Three years after the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, the origins of the coronavirus pandemic are still a mystery. The latest reports of a shift in the conclusion of one U.S. intelligence agency — for reasons that have not been disclosed — underscore the uncertainty. What is clear is that answers exist in China, and that finding them requires far more investigation than has been carried out so far, which Beijing has refused to allow.
What is China hiding, and why?
Two broad hypotheses exist about the origins of covid-19. One is that it jumped from a natural source, probably a bat, perhaps through an intermediate animal host, to infect people. This has ample precedent in earlier viral pandemics. Bats are a reservoir for coronaviruses and live in Southeast Asia, albeit those in China are located far from Wuhan. But no samples — none — have turned up to identify the animal source or the intermediate host. Positive samples weredetected in the Huanan Seafood Market, where wildlife was sold, but they were probably from infected humans, not animals. The market was quite clearly the venue of an early superspreader event.
The other hypothesis is that some kind of research-related incident or inadvertent laboratory leak allowed the virus to escape. Large numbers of bats were captured by Chinese researchers for study at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a major center of research on bat coronaviruses. Other Chinese scientific research centers also worked on coronaviruses and vaccines.
An unfunded but very curious research proposal in 2018 by EcoHealth Alliance, a nongovernmental organization in New York, outlined plans to genetically modify chimeric viruses — that is, those with genetic material from two or more different viruses — to add a feature known as a furin cleavage site, which helps infect cells. The feature exists on the pandemic strain, but not in the immediate family of other bat coronaviruses. (It exists on other coronaviruses, such as MERS.) Some of the proposed research was to take place at the Wuhan institute. The research proposal was turned down by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but a question that persists is whether the work went ahead anyway at the Wuhan institute. The institute claims that its collection did not include the pandemic strain so it could not have been the source. But very little is known about the research being conducted there, or in other laboratories in China.
A third, plausible explanation might lie between these two — for instance, that a researcher was accidentally infected handling a bat during laboratory work and spread the virus.
The latest disclosures from the U.S. intelligence community have not clarified matters. On Dec. 15, the House Intelligence Committee released a report on the intelligence community’s response to the pandemic, and a little-noticed footnote said that one U.S. agency had changed its view. On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported this was the Energy Department, which shifted from being noncommittal to concluding, with “low confidence,” that the virus originated from a laboratory. The adjustment in the department’s assessment occurred last year, and possibly earlier, but it is not known why the department changed. Also, on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray publicly confirmed the agency’s classified conclusion of a possible laboratory origin. Other intelligence agencies, meanwhile, remain undecided, or say they believe in a natural origin.
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All of this suggests that we need to know more. The Biden administration should declassify the Energy Department’s update, ask other intelligence agencies to refresh their reporting, and offer a new report to the public.
Only by understanding how the pandemic began can the world start to prepare for the next one.
When the Wuhan outbreak happened, China’s government tried to cover it up, with catastrophic results. We’ve related the saga of “Little Mountain Dog,” a researcher at a start-up firm, Vision Medicals, in Guangzhou in southern China, who carried out genomic sequencing on a pandemic virus sample in late December 2019, and became alarmed at the possibility of human-to-human transmission. But the government concealed that danger for 28 days, allowing the virus to spread. We’ve also shown how there were as many as 86 more cases in December 2019 than China reported to the World Health Organization later on.
These and other information gaps are not trivial. China has claimed the virus came from abroad and attempted to blame frozen-food imports or a U.S. military biological research laboratory. Beijing’s disinformation and propaganda are an inadequate and counterproductive response to the large, unanswered questions. It is time for China to permit a serious investigation — and cooperate with it — to find the truth.
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