. During the first two months of the outbreak, WHO officials uncritically repeated misleading information from the Chinese government and ignored warnings from Taiwanese doctors that the outbreak in Wuhan was much more severe than China had admitted. As late as Jan. 22, the day before Chinese officials locked down the city of Wuhan, WHO officials declared that there was no need to declare the virus to be a “public health emergency of international concern.”
WHO international experts didn’t get direct access to China until the agency’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom visited President Xi Jinping at the end of January. WHO experts never questioned the accuracy of the outbreak data Chinese officials gave them. A February WHO report continued the coverup, praising China’s leaders for their “transparency” in reporting on the outbreak, for giving the global community “invaluable time for the response,” and providing a model for “ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment.” The misleading Chinese information transmitted by the WHO to public health officials around the world enabled the virus to spread too quickly to be easily contained.
President Trump criticized the WHO because it “pushed China’s misinformation about the virus.” He said the WHO betrayed its mission by putting “political correctness over lifesaving measures.” Trump announced that he was immediately halting all US government funding for the WHO. The US has been the WHO’s largest single donor, and had promised it $893 million during the current two-year funding period.
Several US allies criticized Trump’s decision to defund the World Health Organization. Without mentioning China by name, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that, “Every inch that the US withdraws from the wider world, especially at this level, is space that will be occupied by others, and that tends to be those [such as China] who don’t share our values of liberal democracy.”
French President Emmanuel Macron also suggested that it was “naive” for the WHO to uncritically accept China’s initial outbreak figures. The French government was also unhappy with a post by China’s ambassador to France over a post on the Chinese embassy’s website suggesting that France had abandoned its nursing home residents to the ravages of the virus.
France’s junior minister for European affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, also accused China and Russia last month of using the delivery of Chinese medical equipment to fight the virus to help spread its propaganda across Europe.
MISLEADING CHINESE MEDICAL INFORMATION
The data that China provided on the initial outbreak in Wuhan and Hubei province was used as a first reference point by public health officials around the world and their predictions about the course and intensity of the pandemic as it spread in other countries. When the epidemic did not fit those predictions in South Korea and Italy, the next countries which suffered major outbreaks, experts began to question the accuracy of the Chinese data. China’s death toll seemed far too low considering the size of the population which China had locked down, and extensive anecdotal evidence from Chinese social media described far more deaths than were being reported by Chinese officials.
Another suspicious anomaly in the official Chinese statistics is that they report virtually no cases of infection in the major cities of Beijing and Shanghai.
Dr. Fauci has also expressed doubts about the reliability of the initial Chinese data. He told Fox News last week that, “I think any of us who have been dealing with this now for the last few months don’t feel confident at all that we have all of the data of the originally infected individuals, how long there were people in the circulation or even now, how many deaths there really are in China. . . [It] surprises me that that number is so low.”
Fauci was also highly critical of China’s communist regime for continuing to tell the rest of the world that the virus could only be transmitted from animal-to-human, even after COVID-19 was spreading rapidly from human-to-human in mid-December.
Suspicions about China’s initial COVID-19 numbers were confirmed last week when China raised the official tally of coronavirus fatalities suffered in Wuhan by 50%, increasing the death toll from the initial figure of 3,342 by 1,290 to a new total of 4,632 deaths. They also increased the number of coronavirus cases reported in Wuhan to a new total 50,333.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency attributed the undercount to those people who died at home in the early days of the outbreak because overwhelmed Wuhan hospitals had no room to admit them. In addition, it said that some local medical institutions had failed to accurately register the deaths of some of their patients.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry denied that last week’s revision in the death count revealed an earlier government attempt to coverup the magnitude of the public health disaster. He told reporters in Beijing that China “has done nothing that should be criticized. China would like to work with all countries including France and the UK to stick to multilateralism, strengthen solidarity and cooperation to jointly safeguard life and health of all people.”
CHINA MAY STILL BE LYING
President Trump tweeted in response to the Chinese revision that he believes the real number of people who died due to the virus in China is even higher than its officials have now disclosed, and “far higher than the U.S., not even close!”
Trump’s suspicions about China’s revised figures are shared by China expert Jude Blanchette, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He notes that China publicly revised its numbers only after a number of international public health experts expressed skepticism about the original Chinese death count compared to the experience of other coronavirus hot spots around the world.
While several other countries have also made revisions in their original death tallies, because some people who died at home and in nursing homes due to the virus had not been included, none of them were nearly as large as the revisions China made last week.
“It’s naive to think there’s not a degree of politicization going on,” Blanchette said about the death count in China. “But on the other hand, statistics aren’t meaningless in China and there are increasing limitations to how much China can mess with the numbers.” Blanchette also said that China’s credibility concerning the extent of its coronavirus outbreak is already so compromised that no matter what revisions it makes now they will be seriously questioned.
Former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also believes that China’s attempts to coverup the first outbreak of the virus in Wuhan cost the world time that could have been prevent it from becoming a pandemic. Based upon her experience as Secretary of State, which taught her that it is “very hard to get answers from China,” she was not surprised at its initial reaction to the outbreak. “The Chinese did what authoritarians do,” she said in an interview with Tom Gilligan of the Hoover Foundation. “They silenced those who were trying to sound the alarm [because] they wanted time to create the narrative that would be blessed by the Communist Party of China. . . It is just the nature of the system.”
FAULTY ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT CHINESE INTENTIONS
Meanwhile, China has been waging a propaganda war, attempting to evade its responsibility for the pandemic by appealing to American identity group politics and the hypersensitivity and racial guilt of progressive liberal elites. China is seeking to portray President Xi as a hero helping other countries to vanquish the virus by supplying testing supplies, personal protective equipment and ventilators. The public relations campaign also holds up China’s authoritarian government model as being far more effective in dealing with this type of crisis than Western style democracies, even though, in fact, the Chinese model is relying upon deception, coverup and trying to rewrite history.
In a published excerpt from his forthcoming book, former Trump National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster writes that since Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping opened its economy to private Western investment in the 1970s, American policy towards China has been based upon three false assumptions: “After being welcomed into the international political and economic order, China would play by the rules, open its markets, and privatize its economy. As the country became more prosperous, the Chinese government would respect the rights of its people and liberalize politically.”
McMaster observes that just the opposite took place: “China has become a threat because its leaders are promoting a closed, authoritarian model as an alternative to democratic governance and free-market economics. The Chinese Communist Party is not only strengthening an internal system that stifles human freedom and extends its authoritarian control; it is also exporting that model and leading the development of new rules and a new international order that would make the world less free and less safe.”
He also notes that, “the integrated nature of the Chinese Communist Party’s military and economic strategies is what makes it particularly dangerous to the United States and other free and open societies.”
According to McMaster, “The party’s leaders believe they have a narrow window of strategic opportunity to strengthen their rule and revise the international order in their favor. . . The party has no intention of playing by the rules associated with international law, trade, or commerce. China’s overall strategy relies on co-option and coercion at home and abroad, as well as on concealing the nature of China’s true intentions.”
ANTI-TRUMP REPORTERS AND POLITICIANS FOLLOW CHINA’S LEAD
The Chinese propaganda campaign has deeply influenced the way American news outlets have been describing the virus. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized American media outlets for directly quoting President Trump when he said, “this coronavirus is a ‘China Virus.’” “This is extremely irresponsible and we firmly oppose that,” the Chinese diplomat said, appealing to liberal standards of political correctness. Chinese state media lectured President Trump for mentioning the “Wuhan virus,” declaring that, “Racism is not the right tool to cover your own incompetence.”
Taking up the Chinese line, on-camera reporters for CNN, MSNBC and ABC accused Trump of “xenophobia” and using racist rhetoric. They chose to ignore Trump’s direct response when one of them asked him, “Why do you keep calling this the Chinese virus?” He answered, simply, “It’s not racist at all. No, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why.”
Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson quoted an unnamed US government official as saying, “Beijing has instructed diplomats in their consulate in San Francisco to work with American state and local officials, and members of Congress, to push back against anyone who gets too far out on blaming China for this.” Their efforts have borne fruit, as reflected by public statements by Democrat elected officials defending China against Trump’s coronavirus criticisms.
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy told CNN, “The reason that we’re in the crisis that we are today is not because of anything that China did. It’s not because of anything the WHO did. It’s because of what this president did.”
California Congresswoman Barbara Lee tweeted, “Diseases don’t have nationalities. China isn’t to blame for you fumbling this crisis.” Congresswoman Judy Chu of Los Angeles wrote, “China didn’t ‘unleash’ anything. A virus spread, as viruses do. Blaming China and insisting on calling this the ‘Wuhan’ virus. . . is putting people’s lives in danger. Stop politicizing this and put people first!”
WAS THE VIRUS A WEAPON OR AN ACCIDENT?
Carlson’s explanation for China’s behavior is that its leaders do not see the pandemic as primarily a public health disaster in the same way that Americans do. Chinese leaders see it “as part of a larger geopolitical struggle for control of the world. Most Americans don’t perceive that, or understand the profound gravity of the stakes involved. How could they? Our leaders have lied to us about it for years,” by denying the harsh reality of China’s ambitions.
Ben Lowsen, a civilian expert on Chinese political and security affairs working for the US Air Force, does not see any evidence to support conservative conspiracy theories proposed by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and others. They suggest that China may have deliberately manufactured the new virus in the Wuhan lab for use as a biological weapon, and that the claim by Chinese officials that it developed naturally in a live animal market is deliberate misinformation. However, virologists at Tulane University in New Orleans and Rutgers University in New Jersey who have studied the structure of the virus independently have found no indication that it was genetically engineered.
Another theory is that scientists at the Wuhan lab were innocently working with an existing virus found in wild bats which mutated on its own and accidentally got out, as happened in China before with the SARS virus. Lowsen suspects that President Xi may have deliberately withheld Chinese cooperation in fighting the disease from the US and other Western countries that he sees as a threat to China’s existence.
Lowsen suggests that Xi may have asked himself, “Why should China suffer the effects of a pandemic while others stayed safe, and increased their strength relative to China, based on China’s own costly experience?” The analyst admits that he has no proof that “Xi made a deliberate decision to withhold information in order to imperil others,” but he also points out that it is consistent with Xi’s increasingly authoritarian and hostile foreign policies. “His incessant military buildup threatens neighbors while using economic and other subversive means to erode the sovereignty of countries around the world. We should not assume it was beyond his imagining to withhold a degree of support from the international community to ensure that China would not suffer alone,” Lowsen writes.
While stopping short of accusing China’s president of using the coronavirus to conduct biological warfare, Lowsen concludes that President Xi might be paranoid enough to “provide less than full cooperation to stem the pandemic of the century in the crass pursuit of its own interests.”
LEARNING MORE ABOUT THE VIRUS THREAT
The main way that COVID-19 kills is by inflaming and clogging the tiny air sacs in the lungs, choking off the body’s oxygen supply until it shuts down the organs essential for life.
But clinicians around the world have recently seen evidence that the virus may also cause heart inflammation, acute kidney disease, neurological malfunction, blood clots, intestinal damage and liver problems, vastly complicating treatment for the most severe cases and reducing their chances for recovery.
Reports from the initial outbreak in China emphasized the symptoms in the lungs and provided little warning about the danger of serious kidney damage from the virus. It was only after more detailed data emerged from the outbreak in Italy that the nephrology community realized that up to 30 percent of the most seriously ill COVID-19 patients on ventilators would also require kidney dialysis. According to Alan Kliger, a Yale University School of Medicine nephrologist, almost half the people hospitalized because of COVID-19 have blood or protein in their urine, indicating early damage to their kidneys.
Those findings were further confirmed by a paper published by Wuhan researchers on April 9 in the medical journal Kidney International. In autopsies performed on 26 people who died after contracting COVID-19, they found seven who had particles of the coronavirus lodged in their kidneys.
Paul Palevsky, a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine nephrologist and president-elect of the National Kidney Foundation, said that this evidence “raise[s] the very clear suspicion that at least a part of the acute kidney injury that we’re seeing is resulting from direct viral involvement of the kidney, which is distinct from what was seen in the SARS outbreak in 2002.”
HEART SYMPTOMS, LIVER DAMAGE AND BLOOD CLOTS
Doctors and researchers agree that much more data and investigation is needed to determine the full extent of the organ and tissue damage done by the COVID-19 virus, as well as the respiratory distress, the medications patients received, high fever, the stress of hospitalization in an ICU.
The virus also may damage the heart. Clinicians in China and New York have reported myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, and irregular heart rhythms that can lead to cardiac arrest in COVID-19 patients.One recent review of severely ill patients in China found that about 40 percent suffered arrhythmias and 20 percent had some form of cardiac injury.
Some reports indicate that the virus can attack the liver. Brennan Spiegel, co-editor in chief of the American Journal of Gastroenterology, said he has seen several such reports, including one from China on five COVID-19 patients with acute viral hepatitis.
The virus also appears to produce blood clots in the veins of the legs and other blood vessels, which can break off, travel to the lung and cause death due to a pulmonary embolism. Data published online on April 9 in the Journal of Thrombosis and Hemostasis, based on the examination of 81 patients hospitalized with pneumonia caused by COVID-19 in Wuhan, found that 20 had such events and that eight of them died.
The virus also has a clear impact on the gastrointestinal tract, causing diarrhea, vomiting and other symptoms in about half of COVID-19 patients.
A study of 38 hospitalized patients in Hubei province, China, found that a third had conjunctivitis, commonly known as pinkeye. The fact that the virus has been found in the mucus membrane that covers the eye in a small number of patients suggests that the eye could be an entryway for the virus, and justifies the requirement that health-care workers must wear face shields and goggles.
Another danger posed by the COVID-19 virus is the possibility that it could trigger a potentially fatal over-reaction by the patient’s own immune system in which the entire body comes under attack. The infection begins when the virus enters the body and latches onto the ACE2 receptor on cell surfaces in the respiratory tract and the gastrointestinal tract. In some people, when the immune system detects the virus, it goes into overdrive, releasing of a flood of substances cytokines to attack the virus, but which, in excess, can damage multiple organs in what is called “cytokine release syndrome.”
Also known as “cytokine storms,” these were responsible for millions of fatalities among relatively young and healthy people who were infected during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.
Cytokine storms have also been recognized in patients suffering from autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or in cancer patients undergoing certain immunotherapies. Effective treatment for the syndrome usually requires the patient to be placed in an ICU and hooked up to a ventilator, according to Jeffrey Weber, deputy director of the Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Medical Center.
LOSS OF SMELL IS AN EARLY WARNING SIGN
Another well-known symptom of COVID-19 is loss of the senses of smell and taste. Claire Hopkins, president of the British Rhinological Society, said studies of patients in Italy and elsewhere have shown that some lose their sense of smell before they show any other signs of being sick.
During the initial stages of the pandemic, anosmia, the medical term for the inability to smell, was not initially recognized as a symptom of COVID-19, Hopkins said. But subsequent studies have shown that 60 percent of people diagnosed with COVID-19 lose their senses of smell and taste, and that in about a quarter of such cases, the anosmia developed before any of the virus’ other symptoms emerged.
HOLDING CHINA ACCOUNTABLE
These and other non-respiratory effects of the virus continue to come as a surprise to the medical community because they were largely absent from the first reports on the outbreak that China delivered. The facts are clear. China initially denied the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak, withheld critical medical data, and then failed to act to isolate the virus before it could spread to the rest of the world. Today, China’s leaders are still trying to conceal the facts about its origin and are cynically using the pandemic to gain political and public relations advantage.
The rest of the world should hold China and its communist leaders accountable for the more than 2.5 million coronavirus infections and over 170,000 deaths to date, which might have been prevented with full Chinese cooperation at the start of the outbreak. However, any attempt to punish China must also bear in mind that China is still critical for the global supply chain producing many vital drugs, testing supplies, and personal protective equipment the US still needs to fight the epidemic.