The origin of COVID: Who is Culpable?

The origin of COVID: Who is Culpable? By Nicholas Wade. At last, a real reporter has investigated in depth and written it up without fear or favor.

Its death toll will soon reach three million people. Yet the origin of pandemic remains uncertain: The political agendas of governments and scientists have generated thick clouds of obfuscation, which the mainstream press seems helpless to dispel. …

As many people know, there are two main theories about its origin. One is that it jumped naturally from wildlife to people. The other is that the virus was under study in a lab, from which it escaped. It matters a great deal which is the case if we hope to prevent a second such occurrence. …

It was initially blamed on natural causes by a self-interested group of likely miscreants:

From early on, public and media perceptions were shaped in favor of the natural emergence scenario by strong statements from two scientific groups. …

It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to the Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”

Peter Daszak: “I have no conflict of interest”. Hard to imagine a more brazen lie.

Virologists like Daszak had much at stake in the assigning of blame for the pandemic. For 20 years, mostly beneath the public’s attention, they had been playing a dangerous game. In their laboratories they routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature. They argued that they could do so safely, and that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent natural “spillovers,” the cross-over of viruses from an animal host to people. If SARS2 [covid-19] had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China.

A second statement that had enormous influence in shaping public attitudes was a letter (in other words an opinion piece, not a scientific article) published on 17 March 2020 in the journal Nature Medicine. Its authors were a group of virologists led by Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute. … [Their arguments,] grounded in nothing but two inconclusive speculations, convinced the world’s press that SARS2 could not have escaped from a lab.

The media are easily fooled by authority figures, if it meets their political bias. Like in climate change. And like in climate change, other scientists dare not speak up:

Science is supposedly a self-correcting community of experts who constantly check each other’s work. So why didn’t other virologists point out that the Andersen group’s argument was full of absurdly large holes? Perhaps because in today’s universities speech can be very costly. Careers can be destroyed for stepping out of line. Any virologist who challenges the community’s declared view risks having his next grant application turned down by the panel of fellow virologists that advises the government grant distribution agency.

The Daszak and Andersen letters were really political, not scientific, statements, yet were amazingly effective. Articles in the mainstream press repeatedly stated that a consensus of experts had ruled lab escape out of the question or extremely unlikely. …

Virology was an accident waiting to happen:

Why would anyone want to create a novel virus capable of causing a pandemic? Ever since virologists gained the tools for manipulating a virus’s genes, they have argued they could get ahead of a potential pandemic by exploring how close a given animal virus might be to making the jump to humans. And that justified lab experiments in enhancing the ability of dangerous animal viruses to infect people, virologists asserted.

With this rationale, they have recreated the 1918 flu virus, shown how the almost extinct polio virus can be synthesized from its published DNA sequence, and introduced a smallpox gene into a related virus.

These enhancements of viral capabilities are known blandly as gain-of-function experiments. …

Virologists started studying bat coronaviruses in earnest after these turned out to be the source of both the SARS1 and MERS epidemics. In particular, researchers wanted to understand what changes needed to occur in a bat virus’s spike proteins before it could infect people.

Researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, led by China’s leading expert on bat viruses, Shi Zheng-li or “Bat Lady,” mounted frequent expeditions to the bat-infested caves of Yunnan in southern China and collected around a hundred different bat coronaviruses. …

Shi returned to her lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and resumed the work she had started on genetically engineering coronaviruses to attack human cells. How can we be so sure?

Because, by a strange twist in the story, her work was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). …

The grants were assigned to the prime contractor, Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, who subcontracted them to Shi. …

Shi set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells. …

The approach could have generated SARS2-like [covid-19 like] viruses, and indeed may have created the SARS2 virus itself with the right combination of virus backbone and spike protein.

It cannot yet be stated that Shi did or did not generate SARS2 in her lab because her records have been sealed, but it seems she was certainly on the right track to have done so. …

Weak safety:

Daszak was possibly unaware of, or perhaps he knew all too well, the long history of viruses escaping from even the best run laboratories. The smallpox virus escaped three times from labs in England in the 1960’s and 1970’s, causing 80 cases and 3 deaths. Dangerous viruses have leaked out of labs almost every year since. Coming to more recent times, the SARS1 virus has proved a true escape artist, leaking from laboratories in Singapore, Taiwan, and no less than four times from the Chinese National Institute of Virology in Beijing. …

Before 2020, the rules followed by virologists in China and elsewhere required that experiments with the SARS1 and MERS viruses be conducted in BSL3 conditions. But all other bat coronaviruses could be studied in BSL2, the next level down. BSL2 requires taking fairly minimal safety precautions, such as wearing lab coats and gloves, not sucking up liquids in a pipette, and putting up biohazard warning signs. Yet a gain-of-function experiment conducted in BSL2 might produce an agent more infectious than either SARS1 or MERS. And if it did, then lab workers would stand a high chance of infection, especially if unvaccinated.

Much of Shi’s work on gain-of-function in coronaviruses was performed at the BSL2 safety level, as is stated in her publications and other documents. …

“It is clear that some or all of this work was being performed using a biosafety standard — biosafety level 2, the biosafety level of a standard US dentist’s office — that would pose an unacceptably high risk of infection of laboratory staff upon contact with a virus having the transmission properties of SARS-CoV-2,” [says Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and leading expert on biosafety]. …

Three people working at a BSL3 lab at the institute fell sick within a week of each other with severe symptoms that required hospitalization. This was “the first known cluster that we’re aware of, of victims of what we believe to be COVID-19.” Influenza could not completely be ruled out but seemed unlikely in the circumstances, he said. …

The natural emergence theory simply has no supporting evidence. While technically possible — by a long series of mutations and coincidences — it is incredibly unlikely.

The two closest known relatives of the SARS2 virus were collected from bats living in caves in Yunnan, a province of southern China. If the SARS2 virus had first infected people living around the Yunnan caves, that would strongly support the idea that the virus had spilled over to people naturally. But this isn’t what happened. The pandemic broke out 1,500 kilometers away, in Wuhan. …

When you look for the fingerprints of a similar transition in SARS2 [from animal, adapting to human], a strange surprise awaits. The virus has changed hardly at all, at least until recently. From its very first appearance, it was well adapted to human cells. …

The uniform structure of SARS2 genomes gives no hint of any passage through an intermediate animal host, and no such host has been identified in nature. … Proponents of a lab leak have a simpler explanation. SARS2 was adapted to human cells from the start because it was grown in humanized mice or in lab cultures of human cells, just as described in Daszak’s grant proposal. Its genome shows little diversity because the hallmark of lab cultures is uniformity. …

Conclusions:

Neither the natural emergence nor the lab escape hypothesis can yet be ruled out. There is still no direct evidence for either. So no definitive conclusion can be reached. …

But it seems to me that proponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about SARS2 considerably more easily than can those who favor natural emergence.

It’s documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice. This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged. The researchers were not vaccinated against the viruses under study, and they were working in the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory. So escape of a virus would not be at all surprising. In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute. The virus was already well adapted to humans, as expected for a virus grown in humanized mice. It possessed an unusual enhancement, a furin cleavage site, which is not possessed by any other known SARS-related beta-coronavirus, and this site included a double arginine codon also unknown among beta-coronaviruses. What more evidence could you want, aside from the presently unobtainable lab records documenting SARS2’s creation?

Proponents of natural emergence have a rather harder story to tell. The plausibility of their case rests on a single surmise, the expected parallel between the emergence of SARS2 [covid-19] and that of SARS1 and MERS. But none of the evidence expected in support of such a parallel history has yet emerged. No one has found the bat population that was the source of SARS2, if indeed it ever infected bats. No intermediate host has presented itself, despite an intensive search by Chinese authorities that included the testing of 80,000 animals. There is no evidence of the virus making multiple independent jumps from its intermediate host to people, as both the SARS1 and MERS viruses did. There is no evidence from hospital surveillance records of the epidemic gathering strength in the population as the virus evolved. There is no explanation of why a natural epidemic should break out in Wuhan and nowhere else. There is no good explanation of how the virus acquired its furin cleavage site, which no other SARS-related beta-coronavirus possesses, nor why the site is composed of human-preferred codons. The natural emergence theory battles a bristling array of implausibilities.

The records of the Wuhan Institute of Virology certainly hold much relevant information. But Chinese authorities seem unlikely to release them given the substantial chance that they incriminate the regime in the creation of the pandemic. Absent the efforts of some courageous Chinese whistle-blower, we may already have at hand just about all of the relevant information we are likely to get for a while. …

Who is responsible?

There are two obvious levels of responsibility: the first, for allowing virologists to perform gain-of-function experiments, offering minimal gain and vast risk; the second, if indeed SARS2 was generated in a lab, for allowing the virus to escape and unleash a world-wide pandemic. Here are the players who seem most likely to deserve blame.

  1. Chinese virologists. First and foremost, Chinese virologists are to blame for performing gain-of-function experiments in mostly BSL2-level safety conditions which were far too lax to contain a virus of unexpected infectiousness like SARS2. If the virus did indeed escape from their lab, they deserve the world’s censure for a foreseeable accident that has already caused the deaths of three million people. …
  2. Chinese authorities. China’s central authorities did not generate SARS2, but they sure did their utmost to conceal the nature of the tragedy and China’s responsibility for it. They suppressed all records at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and closed down its virus databases. They released a trickle of information, much of which may have been outright false or designed to misdirect and mislead. They did their best to manipulate the WHO’s inquiry into the virus’s origins, and led the commission’s members on a fruitless run-around. So far they have proved far more interested in deflecting blame than in taking the steps necessary to prevent a second pandemic.
  3. The worldwide community of virologists. Virologists around the world are a loose-knit professional community. … virologists knew better than anyone the dangers of gain-of-function research. But the power to create new viruses, and the research funding obtainable by doing so, was too tempting. They pushed ahead with gain-of-function experiments. They lobbied against the moratorium imposed on Federal funding for gain-of-function research in 2014, and it was raised in 2017. The benefits of the research in preventing future epidemics have so far been nil, the risks vast. You might think the SARS2 pandemic would spur virologists to re-evaluate the benefits of gain-of-function research, even to engage the public in their deliberations. But no. Many virologists deride lab escape as a conspiracy theory, and others say nothing. They have barricaded themselves behind a Chinese wall of silence which so far is working well to allay, or at least postpone, journalists’ curiosity and the public’s wrath. Professions that cannot regulate themselves deserve to get regulated by others, and this would seem to be the future that virologists are choosing for themselves.
  4. The US role in funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology. From June 2014 to May 2019, Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance had a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, to do gain-of-function research with coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Whether or not SARS2 is the product of that research, it seems a questionable policy to farm out high-risk research to unsafe foreign labs using minimal safety precautions. And if the SARS2 virus did indeed escape from the Wuhan institute, then the NIH will find itself in the terrible position of having funded a disastrous experiment that led to death of more than 3 million worldwide, including more than half a million of its own citizens.

So now what?

If the case that SARS2 originated in a lab is so substantial, why isn’t this more widely known? As may now be obvious, there are many people who have reason not to talk about it. The list is led, of course, by the Chinese authorities. But virologists in the United States and Europe have no great interest in igniting a public debate about the gain-of-function experiments that their community has been pursuing for years.

Nor have other scientists stepped forward to raise the issue. Government research funds are distributed on the advice of committees of scientific experts drawn from universities. Anyone who rocks the boat by raising awkward political issues runs the risk that their grant will not be renewed and their research career will be ended. Maybe good behavior is rewarded with the many perks that slosh around the distribution system. And if you thought that Andersen and Daszak might have blotted their reputation for scientific objectivity after their partisan attacks on the lab escape scenario, look at the second and third names on this list of recipients of an $82 million grant announced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in August 2020.

The US government shares a strange common interest with the Chinese authorities: Neither is keen on drawing attention to the fact that Shi’s coronavirus work was funded by the US National Institutes of Health. One can imagine the behind-the-scenes conversation in which the Chinese government says, “If this research was so dangerous, why did you fund it, and on our territory too?” To which the US side might reply, “Looks like it was you who let it escape. But do we really need to have this discussion in public?”

To these serried walls of silence must be added that of the mainstream media. To my knowledge, no major newspaper or television network has yet provided readers with an in-depth news story of the lab escape scenario, such as the one you have just read, although some have run brief editorials or opinion pieces. One might think that any plausible origin of a virus that has killed three million people would merit a serious investigation. Or that the wisdom of continuing gain-of-function research, regardless of the virus’s origin, would be worth some probing. Or that the funding of gain-of-function research by the NIH and NIAID during a moratorium on such research would bear investigation. What accounts for the media’s apparent lack of curiosity?

The virologists’ omertà is one reason. Science reporters, unlike political reporters, have little innate skepticism of their sources’ motives; most see their role largely as purveying the wisdom of scientists to the unwashed masses. So when their sources won’t help, these journalists are at a loss.

Another reason, perhaps, is the migration of much of the media toward the left of the political spectrum. Because President Trump said the virus had escaped from a Wuhan lab, editors gave the idea little credence. They joined the virologists in regarding lab escape as a dismissible conspiracy theory.

Many of the same dynamics as in climate change.

Lies, incompetence, ambitions — and now 3 millions are dead. It’s over a year, and only now is the truth emerging, via persistent individuals blocked at every turn by government.

A reader:

Very cogent and well-argued.

If Bhopal was an industrial accident that killed 16,000 and blinded 3,900 people, and Union Carbide had to pay $400M to settle that, how much does the CCP owe the world for their industrial accident?

Indeed. No wonder the Chinese Government is doing its utmost to prevent proper inquiry and is so vigorously punishing Australia for suggesting a proper international investigation into the origins of the virus. It’s obviously very sensitive, and now we know why.

Then there’s the darker possibility that some Chinese spooks deliberately caused the leak, then arranged for the people of Wuhan to flee across the world. All so plausibly deniable.

Steven Quay, a physician-researcher, has applied statistical and bioinformatic tools to ingenious explorations of the virus’s origin, showing for instance how the hospitals receiving the early patients are clustered along the Wuhan №2 subway line which connects the Institute of Virology at one end with the international airport at the other, the perfect conveyor belt for distributing the virus from lab to globe.