The case that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, leaked from a Chinese lab seems, on first sight, to be robust.
After all, it first appeared in close proximity to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a major lab that was carrying out research on just such viruses.
Furthermore, it’s plain that the virus is not of natural origin.
The Chinese authorities have confirmed that none of the animal reservoirs that a natural spillover event would require have been found, either in the Huanan wet market in Wuhan or elsewhere, despite wide and extensive testing.
The virus was also already well-adapted to humans in its earliest recorded cases, with no signs of the early genetic diversity that such adaptation would produce.
In addition, the virus is unusually contagious by virtue of having, among other things, a furin cleavage site. This feature has not been seen in SARS-like viruses before, but is often added by scientists in the lab to increase infectiousness.
So, it’s clearly a lab-engineered virus, and it first emerged in a city with a major lab working on such viruses. The conclusion seems inescapable: the virus leaked from the lab, as viruses do from time to time.
There’s just one problem with this theory: there is no real evidence to support it. After more than three years, no hard evidence has appeared that the virus escaped from the WIV.
There is no evidence, for instance, that the WIV held samples of SARS-CoV-2 or had been conducting experiments which would have led to its creation.
The virus known to be most similar to it is (or was at the time) RaTG13. This we know, however, because the WIV team themselves told us about it in their initial paper of January 23rd 2020, where they stated they had a sample of it and compared the two virus genomes.
Importantly, no published paper exists in which RaTG13 was reported to be being manipulated in the WIV. Furthermore, nobody, including from the U.S. Intelligence Community, has claimed to have evidence researchers were carrying out such work there.
There was, in 2015, a paper involving WIV researchers that detailed the addition of a furin cleavage site to a SARS-like virus. However, the work was done in the U.S., and the virus (SL-SHC014-MA15) was very different to SARS-CoV-2, by 5,000 nucleotides, which is around 15%.
So, there is no direct evidence the WIV was working on SARS-CoV-2 or a precursor virus. How, then, do lab leak proponents build their case? Largely by pointing to the alleged tell-tale behaviour of leading WIV researcher Dr. Shi Zhengli.
Matt Ridley and Alina Chan, for example, argue that Shi’s failure to disclose in early 2020 the link between RaTG13 and a severe pneumonia in six miners in Mojiang in 2013 is highly suspicious. However, it’s possible it was just overlooked. After all, Shi and her team were not slow to publish the genome of RaTG13 alongside that of SARS-CoV-2 and draw attention to their similarity, doing so on January 23rd 2020. Given the constraints of the authoritarian secrecy of the Chinese state, there is no sign they were trying to hide anything specifically about RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2.
It’s also been claimed that the first thing Shi did on December 30th 2019, on learning about the virus, was “to alter WIV computer databases of novel coronaviruses used by the world’s virologists for research to make it more difficult to search for which coronaviruses she had in her building”. This appears to be a reference to the altering of ‘key words’ in the WIV database on or before December 30th. The reason this was done is unclear, but it should be noted that the database had already been inaccessible to the public for months by that point. Whatever the explanation, it’s relevant that shortly afterwards Shi published her paper setting out how closely related SARS-CoV-2 is to one of the samples held in her laboratory, so again, she does not appear to be hiding anything.
The WIV did take its virus database offline on September 12th 2019. The Chinese later said this was due to hacking attempts – which if true raises the question of who was hacking it and why. In the 2022 Covid origins report from the U.S. Senate, the U.S. said the removal of the database was linked to a political inspection of some kind – which could be connected with a hacking attempt. Either way, this occurred months before the pandemic and there’s no evidence the Chinese took the action because they were aware of a virus having escaped or anything like that.
In fact, there’s no evidence the Chinese were aware of the outbreak at all before December. U.S. intelligence has stated it does not have evidence the Chinese were aware of it before then, and this is consistent with how the Chinese themselves behaved.
After all, if the Chinese authorities knew a highly infectious engineered virus from their lab was on the loose, why did they spend weeks in January not taking any countermeasures, while investigating whether it spread between humans?
And why did Shi Zhengli publish the virus genome alongside the RaTG13 genome and point out there was no evidence of a recombination event in SARS-CoV-2 (i.e., there was no indication it had been produced naturally from RaTG13 combining in a host with another virus), if she knew that they had in fact created the virus from RaTG13 in their lab?
It’s been claimed that the WIV shut down for two weeks in October, the implication being that this could be the leak event. However, the claim is based only on an unpublished private analysis of mobile phone use that has never been further corroborated. It was not mentioned in the Senate Covid origins report.
The Senate report did list what it claimed was evidence of safety issues at the WIV. However, the details are vague, and the report also makes clear that all of the information included was already in the public domain.
Significantly, a Western researcher, Dr. Danielle Anderson, has said she was working at the WIV during the period in question, up to November 2019, and did not witness or hear about any major concerns or interventions relating to safety or a possible leak.
So, the problem with the lab leak theory can be summarised as follows: there is no evidence the WIV was working on SARS-CoV-2 or a precursor to it, and it’s clear the Chinese did not behave in December and January as you would expect if they already knew a highly infectious engineered virus from their lab was on the loose. Pointing the finger at the behaviour of Dr. Shi Zhengli in the early weeks as supposedly suspicious backfires because it is clear that she swiftly published the virus genome alongside that of RaTG13 and drew attention to the similarities and the fact that it is unlikely the novel virus emerged naturally from the sampled virus.
I won’t say the theory is certainly false. Maybe WIV researchers actually were undertaking these experiments but for some reason had failed to record them anywhere. And maybe there are understandable reasons they would let the virus rip for a few weeks while pretending not to know it was spreading, as well as reasons they would choose to be transparent about the virus’s close relationship with a sample they held and the evidence it did not emerge naturally from it.
But I can’t think of any.
So where did this engineered virus come from, and why did it first appear in Wuhan?
As I have written previously, a major clue may be the fact that multiple U.S. intelligence sources have stated they were following the outbreak in China from November 2019. This is despite China not being aware of the outbreak at that point (U.S. intelligence has even said as much), and there being no detectable signal of such an outbreak.
The evidence above against a WIV lab leak further adds to the case that the Chinese may have had nothing to do with this engineered virus. It’s becoming increasingly hard to escape the conclusion that the people responsible for the virus may be the same ones who already knew it was there.
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