In a recent article for the Brownstone Institute, Dr. Pat Fidopiastis, a Professor of Microbiology at California Polytechnic State University, sets out “everything you need to know about the lab leak”. He argues that “there is a lot of evidence that strongly suggests SARS-CoV-2 is an engineered virus that spread from a Wuhan virology lab”.
His critique of the wet market theory and his defence of the claim that the virus is engineered are compelling, and succinctly summarise a large amount of important evidence. However, his defence of the claim that the virus leaked specifically from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) rests on much weaker foundations.
Dr. Fidopiastis advances two main arguments for a WIV leak. The first is based on the timing of when the Chinese produced a vaccine and the second on the apparent obfuscation and cover-up by the Chinese authorities. Neither of these arguments is persuasive.
On the vaccine, Dr. Fidopiastis asks whether we ought not to be “alarmed that a group led by Chinese military scientists applied for a COVID-19 vaccine patent in February 2020″. He compares this timing to the Pfizer vaccine, saying that it took the company “about nine months” to produce its vaccine based on a more efficient methodology.
[I]nexperienced Chinese military researchers somehow managed to produce a COVID-19 vaccine based on traditional, less efficient methodology, in a little over a month. For comparison, it took vaccine giant Pfizer about nine months to produce its vaccine based on more efficient mRNA methodology.
This is a false comparison, however. BioNTech designed its vaccine (which it would go on to develop with Pfizer) in a single day, on January 25th 2020. The nine months development cited by Dr. Fidopiastis includes the clinical trials. The basic design of a vaccine does not need to take long at all (BioNTech’s is reported to have taken “just a few hours”) and so there is no reason to infer foul play on the part of the Chinese group. It’s true that the Chinese vaccine used a more traditional technology that takes longer than an mRNA vaccine to design. However, even critics of the Chinese response to the pandemic have acknowledged that the claimed timeframe was achievable (albeit only if “everything went right”) as the team involved had substantial expertise and ongoing work developing similar SARS-related coronavirus vaccines.
The charge that the Chinese obfuscated and hid data relating to virus origins has more substance. Dr. Fidopiastis draws particular attention to the deletion of early sample sequences.
In perhaps the clearest evidence of a crime scene coverup, Chinese scientists quietly removed from public databases at least 13 genome sequences representing the earliest SARS-CoV-2 strains. There is no legitimate reason for doing that. Fortunately, the files had been backed up before they were removed, allowing Dr. Jesse Bloom to be the first to retrieve them from Google Cloud and analyse them.
This sounds damning. But it’s worth noting that, as Dr. Bloom acknowledges, the sequences had already been published and there was very little additional information in the deleted files themselves: “The information contained in the deleted sequencing data is largely present in Wang et al. (2020).” The deletions, which occurred in June 2020, are hardly good practice, and indeed may have been part of the later Chinese ban on sharing data with outside institutions that I will come to shortly. But if the Chinese were genuinely engaged in a cover-up of Covid origins, why publish them in the first place or leave them in the database for several months? Deleting 13 genome sequences in June is not great, but neither is it evidence of a concerted cover-up from the start. In addition, a U.S. Government official stated in June 2021 that a total of eight early sequence package submissions were removed from the U.S. database, but only one by the Chinese, the rest “predominantly” by U.S. researchers.
On the wider issue of Chinese obfuscation, Dr. Fidopiastis writes:
In stark contrast to 2003-2004, China’s early response to COVID-19 was ‘disappearing’ scientists and journalists, obfuscation, and deflecting blame for starting the pandemic away from themselves onto everything from the U.S. Army to imported frozen fish. This is exactly the type of behaviour you might expect from a guilty party.
But is it true that China’s “early response” was primarily one of obfuscation? No, it’s not. While China’s authoritarian instinct to control information did lead to some initial delays (and penalties for scientists such as Zhang Yongzhen, who published without permission), during January and February Chinese scientists and officials went to great efforts to research the origins of the virus and publish everything they knew about it. A standout example is the paper from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, first published on January 23rd 2020, which contained the genome of SARS-CoV-2 alongside that of RaTG13, the closest known relative of the new virus, a sample of which was stored at the WIV. The paper made no secret of the fact that the researchers found no evidence the virus had emerged naturally from RaTG13. These are hardly the actions of people trying to cover up their own involvement in creating the new virus in their lab, presumably from RaTG13. Chinese scientists and officials also searched extensively for the origin of the virus via testing tens of thousands of animals in the Wuhan market and elsewhere, and reported that they found no trace of the virus or a progenitor.
Dr. Fidopiastis’s implication that China was part of the U.S. lab leak cover-up is also notably at odds with the fact that almost all the evidence he cites challenging the wet market theory comes from China. For instance:
- “The WHO-China Report revealed that none of the 457 samples taken from 188 animals at the market tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.”
- “The WHO-China report concludes that many of the environmental samples reflect ‘contamination from cases’ (i.e., infected people).”
- “Those responsible for collecting the samples [the Chinese scientists and officials] concluded, ‘The market might have acted as an amplifier due to the high number of visitors every day.'”
The Chinese Government, for its part, seems to have had little interest in the wet market theory after February 2020, when it became clear that many of the earliest cases had no link to the market. In May 2020, the Chinese CDC confirmed that its investigations had found no evidence the virus came from the wet market. China, plainly, was not part of the U.S. effort to pin it on a natural spillover event there.
That said, China’s cooperation with origins investigations largely came to an end in the last week of February 2020. According to the Associated Press: “A China CDC lab notice on February 24th put in new approval processes for publication under ‘important instructions’ from Chinese President Xi Jinping. Other notices ordered CDC staff not to share any data, specimens or other information related to the coronavirus with outside institutions or individuals.”
It’s the obfuscation from this point onwards that many observers point to when inferring a Chinese cover-up. Certainly this obfuscation does not look good for China. But is it proof of a cover up? If it is, why was China cooperating up until that point, incriminating itself in the eyes of its accusers? It’s worth asking whether there was anything else going on at the time that might explain why China ceased cooperating at that point.
In late February the coronavirus was becoming highly politically charged as outbreaks began to be confirmed in Western countries and Italy imposed the first pilot lockdown on towns in Lombardy. Evidence suggesting the virus may be engineered, such as the discovery of the furin cleavage site in late January, and the failure to find evidence of a zoonotic origin were leading to growing suspicion of a lab origin. A Chinese paper even appeared in early February mooting the possibility of a leak from a Wuhan lab. Senior U.S. figures were pointing the finger at China, with Senator Tom Cotton stating on February 17th: “We don’t have evidence that this disease originated [in the Wuhan lab], but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says, and China right now is not giving evidence on that question at all.” This was untrue, of course: China had published numerous papers on the origin of the virus and clearly set out the relationship of the virus to its stored samples at the WIV.
Given that China’s cooperation up to this point had led to it being blamed, and its own investigations had failed to find evidence of a wet market or other zoonotic origin, the Chinese Government may have perceived that further cooperation would not be in its interest. Detractors will say this is because it was hiding something. But why then had it been cooperating up till then? Besides, as many have noted, there is no evidence the WIV was working on SARS-CoV-2 or a progenitor virus. As Dr. Edward C. Holmes has observed:
There’s no evidence for a genome sequence or isolate of a precursor virus at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Not from gene sequence databases, scientific publications, annual reports, student theses, social media or emails. Even the intelligence community has found nothing. Nothing. And there was no reason to keep any work on a SARS-CoV-2 ancestor secret before the pandemic.
Dr. Holmes goes on to argue in favour of the wet market theory, the evidence for which does not, as noted, withstand scrutiny. However, his observations about the lack of involvement of the WIV stand by themselves.
By March 13th 2020, China had begun explicitly blaming the U.S. army for creating the virus, and similar allegations continued in the following years, which its officials have attempted to back up with evidence.
For reasons that have never been clear, American scientists and officials have at no point cooperated with investigations of virus origins. Jeffrey Sachs disbanded the Covid origins taskforce which formed part of the Lancet Covid commission he was chairing, perceiving severe conflicts of interest and a basic lack of cooperation. The U.S. has consistently resisted undertaking any investigations into early spread, meaning we know next to nothing about the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in America in 2019, or about the virus’s relationship to any work being carried out by U.S. scientists. There can thus be little doubt that the U.S. is hiding something about the virus, though we don’t know what it is. It’s worth noting that in any published or proposed collaboration between American scientists and the WIV on coronaviruses, the engineering was always to be done in the U.S. – a point Chinese officials have also stressed.
As I have argued previously, a key fact pointing to potential U.S. responsibility for the virus is that sources within its security services have admitted to following the outbreak in November 2019 – a time when the Chinese themselves were not aware of it and there was in fact no detectable outbreak at all. Unless senior political figures in the U.S. will compel its scientists and officials to start talking, it’s hard to see how this possibility can be conclusively proved or ruled out. But on current evidence we have an engineered virus and a country capable of producing engineered viruses that was tracking that virus before it was detectable and is refusing to cooperate with investigations. The suspicions are not going away.
This is the fifth in a series of posts on the origins of the virus and the potential role of the United States in creating it. The previous posts can be found here:
- “How Did U.S. Intelligence Spot the Virus in Wuhan Weeks Before China?” – Looks at what the U.S. knew and when.
- “U.S. Accidentally Proves It Could Not Have Spotted the Virus in China in November 2019” – Revisits the Harvard study that claimed to back up the claims of U.S. intelligence to have detected the outbreak in November 2019.
- “U.S. Government Identified as Original Source of Lab Leak Theory. What’s Really Going On?” – Unpicks the activity of U.S. intelligence and Government officials in relation to the lab leak theory.
- “Why the Lab Leak Theory is Almost Certainly False” – Makes the case against a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.