Friday, Apr 12, 2024

Wuhan Lab Origin of Covid Theory Gains Credibility

Leading researchers are now taking a closer look at the two main competing theories to explain the origin of the Covid-19 virus which first emerged in China in late 2019, and then spread throughout the world to create the deadliest pandemic in more than a century.

When word of the new and highly deadly coronavirus first emerged from China early last year, there was immediate speculation as to the source. Chinese government and health officials, after initially trying to cover up the spread of the virus in Wuhan province, sought to attribute its source to transmission through animals to humans at the “wet market” in the city of Wuhan where the disease was first reported. They claimed that the virus originated in bats being sold in the market, which then mutated to enable it to jump to another species of animal sold in the market, and then mutated again to infect humans.

Chinese health officials could not identify the animal they believed served as the intermediate host of the virus, but they pointed to two previous epidemics caused by coronaviruses which followed a similar path from animals to humans. In the SARS1 epidemic in 2002, which also first broke out in a Wuhan wet market, the virus originated in bats, was transmitted to an intermediate host — in this case an animal called a civet — which then mutated again enabling it to infect humans. In the MERS epidemic of 2012, which first broke out in the Middle East, the coronavirus responsible started out in camels which then infected humans.

An alternative theory to explain the source of the virus soon emerged, which was suggested by the proximity of the suspected wet market to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), known to be conducting research on methods to genetically modify bat coronaviruses to make them more capable of infecting humans. The theory suggests that the highly deadly new virus was created during the Wuhan lab experiments and then somehow escaped to begin infecting people across the province, and eventually throughout the world.


Early proponents of the theory that the virus was created in the lab include Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton. He also claimed that the Chinese government deliberately delayed reporting the outbreak of the virus to international medical authorities to enable it to impact other countries around the world, thereby avoiding seeing “their relative power and standing in the world” decline by being the only country to be impacted by the virus.

Other conservatives extended this line of thinking into a full-fledged conspiracy theory, accusing the Chinese military of secretly supporting the development of more lethal viruses at the Wuhan lab for use in bacteriological warfare. Some even suggested that the release of the virus from the lab may not have been accidental. The Chinese government and its supporters in the mainstream media quickly condemned these lab release explanations for the emergence of the Covid virus as vicious lies being spread by the enemies of China.

As Senator Cotton wrote in a Fox News op-ed two weeks ago, “The liberal media, foreign-policy elites, and activists in white lab coats quickly denounced me as a conspiracy theorist or worse for making these ‘debunked’ suggestions. They’ve been much quieter lately, because the theory that the pandemic originated in the Wuhan lab is only growing stronger as more evidence emerges.”


Shortly after the coronavirus began to spread across the globe last year, the lab origin theory was refuted by separate letters signed by respected American and international researchers published in two different medical journals, which heavily influenced popular and scientific opinion in favor of the natural origin theory being pushed by Chinese officials.

The first letter was published in the British-based Lancet medical journal on February 19, 2020. Its signatories declared that, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.” The scientists added that they “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,” and rejected the idea that the virus might have been manufactured in the Wuhan lab from which it later escaped.

The second letter was published in the journal Nature Medicine on March 17, 2020. It was signed by five virologists led by Dr. Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute, claiming that, “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 [the scientific name of the Covid virus] is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” Their conclusion was based upon the unusual nature of the spike protein on the surface of the Covid virus, which enables it to infect humans by binding itself to the ACE2 receptor in human cells, and the fact that the virus did not bear any of the most common signs of genetic manipulation.


While both letters gained wide initial acceptance, the failure of Chinese researchers to subsequently produce any evidence showing how the virus mutated naturally from infecting bats to infecting humans, combined with the refusal of Chinese officials to release details about the research being conducted at the Wuhan lab, has now given added credibility to the lab accident theory of the virus’ creation, which had been widely dismissed initially as a politically-motivated conspiracy theory.

Meanwhile, additional bits of evidence have surfaced casting doubt on the natural evolution theory. At the same time, new information about the lax safety standards at the Wuhan lab has made the accidental escape scenario of a manufactured virus seem more plausible.

Earlier this month, a group of 18 prominent scientists published yet another letter on the subject in the journal Science, this time casting doubt on the conclusions of the first two letters published last year. These scientists now say that, “greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. . . [because the] theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover [natural cross-species mutation] both remain viable.” The letter also criticized the team which had been commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) to investigate the origin of the virus for having failed to give the accidental lab release theory “balanced consideration.”

The 18 scientists who signed the letter included Dr. Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina, who has collaborated with virologist Dr. Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan lab. The letter said, “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest.” Without mentioning China by name, the letter also mentioned the need for “public health agencies and research laboratories alike. . . to open their records to the public.”


In addition to the absence of evidence of natural cross-species mutation by the virus and China’s refusal to release the records of the Wuhan lab, other facts have recently emerged that suggest there may have been a deliberate coverup of the involvement of American scientists and the federal government in the research at the Wuhan lab. There is also evidence that adequate safeguards had not been taken to prevent the escape of the modified virus from the lab which the alternative theory suggests.

The credibility of the first letter published in the Lancet last year in support of the natural mutation theory was compromised when it became known that it was organized and drafted by Dr. Peter Daszak. His company, the EcoHealth Alliance of New York, had a multi-million-dollar contract with two federal agencies, NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), and NIH (National Institutes of Health), to fund the coronavirus gene-splicing research being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. However, when Dr. Daszak signed the letter published in the Lancet, he falsely declared that he had no conflict of interest in endorsing the natural mutation theory of the source of the virus.

The genetic argument casting doubt on the lab origin theory presented in the second letter a month later in Nature Medicine was also far from conclusive. Furthermore, at least one of the five researchers who signed that second letter is now having second thoughts about its conclusions, and is willing to reconsider the alternative theory based upon evidence of unsafe practices by the researchers at the Wuhan lab.


As researchers began to make progress more than a decade ago in manipulating the genes of coronaviruses to make them more capable of infecting humans, ostensibly for the purpose of creating vaccines for new diseases, a vigorous debate broke out within the scientific community over the advisability of continuing such “gain-of-function” (GoF) experiments in light of the potential dangers posed by the manufacture of such potentially dangerous new viruses.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was then and now the director of NIAID, and is considered to be one the world’s foremost experts in the field, co-wrote an op-ed published by the Washington Post in 2011 which examined “the question is whether benefits of such research outweigh risks. The answer is not simple. . . Safeguarding against the potential accidental release or deliberate misuse of laboratory pathogens is imperative.”

An ad hoc committee of scientists calling themselves the Cambridge Working Group publicly cautioned against the risk from creating more dangerous new viruses. “Accident risks with newly created ‘potential pandemic pathogens’ raise grave new concerns,” they wrote. “Laboratory creation of highly transmissible, novel strains of dangerous viruses, especially but not limited to influenza, poses substantially increased risks. An accidental infection in such a setting could trigger outbreaks that would be difficult or impossible to control.”

In 2014, the federal government responded to that threat by imposing a three-year moratorium on new gain-of-function viral research. It also set up a new review and oversight process to monitor continued funding for ongoing research projects in the field, including a loophole in the moratorium to permit continued funding if the head of one of the government health agencies “determines that the research is urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security.”

In other words, either Dr. Fauci, as the head of NIAID, or Dr. Francis Collins, as the head of NIH, or both of them, had to be directly responsible for the continuation of federal funding for Dr. Shi’s dangerous gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab.


In fact, the Wuhan lab had been built with the help of American taxpayer funds, its research staff had been trained by American researchers, and much of its research was being funded through a federal contract between Dr. Fauci’s own NIAID agency and Dr. Daszak’s company.

One of the most outspoken critics of the research at the Wuhan lab is Dr. Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and a leading expert on biosafety who was also a member of the Cambridge Working Group which sounded the alarm. “It is clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was systematically constructing novel chimeric coronaviruses and was assessing their ability to infect human cells. . . It is also clear that. . . this work could have produced SARS-CoV-2,” Ebright said.

“It is clear that some or all of this work was being performed using the biosafety level. . . would pose an unacceptably high risk of infection of laboratory staff upon contact with a virus having the transmission properties of SARS-CoV-2 … It also is clear that this work never should have been funded and never should have been performed.”


The research on modifying coronaviruses at the Wuhan lab was led by China’s top expert on bat viruses, Dr. Shi Zhengli, also known as the “Bat Lady.” She had collected samples of about a hundred different types of bat coronaviruses from caves in southern China, and brought them back to the Wuhan lab where she was assisted in the gene-splicing research by Dr. Ralph Baric, a coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina.

In November 2015, Drs. Shi and Baric announced a historic breakthrough. By combining the original SARS1 coronavirus with a “spike protein” taken from one of Dr. Shi’s bat viruses, they had created in the lab the first genetically engineered virus that was capable of infecting cells taken from the human body.

The potential danger from that so-called “chimera” virus should it escape from the lab was obvious. However, the Wuhan institute had been built with state-of-the-art laboratories which offered the highest biosafety level available.


There are four degrees of safety for biological labs, designated BSL-1 to BSL-4. A BSL-4 lab is designed to provide maximum safety, requiring researchers to wear spacesuit-style sealed protective gear while investigating deadly pathogens like the Ebola virus. Previous research on the SARS1 and MERS viruses was done entirely at the BSL-3 safety level, whose precautions against the escape of a virus are still quite substantial. But Dr. Shi did not want to be encumbered by wearing a spacesuit while conducting her bat virus experiments in the Wuhan lab. She decided instead to work at the BSL-2 level, whose minimal infection safeguards have been described as not much more extensive than those in a typical dentist’s office, such as wearing lab coats and gloves and putting up biohazard warning signs.

The revelation that the Wuhan research was being done under BSL-2 conditions came as a rude shock to Dr. W. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University, who had signed the March 2020 letter. He recently told former New York Times science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. that, “It shouldn’t have happened. People should not be looking at bat viruses in BSL-2 labs.” Lipkin also said that although there is still no direct evidence that there had been a lab leak of the virus in Wuhan, “my view has changed,” and that such a leak must now be regarded as a real possibility.

According to the Washington Post, yet another source of concern were the findings from a 2018 inspection visit to the Wuhan lab by US diplomats and scientists. In a cable they sent back to Washington, they complained about the lax safety standards they found at the lab, and issued “a warning about a potential public-health crisis” that might result.

In addition, the theory that the initial transfer of the Covid-19 virus from a bat to a human took place in the Wuhan wet market near the lab suffered a blow when Chinese researchers revealed that they had, in fact, discovered earlier cases of Covid-19 infections in Wuhan which had no known link to the suspected wet market. Indeed, the Chinese scientists were unable to find any evidence at all to support their theory that Covid virus had evolved from a bat virus through natural mutations.


Yet another setback for the natural origin theory was the failure of a WHO commission’s February 2021 visit to China to uncover any new evidence in its support. The members of the WHO commission had been hand-picked by Chinese authorities, and they included Dr. Daszak, whose objectivity in continuing to endorse the natural origin theory for the virus was clearly compromised by his financial interests in the work.

Most scientists had assumed that like both the SARS1 and MERS viruses before it, the Covid virus would leave clear traces in the environment of how it had naturally evolved crossing from one species to another. Yet more than 15 months after the pandemic began, Chinese researchers still can’t identify either the bat population where the virus presumably originated or the intermediate species which the virus used as a host as it mutated to infect humans.


Yet another tantalizing piece of evidence can be found in a State Department document released to the public on January 15, less than a week before the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, as well as additional information from a US national intelligence report revealed by the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. They reveal that three of the researchers at the Wuhan institute became sick enough in November 2019, “with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness,” to require hospitalization.

That date is consistent with the period during which many epidemiologists and virologists now believe the Covid-19 virus first emerged. The circumstances also suggest that those three lab workers could have been the first humans to have been infected by the virus during the course of their work in the lab and then spread it to the rest of the local population.

When the Wall Street Journal asked China’s foreign ministry to comment on the report about the three Wuhan lab employees who fell ill, a ministry spokesman accused the US of trying to divert attention in an effort “to hype the lab leak theory.”

Meanwhile, the Biden White House tried to avoid making any direct comment on the intelligence report or take sides in the controversy over Covid’s origin. A spokeswoman for the National Security Council said, “We continue to have serious questions about the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, including its origins within the People’s Republic of China. [But] we’re not going to make pronouncements that prejudge an ongoing WHO study into the source of SARS-CoV-2.”

When White House press secretary Jan Psaki was asked Monday by reporters about the Wall Street Journal story, her response was evasive. Psaki said “in terms of the report, which is specifically about individuals being hospitalized, we have no means of confirming that or denying that.” She even tried to deny that the story was based upon a US intelligence report, until a reporter pointed out that the WSJ said otherwise.


The weight of all the new scientific evidence has clearly shifted momentum away from the natural origin theory being pushed by China. At the same time, the reports revealing the dangerous working condition in the Wuhan lab make the accidental virus escape theory much more plausible. Enough doubt has now been raised about natural origin theory to force some of its original supporters in the mainstream media to start hedging their bets. They have been forced to withdraw their earlier accusations that supporters of the Wuhan lab accident scenario, such as Senator Cotton, were wrong, and have reluctantly joined in the calls for more independent research into the origins of the virus, as well as full disclosure by Chinese authorities about the research being conducted in the Wuhan lab when the virus emerged.

During a Senate hearing on May 11, Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, grilled Dr. Fauci on his agency’s financial support for the research at the Wuhan lab which may have been responsible for the creation of the Covid virus.

“Juicing up super viruses is not new,” Senator Paul said. “Scientists in the US have long known how to mutate animal viruses to infect humans. For years, Dr. Ralph Baric, a virologist in the US, has been collaborating with Dr. Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Virology Institute, sharing his discoveries about how to create super viruses. This gain-of-function research has been funded by the NIH. . . Dr. Fauci, do you still support funding of the NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan?”

Dr. Fauci’s response was, “Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect that the NIH has not never and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”


However, Dr. Fauci’s claim seems to have been refuted by an article published by the Wuhan lab itself in 2017, which described how its researchers had discovered how to genetically manipulate a coronavirus from a bat so that it could be transmitted directly to humans. That article also clearly states that one of the funders of the research was the US National Institutes of Health.

The language of that NIH funding grant, which is a public document, states that the research at the Wuhan lab would study “the risk of future coronavirus emergence from wildlife. . . across the human-wildlife interface in China.” According to Dr. Ebright, that language makes it clear that, “the research was unequivocally gain-of-function research,” and as such violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the 2014 funding moratorium.

Kelsey Cooper, a spokesman for Senator Paul, has made a similar point. “Despite Dr. Fauci’s denials, there is ample evidence that the NIH and the NIAID, under his direction, funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In light of those facts, the question Dr. Paul asked was whether the government has fully investigated the origin of the disease, which it clearly has not. This research and the lab should be thoroughly investigated and opened to public scrutiny.”

Dr. Baric and a spokesman for Dr. Daszak’s EchoHealth Alliance continue to deny that the Wuhan lab had been engaged in gain-of-function research, or that the research was responsible for the creation of Covid-19. But the weight of the new evidence has clearly put supporters of the Chinese claim that the virus mutated naturally from bats to humans very much on the defensive.

At another Senate hearing last week, in response to a series of direct questions about the origin of the pandemic from John Kennedy, the Republican Senator from Louisiana, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky reluctantly admitted that she now thinks it’s “possible” the Covid virus could have leaked “from a lab.” However, Dr. Walensky supported Dr. Fauci’s position when she denied any knowledge of federal funding of any current “gain-of-function” research.

Dr. Fauci also appears to be hedging his bets on the question of the origin of the Covid virus. Last May, in an interview with National Geographic, he clearly endorsed the Chinese claim of natural mutation from a bat virus. “If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and what’s out there now, [the scientific evidence] is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated … Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species.”

But when asked during an interview on May 11 with the managing editor of Politifact about whether he still supported the natural origin theory, Fauci said, “I am not convinced about that; I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened. . . It could have been something else, and we need to find that out.”

Last week, the Republican members of the House Intelligence committee published their own report which accuses the Chinese military of secretly funding the gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology as part of its biological weapons program. It cites “significant circumstantial evidence [which] raises serious concerns that the Covid-19 outbreak may have been a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” and accuses China of deliberately stymying efforts to resolve that question.

The report also says “It is difficult to understand why the US Government permitted collaborative research at the WIV, which had a known Chinese military presence.”


In a lengthy and detailed essay on the subject originally published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nicholas Wade, a former science writer for the New York Times, concludes that so far, there is not enough direct evidence to prove or disprove either theory for the origin of the virus. But he does question the judgement of virologists Daszak, Baric and Shi, who “knew better than anyone the potential danger from the viruses that they were creating with their gain-of-function research should they ever escape from the lab.” However, Wade believes, “the amount of research funding that was available to them due to their breakthrough made it too tempting to pass up.”

Wade continues, “It cannot yet be stated that Dr. Shi did or did not generate SARS2 in her lab because her records have been sealed, but it seems she was certainly on the right track to have done so. . .”


“If it turned out that the Covid virus was created in the Wuhan lab and then escaped,” Wade writes, “it is clear that everybody involved in the research, starting with Dr. Shi, and including Drs. Daszak, Baric, Fauci and Collins would rightfully be blamed for playing a dangerous game in their laboratories. By creating a virus more dangerous than those that exist in nature and then, through their professional negligence, allowing it to ‘spill over’ into the rest of the world, they would be largely responsible for more than 3.37 million Covid deaths to date, and counting. . .

“On December 9, 2019, shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic became generally known, Dr. Daszak gave an interview in which he talked in glowing terms of how researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been reprogramming the spike protein and generating chimeric coronaviruses. . .”

Daszak also told the interviewer, “Some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanized mice models and are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals, and you can’t vaccinate against them with a vaccine. So, these are a clear and present danger.”


Because Dr. Daszak’s company was funding the research at the Wuhan lab, he had access to inside information about the research that was being done there to make bat coronaviruses infectious to humans, as well as the major shortcomings in the lab’s safety protocols. Dr. Daszak could have provided public health authorities with crucial early information about the virus that might have saved countless lives, but instead, according to Wade, Daszak “immediately launched a public relations campaign to persuade the world that the epidemic couldn’t possibly have been caused by one of the institute’s souped-up viruses.”

Daszak declared in an April 2020 interview, “The idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true.”

But according to Wade, whose article presents the most relevant scientific evidence on the question in exhaustive detail, the lab-escape scenario for the origin of the virus can no longer be so easily dismissed. It rests on clear evidence from US government funding documents that Dr. Shi was conducting gene-splicing research at the Wuhan lab on bat viruses quite similar to the Covid virus, while working under minimal and probably inadequate, safety conditions.


Wade argues that the lab escape theory also provides the simplest explanation of the known facts. “Researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were cooking up hyper-dangerous viruses in inadequate safety conditions, and one escaped,” he writes.

Wade claims it is much harder to explain the natural-emergence scenario, which claims that the coronavirus started out in bats in the caves of southern China, nearly 1,000 miles away from Wuhan, at a time of year when bats go into hibernation, and then suddenly popped up in the city capable of infecting humans, without leaving any genetic traces anywhere of how the virus mutated to become capable of targeting a new species.


If the lab escape scenario can be proven to be the source of the Covid virus outbreak, there are a lot of scientists and governments officials who must be held accountable.

According to Wade, “The first in line are Dr. Shi and her colleagues. They were generating dangerous viruses in unsafe conditions. . . They should have made their own assessments of the risks they were running.

“Second in line for rebuke are the Chinese authorities, who have done their utmost to conceal the nature of the tragedy and their responsibility for it.

“Third are virologists around the world who knew better than anyone the dangers of enhancing natural viruses but couldn’t resist the temptation. . .

“Fourth may be the US National Institutes of Health, which funded Shi’s research via Daszak, despite a moratorium from 2014 to 2017. The reporting system that replaced the moratorium required funding agencies to mention hazardous research, but the NIH did not do so.”

Both American and Chinese public health and government officials are still vehemently denying their personal responsibility. But the longer they are permitted to remain in positions of authority without acknowledging their role, the greater the danger that a similar manmade viral disaster could happen again.



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