The Wuhan pneumonia, more commonly referred to as COVID-19, has now been raging for more than a year and a half, and even today there are new variants of the virus emerging, including Alpha, initially detected in the United Kingdom, Beta in South Africa, Delta in India, and Gamma in Brazil.
And a year and a half after the outbreak began, I find myself still worrying that the frightening scenes of the initial outbreak, in December 2019, are doomed to be repeated for the foreseeable future. Part of that fear is due to the many questions about the origins of COVID-19 which remain unanswered.
In March and April of last year rumours had already been to circulate that suggested that COVID-19 was man-made, and/or that it had leaked from a Chinese laboratory. At the time these rumours were sternly refuted by the World Health Organization (WHO), the medical adviser to the US President, Anthony Fauci, and others. Those interested in discussing these rumours were accused of spreading racist conspiracy theories.
However, as more information has become available to the public debate around the origin of COVID-19 has reignited, with a renewed public interest in the question of how the virus came to be with us. This proposition that was regarded as ignorant and anti-intellectual a year ago has returned a year later, with more and more people conceding that this possibility cannot be ruled out, including scholars who previously publicly scorned this argument. It seems that many people have now changed their attitudes and thinking, no longer blindly opposed to it.
Despite initial scepticism, President Biden has also asked the intelligence system to submit a review report on the origin of the virus within 90 days, in essence accepting that the laboratory leak theory is not off the table.
Even the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, acknowledges that it was premature to rule out a potential link between the COVID-19 pandemic and a laboratory leak, saying on July 15 that he is asking China to be more transparent about the origins of the COVID-19.
Robert Redfield, director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) under President Trump, publicly stated in March that he believed it was likely that the COVID-19 virus had leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, possibly as early as September 2019.
On the 4th March this year, more than 20 internationally renowned scientists in the field of biology and virology issued an open letter requesting that the WHO conduct a thorough investigation in Wuhan, including the laboratories of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This call was echoed in May when 19 scientists from Stanford University, Berkeley University, California Institute of Technology, Yale University, etc., all well-known experts in the fields of infectious disease and virus research, published a joint open letter in the journal “Science”, expressing their desires to see an investigation launched in to whether COVID-19 was caused by a laboratory leak
Recent statements by Anthony Fauci also indicate that he is now more open to the lab leak theory – he told CNN in June 3 that a leak from a Chinese laboratory cannot be entirely ruled out.
In June the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump Administration had, in 2020, commissioned the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to conduct an analysis, with its report focusing on answering the question on whether COVID-19 did indeed come from a Chinese laboratory. This laboratory is an analysis unit that the US intelligence agency relies on, including for information on North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities and other high-density scientific and technological analysis, indicating that the Trump Administration considered this question credible and worthy of significant investigation.
The resulting report was published in the middle of 2020, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, argued that it was plausible that the COVID-19 virus had in fact leaked from Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The WHO’s COVID-19 investigation
On the 31st of March of this year, the WHO officially announced the publication of their report into the COVID-19 outbreak in China, which had seen investigators from the WHO spend time on the ground in Wuhan. The report concluded that the laboratory leak theory was not plausible, and no further investigation was necessary.
However, as the details of the investigation process were released, the WHO report began to arouse public outrage, with the fact that the WHO had allowed China to veto potential members of the investigation team generating particular anger.
On March 28th, CBS’s radio programme “60 Minutes” in the United States had a special feature on the WHO COVID-19 investigation. Those interviewed included Jamie Metzl, a consultant to the WHO and former employee of the National Security Council under President Clinton, Peter Daszak, member of the WHO team who participated in the investigation in China, and Matt Pottinger, Deputy National Security Advisor to the Trump Administration, as well as others.
When Peter Daszak faced the 60-minute host’s questions, he admitted that the report was largely based on interviews given to the team by Chinese scientists and officials. When the host asked if the accounts of these people should be believed, Daszak replied, “What else can we do?” before admitting that Chinese officials or party leaders were present during these interviews.
When the host suggested that this might prevent those interviewed from telling the truth, Daszak defended his position, stating that he had confidence in his ability to distinguish between scientific statements and political statements, and that he would guarantee the results of the interrogation. Daszak also said that, although the investigation was claimed to have taken place over the course of one month in China, those who enter were required to quarantined for 14 days after their arrival, meaning that the investigation could have only lasted approximately two weeks before the team was forced to leave.
Jamie Metzl expressed deep dissatisfaction with the results of the WHO investigating, noting that he deeply disagreed with Daszak’s participation in the investigation. He pointed out that Daszak has a close relationship with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and that he also regularly cooperates with Shi Zhengli, the main Chinese researcher of coronavirus in bats. Daszak stated that, because the WHO does not have any legal right to require China to submit all relevant data, there must be a person who knows China’s biological system operations in order to assist in the investigation, and that his selection for this team filled this role.
Metzl argued that if the virus had originated in bats and then spread from the South China Seafood Market in Wuhan, an area that bats are not located in, bats must have been captured and then transported to the Wuhan market for sale. As Yunnan, where the bats would have come from, is over a thousand miles away from Wuhan, the capture and transport of these bats would have caused an epidemic outbreak all along the route between Yunnan and Wuhan, yet we only saw an initial outbreak in Wuhan. This suggests that the development of the epidemic started in Wuhan, rather than being transported from Yunnan to Wuhan.
Reasons to doubt that COVID-19 was a natural development
When COVID-19 first appeared on the global stage early last year, the Public Health Clinical Center in Shanghai and Fudan University jointly published its gene sequence. The research team led by Professor Zhang Yongzhen reportedly completed the genetic sequencing on January 5, two days before the official announcement of the discovery of an unidentified pneumonia in Wuhan. Zhang Yongzhen’s team also suggested what the government should do, but after a significant period of no response, they decided to publish the results on January 11 – their laboratory was closed the next day.
At the end of January, nine Indian scientists published a research study looking at the new virus. They noticed that the virus had four strange implants, and they stated that they believed that these could only be artificially produced in the laboratory, as opposed to through natural evolution. They believed that the virus was in fact synthesized in the laboratory for virus genetic analysis.
This article was immediately scorned by renowned scientists, most notably Dr. Anthony Fauci. Dr Fauci said this was an outlandish study and noted that the National Institutes of Health said that the results had not been reviewed by peers.
The Indian scientists withdraw their publication as, according to them, they were under tremendous pressure to do so. By this point they had spent six months searching for journal publications to obtain peer review, but they were repeatedly rejected – the scientists still advocate their findings to this day.
One month later, on February 11, the Russian Ministry of Health announced on its official website that the COVID-19 was a genetically recombined virus, but noted that the recombination may have come from either as a natural result or through artificial synthesis.
Although the announcement of the Russian Ministry of Health did not specify that COVID-19 was artificially synthesized, it said that the sequence of the virus’s genes was not that difficult to decipher.
COVID-19 is a coronavirus. Like SARS and MERS, it comes from coronaviruses in bats, but it has to go through the process of an intermediate host before it can be transmitted from person to person. In the past, it was found that the intermediate host of SARS virus from bats to humans was the civet cat, and the intermediate host of MERS virus from bats to humans was the camel. These intermediate hosts were confirmed less than nine months after the virus was discovered. Some people suspect that the intermediate host of the Wuhan pneumonia virus is a pangolin, but so far, there is little conclusive evidence of this.
At present, no one can say for sure what the intermediate host was. What we do know is that COVID-19 appears to have started in Wuhan, a city which contained one of the relatively few laboratories in the world with Level 4 biochemical capabilities.
Why the laboratory leak theory gaining traction?
If it is claimed that the COVID-19 virus leaked from the laboratory, logically this means that the virus must have existed in the laboratory in the first place. Peter Daszak argued that he had not seen any evidence beforehand that the Wuhan Virus Research Institute had the Wuhan pneumonia virus in its facility, and so he believed that must have originated externally. In dispute of this, Matt Pottinger, a former deputy national security consultant, has said that the Wuhan Virus Laboratory had in fact conducted research on coronavirus collected from bats. Chinese bat virus expert Shi Zhengli, who worked in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, had previously published a paper on that subject.
In May of this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States had obtained damning new evidence in relation to the COVID-19 origins. In November 2019, three Chinese scientists working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology sought medical treatment, presenting with symptoms similar to those we now associate with COVID-19.
According to The Australian, Chou Yusen, a military scientist of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, applied for a patent for a COVID-19 on February 24, 2020 – just five weeks after human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 had been confirmed by the Chinese government, and two weeks before the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. The vaccine was then off the production line two days later.
Zhou Yusen worked closely with Shi Zhengli’s team at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He died of unknown causes in May, but his death was not publicly announced.
In 2018, officials from the US State Department visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology to investigate the safety protection measures of this four-level laboratory. The results made them extremely worried. They sent a telegram to Washington and pointed out that laboratory security systems at the lab were lax and that a leak, if one were to occur, could have catastrophic results.
After issuing an order to effectively shut down Wuhan on January 23, the central government of China dispatched Major General Chen Wei, the chief biochemical weapon defense expert of the People’s Liberation Army, to take over the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
A growing awareness of this new information, added to the fact that the institute has conducted enhanced research on coronaviruses in the past, has lead to a rekindling of interest in the lab leak theory. The persuasiveness of the leak theory has greatly increased in recent months, and the scientific community believes that it is necessary to carefully verify this possibility.
The investigation of the laboratory leak theory will have major implications for China
The notions that the COVID-19 virus leaked from the laboratory and that the virus was made in the laboratory are two separate positions. Most scientists, including many who think COVID-19 likely leaked from the Wuhan lab, currently think it unlikely that the virus was actually synthesized in a Chinese lab.
However, even if the virus was not synthesized in the laboratory, but merely leaked from the Wuhan lab, China cannot escape its responsibility. More than 170 million people worldwide have been infected with COVID-19, and millions of people have died as a result. There have been more than 700 deaths in Taiwan alone, and it will be difficult for the international community to turn a blind eye to such major losses. When the immediate global health impact of the pandemic has subsided, whenever that may be, accountability and compensation will be the focus of future actions.
Since the end of February last year, we have seen China continue to use external propaganda to argue that, while the Wuhan pneumonia caused an epidemic in China, the virus itself did not necessarily originate in China. China has instead gone on the offensive, accusing the United States, Italy, Japan and other countries as being the origin of the virus. I do not know if this forceful rebuttal is because the Chinese government knows that its virus research institute is the instigator, attempting to smear the world with squid ink in order to escape culpability, but it is a possibility.
Perhaps we will never obtain concrete evidence of the origin of the Wuhan pneumonia virus, but Beijing’s refusal to behave in a transparent fashion is a problem in itself. With more and more indirect evidence providing strong indications of the probability of the laboratory leak theory, China’s response is appearing more and more hysterical. A summit of the seven major industrial countries and the US-EU summit agreed that the importance of an unfettered investigation of Wuhan pneumonia virus is of paramount concern. This is a question that Beijing cannot avoid, regardless of what it spends on propaganda and international PR. This ‘Chinese dream’ of purposeful ignorance by the Chinese government looks set to encounter an awakening period, one that may not have been foreseen by General Secretary of the Chinese Community Party Xi Jinping.
Dr. I-Chung Lai is a Taiwanese scholar of China studies and international relations. He is currently member of the executive board of the Taiwan Thinktank.