The Lancet COVID-19 Commission report, published Wednesday, has suggested the virus may have leaked from a laboratory in the United States and implies that U.S. Government agencies may be covering it up.
The Telegraph reports on this story – though its coverage is by the Global Health Security team, a Gates-funded initiative, and the line taken is one of trying to discredit the claims and those involved. Sarah Newey writes:
The Lancet is facing a backlash after a major COVID-19 Commission report suggested the disease may have leaked from a laboratory in the United States.
Published on Wednesday, the paper said it remains “feasible” that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from either a natural spillover or a laboratory incident, and called for the introduction of more safeguards to reduce the risk of either eventuality.
But the report, the result of two years of work, also suggested American researchers could be culpable. As well as mentioning facilities in Wuhan, it noted that “independent researchers have not yet investigated” U.S. labs, and said the National Institutes of Health has “resisted disclosing details” of its work.
The report comes as controversy swirls the commission chair, the economist Prof Jeffrey Sachs.
At a conference in Madrid earlier this year, he said he was “pretty convinced” that SARS-CoV-2 “came out of a U.S. lab of biotechnology, not out of nature” – a claim that has since been widely promoted by Chinese diplomats.
In August, Prof Sachs also appeared on a podcast hosted by Robert F Kennedy, Jr. – one of the world’s most prominent anti-vaccine commentators – to discuss his beliefs, just days after Instagram and Facebook suspended an account led by Mr. Kennedy for repeatedly sharing what the platforms said was Covid misinformation, especially around vaccines.
Experts said Prof Sachs actions have overshadowed much of the robust research and recommendations within the 58-page report, and criticised the Lancet for resisting calls to remove him.
“Sachs’ appearance on RFK Jr.’s podcast… undermines the seriousness of the Lancet Commission’s mission to the point of completely negating it,” said Prof Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Canada.
“This may be one of the Lancet’s most shameful moments regarding its role as a steward and leader in communicating crucial findings about science and medicine,” she said, adding that she was “pretty shocked at how flagrantly” the report ignores key evidence on Covid origins.
Prof David Robertson, of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Virus Research, added: “It’s really disappointing to see such a potentially influential report contributing to further misinformation on such an important topic.”
“It’s true we’ve details to understand on the side of natural origins, for example the exact intermediate species involved, but that doesn’t mean there’s… any basis to the wild speculation that U.S. labs were involved,” he added.
When approached by the Telegraph, Prof Sachs stood by his previous comments, adding that he personally “oversaw this part of the work” on the emergence of SARS-CoV-2. Last summer he disbanded an initial task force led by Dr. Peter Daszak amid concerns it was too biased towards the natural origin hypothesis.
It was never re-formed, but Prof Sachs said commissioners had “consulted widely and met with a number of scientists”.
“Everybody has signed off on the final text. The question of a possible laboratory release mostly involves the question of U.S.-China joint work that was underway on SARS-like viruses,” he said.
But Prof Peter Hotez, a member of the Lancet Commission and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, said there had been “diverse views” and that he had “pushed hard on removing” mention of U.S. labs in the report because it was “a distraction”.
He added that he had been “speechless” when Prof Sachs appeared on Mr Kennedy’s podcast.
Prof Hotez may well have pressed hard to remove any mention of U.S. lab involvement, but that may be because it is well-documented that he is exactly one of the U.S. researchers who has been heavily involved in gain-of-function research, and is presumably being about as transparent about what exactly he got up to as the rest of them.
Here is the relevant section from the Lancet Commission report, which I have included in full as it is unusually balanced and fair.
The origins of SARS-CoV-2
The proximal origins of SARS-CoV-2 are still not known. Identifying these origins would provide greater clarity into not only the causes of the current pandemic but also vulnerabilities to future outbreaks and strategies to prevent them. We concur with the position of 18 leading scientists who wrote in Science magazine in May, 2021: “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.” As a group of 16 scientists communicated in the Lancet in October, 2021: “Overwhelming evidence for either a zoonotic or research-related origin is lacking: the jury is still out.” More than two years into the pandemic, the search for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 remains incomplete and inconclusive. Independent experts consulted by the Lancet COVID-19 Commission shared the view that hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers are in play and need further investigation.
Although the proximal origins are unknown, SARS-CoV-2 is thought to derive from a bat SARS-CoV-related coronavirus with a furin cleavage site that enhances the capacity of the virus to infect human cells. Furin cleavage sites are found naturally in almost every family of coronavirus, although they have not been observed in other SARS-related coronaviruses (subgenus Sarbecoronavirus). Since 2006, following the emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome, furin cleavage sites have also been the subject of laboratory manipulation, including their insertion into coronavirus spike proteins. The presence of the furin cleavage site in SARS-CoV-2 therefore does not by itself identify the proximal origin of the virus, whether natural or laboratory. Two main possible pathways of emergence have been identified. The first is that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from a natural spillover event – that is, from a non-research-related zoonotic transmission of the virus from an animal to a human, and thereafter from human to human. The second is that the virus emerged from research-related activities, with three possible research-related pathways: the infection of a researcher in the field while collecting samples, the infection of a researcher in the laboratory while studying viruses collected in their natural habitat, and the infection of a researcher in the laboratory while studying viruses that have been genetically manipulated. Because both the pathways of natural transmission and of research-related transmission are feasible, preventing the emergence of future pandemic pathogens must include two distinct strategies: the prevention of natural (zoonotic) transmission and the prevention of research-related spillovers. Each of these strategies requires specific actions.
The first pathway of transmission risk is natural spillover. Most epidemics in history have involved the passage of a pathogen from an animal host to humans, followed by human-to-human transmission. For example, the proximal source of SARS-CoV, the virus that led to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003-04, was likely to have been exotic animals in a live animal market in Guangdong, China – most probably palm civets (Paguma larvata) and perhaps raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides). The proximal reservoir of MERS-CoV, the virus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, is dromedary camels (Camelus dromedarius). In both cases, bats serve as the primary evolutionary source of the virus. Because both severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome result from natural spillovers of betacoronaviruses, the outbreaks of these diseases gave rise to concerns that future such spillovers would occur. SARS-CoV-2 might well be such an instance, especially given findings of SARS-CoV-2-like viruses in bats across east Asia. The dangers of zoonotic spillovers are increased by human encroachments into the habitats of animals that carry novel pathogens, such as through forest clearing, the handling of exotic animals in the illicit trade of wild species, in farms that raise domestic animals, and in food markets that sell and slaughter live animals.
The two subpathways for a natural spillover are direct bat-to-human transmission and transmission from bat to intermediate host to human. It is possible that the virus was passed directly from bats to humans because there are bat coronaviruses that can bind to human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 and thereby infect humans without adaptation. Bats known to harbour these viruses are present across east Asia, including in central China. The other natural pathway is transmission from bats to an intermediate host mammal and then to a human. This pathway is plausible because many of the earliest known cases of COVID-19 in humans in Wuhan are associated with the Huanan Seafood Market, and this market sold animals such as raccoon dogs that are known to be susceptible to SARS-related coronaviruses. However, as no animals in the market tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, it is not known whether the COVID-19 cases associated with this market indicate the actual proximal origin of the virus or a secondary outbreak brought by humans to the marketplace. Because the first emergence of the virus could well have been in November 2019, or even earlier, the cases associated with the Huanan Seafood Market in mid-December 2019 could well indicate a human-to-human amplifier event rather than the original animal-to-human spillover. Despite the testing of more than 80,000 samples from a range of wild and farm animal species in China collected between 2015 and March, 2020, no cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection have been identified. Because betacoronaviruses related to SARS-CoV-2 are found across east Asia the search for a natural source of SARS-CoV-2 should continue with high focus and intensity, as the eventual discovery of a natural reservoir of the virus might occur only after years of searching, and quite possibly outside of China.
The second possible pathway is a research-related or laboratory-associated release of the pathogen. Such a pathway could have involved a researcher becoming infected in the field or in the laboratory with a natural virus, or becoming infected in the laboratory with a genetically manipulated virus. Advances in biotechnology in the past two decades have made it possible to create new and highly dangerous pathogens through genetic manipulation – for example, creating chimeric viruses by combining the genetic material of more than one viral pathogen, or mutant viruses through the deliberate insertion of a furin cleavage site. The bioengineering of SARS-CoV-like viruses for the study and testing of potential drugs and vaccines advanced substantially after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in the 2000s. Laboratory experiments included the creation of novel viruses (e.g. so-called consensus viruses that average the genetic code across a set of natural viruses), the mutation of viruses (such as through the insertion of a furin cleavage site), the creation of chimeric viruses, and the serial passaging of viruses through cell cultures to test their transmissibility, virulence, immunogenicity, and host tropism. Research that can increase the transmissibility and virulence of pathogens is called gain-of-function research of concern, although which specific experiments should fall into this category is contested by scientists. As laboratory technologies have rapidly advanced, many scientists have warned of the increasing risks of undersupervised and under-regulated genetic manipulation of SARS-CoV-like viruses and other potential pandemic pathogens. There is currently no system for the global monitoring and regulation of gain-of-function research of concern.
As of the time of publication of this report, all three research-associated hypotheses are still plausible: infection in the field, infection with a natural virus in the laboratory, and infection with a manipulated virus in the laboratory. No independent, transparent, and science-based investigation has been carried out regarding the bioengineering of SARS-like viruses that was underway before the outbreak of COVID-19. The laboratory notebooks, databases, email records, and samples of institutions involved in such research have not been made available to independent researchers. Independent researchers have not yet investigated the U.S. laboratories engaged in the laboratory manipulation of SARS-CoV-like viruses, nor have they investigated the details of the laboratory research that had been underway in Wuhan. Moreover, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has resisted disclosing details of the research on SARS-CoV-related viruses that it had been supporting, providing extensively redacted information only as required by Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.
In brief, there are many potential proximal origins of SARS-CoV-2, but there is still a shortfall of independent, scientific, and collaborative work on the issue. The search for the origins of the virus requires unbiased, independent, transparent, and rigorous work by international teams in the fields of virology, epidemiology, bioinformatics, and other related fields, and supported by all governments.
Apart from this section on origins, though, the rest of the report is a Zero Covid fantasy which seeks to normalise suppression strategies and lambasts anyone who dared object to what it refers to, in Orwellian terms, as “basic public health measures”.
In line with the Chinese Government line, the report claims that the Western Pacific region successfully suppressed the virus while waiting for a vaccine by its timely and robust responses, despite there being no real evidence for that at all. No country in the region, regardless of its response, suffered a large wave until Omicron. The reasons for this are still not clear, but they are likely to be due to structural features of the region (such as genetics, prior immunity or the health of the population) rather than related to policy responses. The fact that the only large pre-Omicron outbreak in the region was among migrant workers in Singapore supports this suggestion. The report does, however, imply criticism of China for continuing suppression in the post-vaccination, Omicron era.
Europe and the Americas are criticised for failing to implement suppression strategies, this being regarded as the reason they had much larger and deadlier outbreaks – again, ignoring the wealth of evidence that policy responses had at best only small impacts on outcomes. “The high mortality rate of the region of the Americas reflects the failures of this region to take concrete measures to suppress the epidemic,” the authors write. Yet in the same paragraph they note that “evidence suggests that the case ascertainment rate (defined as the number of confirmed new infections relative to the number of actual new infections) was much less than 20% in the first half of 2020 – meaning that viral transmission increased rapidly during February and March 2020, with little awareness by authorities and the public until mid-to-late March.” These statements are contradictory of course: if transmission increased rapidly during February and March then the virus was already widespread so suppression would be futile. Indeed, elsewhere the report acknowledges that the virus had been circulating since at least November and likely earlier. The notion that East Asian countries successfully suppressed the arrival of a novel virus while Western countries failed to do so is clearly a myth based on a mistaken understanding of when the virus first emerged and spread.
Western nations adopted strict suppression measures in March 2020 no less than South East Asian countries, often more so. The report suggests these failed because “the focus was on flattening the curve rather than on ultimately suppressing the pandemic”, as though the motive made a difference to how well they worked. The report also claims the “relaxing of control measures led to another wave of infections in countries across Europe in September 2020”. But, again, the waves affected countries and regions regardless of what measures they implemented or how long and strict their lockdowns were. The U.K. implemented local restrictions throughout the summer and autumn of 2020 and no differences in outcomes could be observed. No, the real lesson from South East Asia is that the apparent early success of China’s lockdowns and South Korea’s contact tracing falsely convinced the West that these policies were the reasons for those countries’ small outbreaks, leaving Western governments perplexed as to why such policies did not work the same magic here.
The report introduction summarises 10 “failures of international cooperation”, the result of which was that “too many governments have failed to adhere to basic norms of institutional rationality and transparency, too many people – often influenced by misinformation – have disrespected and protested against basic public health precautions, and the world’s major powers have failed to collaborate to control the pandemic”.
Disrespected and protested against “basic public health precautions” like closing schools and businesses for months on end and incarcerating people in their homes by law? How dare they. Don’t they know their place?
The 10 “failures” listed include the “lack of coordination among countries regarding suppression strategies” and “costly delays in… implementing appropriate measures at national and global levels to slow the spread of the virus”, which assume suppression is effective and correct.
They also include the “failure to combat systematic disinformation”. The main section on “disinformation” is strongly worded, with its description of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as “dangerous or experimental treatments” seeming to indicate capture by pharmaceutical interests.
Some media outlets erroneously promoted dangerous or experimental treatments, such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, resulting in unnecessary visits to hospital emergency departments and shortages of such medications for people with legitimate needs
Despite including among the failures “costly delays in acknowledging the crucial airborne exposure pathway of SARS-CoV-2”, and being clear that the “WHO was slow to acknowledge the airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2, and was therefore slow to emphasise the range of measures needed to limit indoor transmission”, it claims the “WHO is the leading international authority on health and should be supported by its member states and by other UN agencies to lead the global response to a health crisis”. It criticises “various political leaders” that they “publicly undermined WHO, disseminated campaigns against it and its advice, and even tried to halt its funding”. So which is it? The WHO was dangerously wrong, but dangerous people dangerously undermined it? The report can’t make up its mind.
Thus despite the section on Covid origins being unusually and refreshingly honest, the rest of the report is a depressing rehash of all the myths of the official narrative about lockdowns, suppression, repurposed treatment and “disinformation”. It indulges in the now routine demonisation of those who criticise and protest the shutting down of their lives over a virus that is no threat to them, and does so despite itself criticising the WHO and implying that authorities and researchers are covering up crucial information about Covid origins. It makes no sense, but then the pandemic response never has.
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