Determining the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus should have nothing to do with politics. It is a forensic question, one that requires thorough investigation of all possible theories, and one that should encompass both the scenario that the virus jumped from animals to humans in nature as well as one related to human error in a Wuhan lab. But a fatally flawed investigation by the World Health Organization and Chinese officials and experts only muddies the waters, and it places the WHO further at odds with the U.S. government and the Biden administration.
A joint study group, consisting of WHO representatives and 17 Chinese experts, will release its long-awaited report on the origins of covid-19 on Tuesday, but you can read it all here now. Unsurprisingly, the report promotes the theory the virus spilled over to humans in nature, perhaps from a bat through an intermediate animal host, and dismisses the possibility of a lab accident-related origin as “extremely unlikely,” and therefore unworthy of further study.
Of course, we already knew this because all the results were previewed in China’s state propaganda media two weeks ago by the lead Chinese scientist. The Chinese government received the report in advance and had tightly controlled the investigators’ visit to Wuhan, where the outbreak originated and where labs hold the world’s largest collection of bat coronaviruses. Even before the report was issued, the Biden administration publicly questioned its objectivity and credibility.
“We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN.
The 123-page report dedicates only a few lines to the theory that the outbreak might be connected to an accident at one of the Wuhan labs — a possibility that it summarily dismisses. But what the report does and does not say about the lab-accident theory places the Chinese government and the WHO in direct conflict with claims put forth by the Trump administration, and confirmed by the Biden administration, about suspicious activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
Specifically, declassified U.S. intelligence, confirmed by Blinken’s own State Department, alleges that the WIV was conducting undisclosed research on bat coronaviruses, had secret research projects with the Chinese military, and failed to disclose that several lab workers got sick with covid-like symptoms in autumn 2019. The Biden administration is not claiming the lab-accident theory is correct, but it is calling for China to disclose more information about the labs.
The new WHO report says the WIV labs “were well-managed, with a staff health monitoring programme with no reporting of COVID-19 compatible respiratory illness during the weeks/months prior to December 2019.” In other words, the WHO is saying the U.S. intelligence is wrong.
The report does not even mention the U.S. government claims that the lab was engaged in significant and relevant research that the Chinese government continues to deny conducting. Last week, the head of bat coronavirus research at the WIV, Shi Zhengli, told a seminar hosted by Rutgers University that all of the lab’s research was “open“ and ”transparent.” On “60 Minutes” on Sunday, former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger said Shi is lying.
“There is a body of research that’s been taking place conducted by the Chinese military in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has not been acknowledged by the Chinese government,” he said. “We’ve seen the data. I’ve personally seen the data.”
Peter Daszak, the head of the research organization EcoHealth Alliance, is the only American on the study team, but he was not selected by the U.S. government. In fact, the WHO rejected the three officials the Trump administration proposed. Daszak worked closely with the WIV for many years on bat coronavirus research and funded several of its projects, and he correspondingly stands accused of having a clear conflict of interest (which he denies). Daszak denied that a lab accident might be possible even before the investigation began, and he has repeatedly claimed the lab disclosed all its research.
The WHO report’s claims that the WIV lab was “well-managed” is contradicted by two U.S. cables sent to Washington in 2018 by U.S. diplomats who had made three trips to the lab. They reported that, “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”
The diplomats also warned that the WIV labs had been doing risky research into how bat coronaviruses can infect human lung cells. That’s the exact research Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, referenced when he said in comments that aired Friday that he believed a lab accident was the most likely source of the outbreak.
“Normally when a pathogen goes from a zoonotic to a human, it takes a while for it to figure out how to become more and more efficient in human-to-human transmission,” Redfield told Sanjay Gupta. “I just don’t think this makes biological sense.”
Redfield is a trained virologist and had access to all the intelligence and data during the outbreak; his professional analysis carries significant weight.
The Chinese government and the friends of the Wuhan lab want to dismiss any efforts to call for more investigation into the lab-accident theory as conspiracy theories. But that conspiracy now would have to include the Trump administration, the Biden administration, Redfield and the growing list of scientists who insist that this possibility be explored. Critics often conflate the fact there is “no proof” of the theory with the false assertion there is “no evidence” to suggest it.
“When people talk about ‘no evidence’ [of a lab accident], you could argue there’s ‘no evidence’ on either side,” said Flinders University Professor of Medicine Nikolai Petrovsky, one of more than two dozen scientists who signed an open letter calling for a full and independent investigation into the origins of covid-19. “There’s as much evidence for the potential lab leak hypothesis as there currently is for a natural animal crossover event. I think we have to be fair and say it’s a completely open question."
The WHO team wants to move on to searching for the virus in packages of frozen food in other countries. Let them do it. Meanwhile, somebody else will have to investigate the lab-accident theory, because the WHO and Beijing have no intention of treating it with the seriousness it deserves. The Biden administration can help by releasing all the information it has on the lab now. That would help us to get closer to the truth — and help to prevent future pandemics.