More than three years into the coronavirus pandemic, the question has yet to be answered: How and why did it begin? On April 8, officials in China gave a news conference at which they insisted they had done everything possible to discover the answers about the global outbreak that began there. Zhou Lei, of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Chinese scientists “shared all the data we had” and “adhered to principles of openness, objectivity and transparency.”
They have done neither. A new Post report and a forthcoming Senate investigation once again raise questions that still demand answers from China about what happened in Wuhan in late 2019.
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 vast precedent in earlier viral pandemics. The other is that the virus escaped in some kind of research-related incident or inadvertent laboratory leak. Researchers in China captured large quantities of bats 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. 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. China claims the virus might have come from abroad, perhaps on imported frozen-food packaging or from a U.S. military biological research laboratory.
The latest report on what happened in Wuhan came in an examination by Post reporters Joby Warrick and David Willman of China’s spotty biosafety record. They found that China embarked on a significant expansion of the country’s biotechnology sector, pumping billions of dollars into building dozens of laboratories and encouraging cutting-edge research in fields including genetic engineering, experimental vaccines and therapeutics, all part of a government-mandated drive to rival or surpass the United States and other Western powers. But safety practices failed to keep pace.
The Post reporters noted that lab accidents happen everywhere, including in the United States. But Chinese government reports and officials described ongoing equipment problems and inadequate safety training that in some cases resulted in lab animals being illegally sold after being used in experiments, and contaminated lab waste getting flushed into sewers. The problems were exacerbated, they reported, “by a secretive, top-down bureaucracy that sets demanding goals while reflexively covering up accidents and discouraging any public acknowledgment of shortcomings.”
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For example, they related the case of a mysterious accident in the summer of 2019 inside a government-run biomedical complex in Lanzhou, in north-central China. A failure occurred in a sanitation system that was supposed to kill germs in a vaccine plant’s waste. “Millions of airborne microbes began seeping invisibly from exhaust vents and drifting into nearby neighborhoods,” The Post reported. “The leaking pathogens were bacteria that cause brucellosis, a common livestock disease that can lead to chronic illness or even death in humans if not treated. Nearly a month passed before the problem was discovered and fixed, and four months before the public was informed. By then, at least 10,000 people had been exposed, with hundreds developing symptomatic illnesses.”
Could a similar malfunction have occurred in Wuhan? Possibly. An 18-month investigation by the minority oversight staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the last Congress examined biosafety worries about high-containment laboratories in Wuhan in the months just before the pandemic outbreak. The probe’s interim report was made public in October, and a much larger final report, which we have read, is to be released shortly by Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.). The investigators have documented a number of biosafety issues that arose at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2019, including concerns about limited availability of resources, equipment and trained personnel. Robert Hawley, a U.S. biosafety expert who advised the Senate investigators, told The Post of a broader problem in China: “It is very, very apparent that their biological safety training is minimal.”
At the same time, the institute was working with coronaviruses in an attempt to identify and evaluate those capable of infecting human cells, using bats and mice genetically modified to mimic human lung tissue. Laboratory officials have acknowledged these experiments were sometimes performed at inappropriately low levels of biosafety.
According to the probe, in the months before the pandemic, the Wuhan Institute of Virology responded to known problems by submitting numerous patents and procurement notices for biosafety devices and improvements. For example, on Nov. 19, 2019, an urgent procurement request was made for an “air incinerator,” which would be used to sterilize exhaust gas after it had left a laboratory autoclave, used to destroy infectious biological materials. Why was the air incinerator necessary at this point in time, which happened to be around when the first reported cases of infection arose? China, meanwhile, has continued to insist — as recently as the April 8 news conference — that there were no cases before December.
If China were to be as transparent as Ms. Zhou claimed at the news conference, it would respond thoroughly to the many unanswered questions. We’ve noted previously the gaps in understanding of the all-important early cases in Wuhan, which are key to identifying the virus origins. China at first hid the transmissibility of the virus from its citizens and the world, and then provided incomplete data to the joint mission with the World Health Organization about the number of early cases.
Learning the truth about the origins of the virus could greatly help prepare against a future pandemic and could be vital in creating therapeutics and vaccines. It could also offer lessons to prevent a repeat of the haphazard response — including in the United States — to the gravest public health crisis in a century.
What really happened in Wuhan? The mystery remains. China holds — and should provide — some of the answers.
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