Wuhan Institute of Virology

Lab Leak Hypothesis, Once Dismissed as ‘Conspiracy Theory’, Now Believed by Downing Street

A lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is now considered the most likely origin of the Covid pandemic “behind closed doors” in the Government, it has been claimed. Sarah Knapton, the Telegraph‘s Science Editor, has more.

On Monday, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the U.K. biosecurity strategy would be refreshed to protect against “natural zoonosis and laboratory leaks”, in a public acknowledgement of the threat from insecure research facilities.

There is mounting suspicion that COVID-19 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology which had been collecting and experimenting on dangerous bat coronaviruses in the years before the virus first emerged in the city.

The Government has asked for evidence before drafting a new biosecurity strategy, which will deal with “accidental release and dual-use research of concern, where life science research is capable of being misapplied to do harm”.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an expert on chemical and biological counter-terrorism and former British Army officer, has submitted evidence for the strategy.

He said: “I think the official view [within Government] is that it is as likely as anything else to have caused the pandemic. A lot of people like myself think it is more likely. I think attitudes have changed a little bit. The zoonotic transfer theory just didn’t make sense.

“There is a huge amount of concern about coming out publicly, but behind closed doors most people think it’s a lab leak. And they are coming round to the fact that even if they don’t agree with that, they must accept it’s likely, and they must make sure the policies are in place to stop it.”

He added: “My view, that I’ve put to the Government already, is that we cannot afford emotionally, physically or financially, to go through another pandemic. We must now get on the front foot.”

Lab leaks are fairly common, with smallpox, swine flu, anthrax, foot and mouth disease, and the original Sars virus all known to have escaped from facilities in recent decades. In Britain, there have been more than 100 safety breaches at labs handling dangerous pathogens over the past 15 years.

Worth reading in full.

What Really Happened at the Start of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

At this two-year point in the pandemic, I’ve been revisiting what happened at the start to get a clearer idea of how things unfolded and whether what happened then can tell us anything useful about the virus. Here’s what we know.

In the last week of December 2019, a doctor in Wuhan noticed unusual pneumonia in six patients who all tested positive for a new coronavirus. We can surmise that to have hospitalised six unconnected people (not all linked to the Huanan market), the new virus must have been circulating in Wuhan for some weeks. Internal reporting of this cluster led to the first public message of a suspected pneumonia outbreak, with precautions advised, from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on December 31st. At this point there were just 27 identified cases in hospital, seven of them serious – which wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary for winter.

Despite this inauspicious start, Hubei province went on (according to official data) to have a deadly outbreak, though one that was notably slower burning and milder than later Covid outbreaks elsewhere. It totalled around 4,500 deaths out of a population of 57 million people, making it around a tenth as deadly as the first wave in the U.K., and peaked at 143 reported daily deaths on February 19th (suggesting the infection peak was late January). This doesn’t seem a particularly high death toll for a winter respiratory virus.

Notably, this initial deadly outbreak was very localised. Hubei was locked down on January 23rd, but prior to that the virus circulated freely for weeks, while millions of people left the province ahead of the lockdown. Despite this, no other province in China suffered a deadly outbreak (see below). While we might be inclined to question China’s official data, it fits with what happened in neighbouring countries – no other country in the region suffered a deadly outbreak of the new virus. South Korea’s outbreak peaked at six reported daily deaths on March 30th, Japan’s (which was the worst in the region) at 24 on May 1st.

Ex-MI6 Chief Richard Dearlove says Britain’s Science Sector has Been Compromised by “Malign Chinese Communist Influence”

The U.K.’s science sector has been compromised by a “malign Chinese communist influence” and, for that reason, parroted China’s party line that Covid did not leak from a lab in Wuhan, according to an ex-MI6 chief. MailOnline has more.

Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the intelligence service from 1999 to 2004, believes many universities in the U.K. have become dependent on Chinese funding over the past two decades.

While urging institutions to take “greater steps to protect intellectual property”, he expressed concern over the extent to which Britain echoed a potential ‘information’ campaign from China following the coronavirus outbreak in December 2019.

Since China alerted the world to a mysterious virus circulating in Wuhan in December 2019, a debate has been raging over its true source.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which specialises in manipulating dangerous coronaviruses, is the high-security laboratory at the centre of an alleged cover-up.

Sir Richard, 76, told a podcast for the Australian: “In the future, we will have to take very careful steps to control this in terms of registering where Chinese research students go and what their interests are, and take greater steps to protect intellectual property in our universities, particularly in areas of sensitive research.”

He added: “I’m pretty sure that the Chinese after the outbreak in Wuhan, and they’re very good at doing this, sat down and developed their own information campaign and this was almost certainly driven by the Ministry of State Security and run out of the PRC leadership to make sure that there was ­suppression of any suggestion that their narrative was not the correct one,” Sir Richard said in the podcast.

“What concerns me and what worries me is the extent to which the West went along with this.”

Worth reading in full.

“Notable, Significant and Abnormal” Purchases of PCR Lab Equipment in Wuhan, Summer 2019

Researchers have uncovered “notable, significant and abnormal” purchases of PCR lab equipment in Wuhan in the summer of 2019, suggesting that Covid was spreading “virulently” in the city far earlier than was previously believed. The Telegraph has the story.

Analysts trawled through PCR procurement contracts in Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the capital, and found spending had almost doubled on the previous year.

The study by Internet 2.0, a cyber security consultancy that specialises in examining data from China, says: “We have come to the conclusion that, based on the data analysed, it suggests the virus was highly likely to be spreading virulently in Wuhan, China, as early as the summer of 2019 and definitely by the autumn.”

The data and findings have been passed to U.S. Government officials amid growing speculation that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan and its existence was covered up for months.

According to the more accepted version of events, Covid originated in a “wet market” selling live animals in Wuhan at the beginning of December.

But the new report claims spending on PCR equipment – standard kit in laboratories for amplifying small amounts of DNA and critical in tracking Covid – in Hubei Province increased to £7.8 million in 2019 from £4 million the year before and £3.3 million in 2017.

The total 2019 contract value, according to Internet 2.0, was higher than the previous two years put together. The report also found the number of PCR contracts increased from 89 in 2018 to 135.

The report’s authors claim the growth in spending was accounted for by contracts at four main institutions – the Chinese Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Hubei province, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Wuhan University of Science and Technology and a military hospital in Wuhan. The report says this is of huge importance because of the bodies’ roles in disease control and prevention.

The report alleges that the “significant increase in spending” was noticed from the summer of 2019, beginning as early as May – seven months before public health officials in China notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) that a mysterious illness was spreading through Wuhan.

The report concludes: “We assess with high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the WHO about Covid.”

Worth reading in full.

Government Hides Details of Key Conversation between Leading Scientists on Covid’s Origins

Attempts to see details of a key email conversation between leading scientists – including Sir Patrick Vallance and Anthony Fauci – on the origins of Covid have been quashed by the British Government which has redacted page after page with thick black lines, begging the question: “What are they hiding?” The Mail on Sunday has the story.

[The MoS] used Freedom of Information rules to obtain a cache of 32 emails about a secretive teleconference between British and American health officials held early in the pandemic.

But officials blacked out almost every word before releasing the crucial documents.

Before this discussion, several of the world’s most influential experts believed the new virus most likely came from a laboratory – but days later, the scientists began dismissing such scenarios as “implausible” and branding them conspiracy theories.

The critical call is at the centre of concerns that the scientific establishment tried to stifle debate on the pandemic’s origins, as damning new evidence emerges of U.S. ties to high-risk research on bat viruses in Wuhan, where the first cases emerged in late 2019.

The MoS requested emails, minutes and notes on the call between Sir Patrick Vallance – Britain’s Chief Scientific Adviser – and its organisers Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust medical charity, and Anthony Fauci, the U.S. infectious diseases expert and presidential adviser.

Yet when the documents were released they had page after page redacted with thick lines of black ink by Whitehall officials. Even the names of experts copied in on discussions were blocked – and exchanges as trivial as one Edinburgh biologist’s “thank you” for being invited – leaving only a few basic details about the call visible.

The lines left intact include a demand for the discussions, involving 13 participants around the world, to be conducted in “total confidence”, and an intriguing email line suggesting “we need to talk about the backbone too, not just the insert”.

That was possibly sent by Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, a member of the World Health Organisation team that produced a widely criticised report into Covid’s origins.

Such absurd state secrecy is highly contemptuous towards taxpayers and to a world that wants to know what caused this devastating pandemic to guard against similar catastrophes in the future.

The response was condemned by Tory MP and freedom of information campaigner David Davis.

“This is a matter of massive public and global importance,” he said. “It is hard to see why there should be such secrecy that it outweighs the immense public interest and requires them to redact this sort of important data.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Ian Birrell, who wrote the piece in the Mail on Sunday, has produced a Twitter thread showing some of the redacted documents which you can see here.

Lancet’s Panel Investigating Covid Origins Disbanded Because of Ties to Peter Daszak

The Chairman of a Lancet-affiliated panel of scientists looking into the origins of Covid says he has disbanded the commission because of its ties to Peter Daszak, the President of EcoHealth Alliance who proposed in 2018 to use U.S. money to fund gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. MailOnline has the story.

Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs told the Wall Street Journal on Saturday that he was concerned with the links to Daszak, who led the task force until recusing himself from that role in June.

Daszak, who lives in New York, devoted his career to championing so-called ‘gain of function’ research to engineer coronavirus to be more deadly to humans, arguing that it was the best chance to detect and prevent a global pandemic.

Shocking documents released this week revealed his 2018 proposal to help the Wuhan Institute of Virology engineer bat coronaviruses to be more deadly, by inserting genetic features that are similar to those found in SARS-CoV-2.

There is still no conclusive proof as to whether Covid, a coronavirus linked to bats, first jumped to humans from a wild animal or in a lab setting.

But from the early days of the pandemic, Daszak has made every effort to paint the lab origin hypothesis as a “conspiracy theory”, including masterminding a letter in the Lancet that established a veneer of scientific consensus that natural origin was the only possibility. …

Several members of the disbanded Lancet task force have collaborated with Daszak or EcoHealth Alliance on projects in the past.

“I just didn’t want a task force that was so clearly involved with one of the main issues of this whole search for the origins, which was EcoHealth Alliance,” Dr. Sachs told the journal.

Sachs said a new Lancet Covid Commission would continue studying the origins for a report to be published in mid-2022, but broaden its scope to include input from other experts on biosafety concerns, including risky laboratory research.

It comes just days after the release of bombshell documents showing Daszak’s 2018 funding request to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) seeking $14.2 million to fund gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan lab.

The proposal, titled Project DEFUSE, was leaked to independent researchers with the DRASTIC research team.

In it Daszak requests funding for an elaborate project to genetically enhance coronaviruses and inoculate bats in Yunnan, China in the hopes of stopping new viruses jumping from bats to humans.

The funding request was denied by DARPA, but the proposal reveals a shocking line of research that could have conceivably been carried out independently by Chinese members of Daszak’s team, who included the infamous ‘bat woman’ Shi Zhengli.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: In a further blow to its reputation, the latest issue of the Lancet has a bizarre cover describing women as “bodies with vaginas”. Apparently, editor Richard Horton thought this would endear him to female scientists. MailOnline has more.

The Lancet was accused of sexism and dehumanising women after it editors used the term, which was written in an article titled ‘Periods on Display’, on the journal’s front cover in an attempt to be inclusive to trans people.

The article, which was published on September 1st, examines an exhibition exploring the taboos and history of periods at the Vagina Museum in London and sees the writer use the word “women” but also use the term “bodies with vaginas”.

The quote, which was then used on the journal’s front page, read: “Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected.”

However the move to display the quote on the journal’s front cover has been met with criticism, with some academics calling it “insulting and abusive” and a “misguided pursuit of woke points”.

Meanwhile others said they had cancelled their subscriptions with the peer-reviewed medical journal – which was founded in 1823.

It comes just months after critics lambasted Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust after it told staff to use terms like “birthing parents” and “human milk” rather than referring to “mothers” and “breast milk”.

Worth reading in full.

Wuhan Scientists Submitted Plans to Release Coronaviruses into Bat Caves in 2018

Leaked documents have revealed that, 18 months before reports emerged of the first Covid cases, scientists linked to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) were planning to release coronaviruses into Chinese bat caves in order to inoculate them against diseases that could pass on to humans. The Telegraph has the story.

New documents show that just 18 months before the first Covid cases appeared, researchers had submitted plans to release skin-penetrating nanoparticles containing “novel chimeric spike proteins” of bat coronaviruses into cave bats in Yunnan, China.

They also planned to create chimeric viruses, genetically enhanced to infect humans more easily, and requested $14 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to fund the work.

Papers, confirmed as genuine by a former member of the Trump administration, show they were hoping to introduce “human-specific cleavage sites” to bat coronaviruses which would make it easier for the virus to enter human cells. 

When Covid was first genetically sequenced, scientists were puzzled about how the virus had evolved such a human-specific adaptation at the cleavage site on the spike protein, which is the reason it is so infectious.

The documents were released by Drastic, the web-based investigations team set up by scientists from across the world to look into the origins of Covid.

In a statement, Drastic said: “Given that we find in this proposal a discussion of the planned introduction of human-specific cleavage sites, a review by the wider scientific community of the plausibility of artificial insertion is warranted.”

The proposal also included plans to mix high-risk natural coronavirus strains with more infectious but less dangerous varieties.

The bid was submitted by British zoologist Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, the U.S.-based organisation, which has worked closely with the WIV researching bat coronaviruses. 

Team members included Dr. Shi Zhengli, the WIV researcher dubbed “bat woman”, as well as U.S. researchers from the University of North Carolina and the United States Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Centre.

DARPA refused to fund the work, saying: “It is clear that the proposed project led by Peter Daszak could have put local communities at risk”, and warned that the team had not properly considered the dangers of enhancing the virus (gain of function research) or releasing a vaccine by air.

Grant documents show that the team also had some concerns about the vaccine programme and said they would “conduct educational outreach … so that there is a public understanding of what we are doing and why we are doing it, particularly because of the practice of bat-consumption in the region”.

Worth reading in full.

By Last Spring, “A Large Swath of the Government” Already Believed Lab Leak Theory, Says Reporter

Last April, Josh Rogin – a reporter for the Washington Post – published an explosive article that lent substantial new credibility to the lab leak theory.

Rogin had acquired cables sent in January of 2018 by U.S. diplomats working in China. Those diplomats had recently visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and the cables they sent warned of safety issues at the lab, as well as the work being done there on bat coronaviruses.

One described a “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory”. The diplomats asked for support from the U.S. Government to help the lab fix its problems. However, their requests went unanswered.

Rogin has now published an essay (adapted from his latest book) which provides additional context for his article on the diplomatic cables.

He begins by noting that, contrary to what many in the mainstream media had assumed, the cables were not leaked to him by someone in the Trump administration. Rogin’s story had actually irked Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who’d been trying to “keep up the veneer of good relations” with China.

The author then reveals that, when he called around to get reactions from officials he trusted, he discovered that “a large swath of the government already believed the virus had escaped from the WIV lab”.

As Rogin notes, any theory of the pandemic’s origin has to account for the location of the original outbreak – a large, dense city far away from the bat caves of Southern China. Yet when Dr Shi (the ‘Batwoman’) was interviewed in March, she said she’d “never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan”.

This rather undermines the claim made by critics of the lab leak theory that the location of the original outbreak doesn’t constitute an important piece of evidence in its own right.

As Alina Chan notes, the population of Wuhan was used as a control group in a 2015 serological survey of coronavirus spillover events in China. Among 240 blood donors from Wuhan, precisely zero had antibodies against SARS-related coronaviruses.

Returning to Rogin’s essay, he says that “large parts of the scientific community” criticised his story in the Post, insisting that most viral outbreaks are caused by natural spillovers, not lab accidents. However, many of the scientists who spoke out to defend the Wuhan lab, it transpired, were “Shi’s research partners and funders”.  

What about the claim that WIV researchers had done their work out in the open, so we ought to just trust them that there wasn’t any leak? Rogin was apparently told that many U.S. officials came to believe that “these researchers had not been as forthcoming as had been claimed”. (Which makes sense in light of what the ‘internet sleuths’ have turned up.)

He quotes one U.S. official as saying, “We’ll probably never be able to prove it one way or the other”. Whether this is true or not, the debate is still interesting, and Rogin’s essay is worth reading in full.

Stop Press: A Telegraph investigation has revealed that all but one of the scientists who penned a letter in the Lancet dismissing the lab leak as a ‘conspiracy theory’ were linked to the Wuhan researchers, their colleagues or funders.

Research on the Covid Origins Has Stalled, Scientists Warn

We have reached a crucial point in the study of Covid origins, with “the window of opportunity” for proper investigation closing, scientists have warned. Despite this, research efforts appear to have stalled. BBC News has the story.

Researchers asked by the World Health Organisation to find the cause of the initial outbreak say the process has stalled, in scientific journal Nature.

And further delay could make crucial studies “biologically impossible”. 

They are calling on political and scientific leaders to expedite those studies “while there is still time”.

Dutch Virologist Professor Marion Koopmans, a member of the WHO team, told BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme the risk of pandemics was increasing. 

“Because of the way the world is changing – population increase, crowding and more interaction between humans and animals, we need to learn where things go wrong and how we can avoid that in the future,” she said.

The WHO team visited Wuhan in January and published a report in March recommending:

~ searching blood banks in China and other countries for antibodies to the virus in blood donated in the months preceding the December 2019 outbreak 

~ taking samples from farmed wild animals such as mink and racoon dog that might be the “intermediate host” that allowed the virus to jump species

But since farmed animals have a limited lifespan and blood banks store donations for a fixed period, the researchers are worried that valuable biological information may already have been lost. 

The politically contentious issue of whether the virus might have escaped from a laboratory in China had also made some of the work more difficult, Professor Koopmans said.

All the lines of inquiry were relevant, she said, “but when accusations get mixed with the scientific questions, things become quite difficult”.

In their report, however, the team concluded while it was impossible to determine how the virus had infected the first humans, “all available evidence” suggested it had a natural animal origin and was “not a manipulated or constructed virus”.

Worth reading in full.

If You Study Hundreds of Bat Viruses at Biosafety Level 2, “Your Luck May Eventually Run Out”, Says Coronavirus Expert

Back on May 14th, 18 scientists wrote a letter to Science calling for a new investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Among their number was a gentleman named Ralph Baric, one of the world’s leading coronavirus experts.

Baric has been the subject of controversy over the last few months, given that he previously developed a method for engineering bat coronaviruses, and then taught that method to Dr Shi (the “Batwoman”) at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

In a recent interview with the MIT Technology Review, he divulges some interesting details about how researchers work with coronaviruses in the lab, as well as how they should do such work.

Baric begins the interview by quashing the suggestion (made by Senator Rand Paul on the floor of the U.S. Senate) that he has ever created a “supervirus”. And later in the interview he states, “there’s really no strong and actionable data that argues that the virus was engineered”.

Okay, so he’s not convinced the virus was “engineered”. But what about the possibility that a virus collected from nature escaped from the Wuhan lab? Baric says, “I personally feel that SARS-CoV-2 is a natural pathogen that emerged from wildlife.”

And he gives the following rationale: “Historical precedent argues that all other human coronaviruses emerged from animals. No matter how many bat viruses are at the WIV, nature has many, many more.” However, this rather unconvincing argument has already been addressed by Zeynep Tufekci in the New York Times.

It’s hardly surprising that “all other human coronaviruses emerged from animals”, given that sophisticated research labs have only been around for a few decades. If we take the period “since the advent of molecular biology”, Tufekci notes, then a large number of outbreaks have been caused by lab leaks (including almost every case of SARS since 2002).

What Baric has to say about the nature of lab work is more interesting. When asked about safety standards he assures the interviewer, “We do everything at BSL-3 plus,” by which he means that he and his colleagues “wear impervious Tyvek suits, aprons, and booties and are double-gloved”.

He then confirms that “the Chinese have done a lot of their bat coronavirus research under BSL-2 conditions”. (Note that BSL-2 has been compared to the safety level of a dentist’s office.) And as Baric notes, “lab-acquired infections occur much more frequently at BSL-2.”

When asked why he signed the letter calling for a new investigation, Baric states, “There must be some recognition that a laboratory infection could have occurred under BSL-2 operating conditions.” And he goes on to say, “If you study hundreds of different bat viruses at BSL-2, your luck may eventually run out.”

The interview with Baric contains various other insights, and is worth reading in full.