What are we to make of the new claims from the Sunday Times, sourced from unnamed “U.S. investigators”, that scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) were secretly working with China’s military on bioweapons and vaccines that led to the creation – and inadvertent leaking – of the COVID-19 virus?
The U.S. investigators admit there is no published information on this WIV work, but say that’s because it was secret military research. The Sunday Times claims that the lab stopped making its findings public in 2016 after it discovered a new type of coronavirus in a mineshaft in Mojiang in Yunnan province where people had died from symptoms similar to SARS.
“The trail of papers starts to go dark,” one of the U.S. investigators told the newspaper. “That’s exactly when the classified programme kicked off. My view is that the reason Mojiang was covered up was due to military secrecy related to [the army’s] pursuit of dual-use capabilities in virological biological weapons and vaccines.”
The investigators are said to believe the classified programme was to make the mineshaft viruses more infectious to humans and may have led to the creation of the COVID-19 virus, which then leaked.
“It has become increasingly clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was involved in the creation, promulgation and cover-up of the COVID-19 pandemic,” one of the investigators said.
Despite the big fanfare over this report there doesn’t appear to be anything new in it. The heavy reliance on mysterious “U.S. investigators” also tells us we should expect U.S. intelligence to be behind this information, and that it is likely to be a ‘limited hangout’ telling us what (and only what) U.S. security services want us to hear.
It is of course possible, in theory, that the WIV and Chinese military were secretly working on these viruses, and that one leaked – there is nothing inherently implausible about such a scenario. But here’s why I’m not convinced.
The biggest problem is the behaviour of WIV personnel and Chinese officials in January 2020, which was completely at odds with the idea that they were aware that one of their secret ‘bioweapon’ viruses had escaped into the human population.
For a start, China infamously spent those first weeks playing down the threat from the new virus, censuring anyone who tried to spread alarm and saying it wasn’t even sure if it was spreading between humans. Its officials only acknowledged human-to-human transmission and started implementing countermeasures on or around January 23rd 2020, when they locked down Wuhan. If they actually knew that this virus was one of their escaped bioweapons, why would they do that? It makes little sense.
China and the WIV are often accused of covering up the virus. And indeed, since February 2020 the Chinese have been largely uncooperative with investigations into the origin of COVID-19 (though they have released some studies, on their own terms). But back in January 2020 it was a different story. In particular, senior WIV researcher Shi Zhengli and colleagues published on January 23rd a paper which included the genetic sequence of the new virus alongside that of its closest known relative, RaTG13 – the Mojiang mine virus referred to by the U.S. investigators – which was held by the WIV. They did not hide the closeness of the relationship between the two viruses:
We then found [that] a short [RNA-dependent RNA polymerase] region from a bat coronavirus termed BatCoV RaTG13 which we previously detected in Rhinolophus affinis from Yunnan Province showed high sequence identity to [the new coronavirus] nCoV-2019. We did full-length sequencing to this RNA sample. Simplot analysis showed that nCoV-2019 was highly similar throughout the genome to RaTG13 with 96.2% overall genome sequence identity. The phylogenetic analysis also showed that RaTG13 is the closest relative of the nCoV-2019 and form a distinct lineage from other [SARS-like coronaviruses]. The receptor binding protein spike (S) gene was highly divergent to other [coronaviruses], with less than 75% [nucleotide] sequence identity to all previously described [SARS-like coronaviruses] except a 93.1% [nucleotide] identity to RaTG13.
In its peer-reviewed form, published in Nature about a week later, the paper stated clearly that it did not appear that the new virus had emerged naturally from RaTG13: “No evidence for recombination events was detected in the genome.”
If this is supposed to be a cover-up of the close but non-natural relationship between the new virus and the sample held by the WIV then it has to be the worst one ever. I just cannot see what part this paper is supposed to have played in a cover-up, or how it fits with the idea that the WIV was aware that the new virus was one of its escaped bioweapons.
We should also note that the WIV and China did not continue to try to claim the virus originated from the Huanan wet market beyond a brief period in January 2020 when it looked like a possibility. It was U.S. scientists and officials who pushed that theory well past its sell-by-date, as part of their efforts to suppress the lab leak theory.
The nub of it is this. Nothing that has yet been released by Western intelligence proves that the Chinese secretly knew that SARS-CoV-2 was one of their escaped bioweapons. Meanwhile, Chinese actions in January 2020 imply the opposite, that they did not secretly know this was one of their leaked bioweapons. If they did, they would never have published ‘Discovery of a novel coronavirus associated with the recent pneumonia outbreak in humans and its potential bat origin‘.
On the other hand, there have been multiple reports from U.S. intelligence sources – though these have now been denied – that they were following the outbreak in China as early as November 2019 and were already concerned then.
Why were U.S. officials concerned in November about an outbreak that the Chinese did not appear concerned about even in January? Why have U.S. scientists always refused to reveal their own involvement in working with viruses like SARS-CoV-2, while the WIV, at least in January 2020, published detailed information about the new virus’s relationship to its sampled viruses?
These are the questions I’d really like answers to. But somehow I doubt a report originating from “U.S. investigators” is going to tell me.
Stop Press: We asked Matt Ridley, co-author with Alina Chan of Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, to respond to some of the points Will made and he sent us this:
Will makes some decent points but I think he is attacking a straw man mostly – namely that the WIV staff knew they had leaked a bioweapon, which is not quite what the Sunday Times story says. The stronger argument is that they were working on a group of viruses that they had not published – they even removed a mention of them from a thesis by Ping Yu when they published it in 2019 – but which had been in their possession since 2013 – 4991/RaTG13 being one of them. When they realised that the cause of the outbreak was from this group, they had no option but to admit that the group existed because a part of 4991’s genome had been uploaded to international databases already, so they changed the name and made no mention of where it had been found or the furin cleavage site, etc. Damage control at a time when it looked like it would be a short outbreak of no global significance. It’s also possible that Shi was unaware of other work – possibly with military involvement – so she innocently said: “Oh look, this new virus is close to one we found a few years back.” So she kind of blew the secrecy unintentionally. WIV was definitely dual-use, by the way.
In other words, the evidence for a lab leak is very strong. The evidence it came out of an unpublished project: strong. The evidence that it was a secret military project: fairly weak. The evidence that it was a bioweapon, very weak.
This is why in our book we were so careful not to get into speculation but just lay out what we knew. These kind of arguments based on partial information can be frustrating.
The other key point is that these U.S. leaks came just before the deadline (next Sunday) for the release of the intelligence that the U.S. Government holds about this whole issue, as ordered by a recent act of congress. So it’s probable that there’s a Sinophile rearguard action within the administration to try to redact more stuff, and this is from disgruntled agents who disagree… Next week could be interesting.
Stop Press 2: Will responds:
I’m grateful to Matt for addressing my arguments, though I’m not fully convinced by what he says (while agreeing that arguments based on partial information are frustrating). He suggests the Discovery paper may be “Damage control at a time when it looked like it would be a short outbreak of no global significance”, yet this was the same moment they locked down Wuhan, suggesting they were now highly concerned. He also suggests, instead, that “[Shi Zhengli] kind of blew the secrecy unintentionally”, though this does not seem plausible as her paper would have been military and Government vetted.
I think there is an implication from many that the Chinese knew it was an escaped bioweapon all along, as per the quote from the U.S. investigator: “My view is that the reason Mojiang was covered up was due to military secrecy related to [the army’s] pursuit of dual-use capabilities in virological biological weapons and vaccines. … It has become increasingly clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was involved in the creation, promulgation and cover-up of the COVID-19 pandemic.” So I don’t think my argument is a straw man. The point about the publication of the Discovery paper being the worst cover-up ever also applies whether the claim is that they knew all along or only spotted the link with their bioweapon research during January.
I agree that next week’s releases should be interesting.