This shouldn’t be a controversial assertion. This has been the case for decades, and the message has been amply reinforced by the party’s efforts to cover up the covid-19 outbreak. The Chinese government has systematically thwarted scientific investigation that would either implicate or exonerate the lab — or shed light on alternative theories. The Wuhan seafood market that Beijing originally cited as the outbreak’s point of origin was sanitized before any real scientific examination.
The Chinese government won’t share actual virus samples from the earliest cases. The Shanghai lab that first released the coronavirus genome was shut down for “rectification.” All research on the virus origin in China is now restricted. Critics have been disappeared.
“The Party and state ruthlessly intervene in research, punish truth-tellers, make inconvenient facts disappear, and manipulate data and history to put their interests above all others,” said historian Glenn Tiffert, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, in an email. “This is not to malign PRC scientists, many of whom have the highest probity but may find themselves facing impossible choices. It is the system they must survive in.”
As my earlier column stated, there is no firm evidence to prove the WIV or the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab were connected to the outbreak. Nevertheless, the American friends of Shi Zhengli, the WIV scientist who led the project on bat coronaviruses, have rallied to her defense.
“I have no conflicts of interest,” said Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth alliance, which has worked with Shi’s team since 2003, in an email. “I realize that many of the scientists I collaborate with work directly for the Chinese Govt including Zhengli. . . . My only interest in not having Zhengli implicated in this is that I am extremely confident she has done nothing wrong.”
Daszak argues the data suggests that natural spillover is much more likely than a lab accident and that the research Shi was conducting was low-risk.
Jonna Mazet, professor of epidemiology at the University of California at Davis, was the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s $200 million Predict program, which spent 10 years trying to anticipate the next viral pandemic, before the Trump administration cut almost all of its funding last September. Shi was Predict’s principal investigator in China.
Mazet told me she did not believe it was likely the coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan lab, but, she acknowledged, “Absolutely, accidents can happen.”
Shi herself didn’t think the lab-accident theory was so crazy. In March, she told Scientific American that, when questions about the lab’s link to the outbreak arose, she frantically searched her lab’s records to uncover any mishandling of experimental materials. In February, her lab was first to publish that the novel coronavirus likely came from bats. The closest related known virus was in her lab, called SARSr-CoV-RaTG13, but it is not directly related to the one that produces covid-19. In early February, Shi sent a message to her friends on WeChat that said, “I swear with my life, [the virus] has nothing to do with the lab.”
Helping build a lab in China to support virus research on the front lines seemed logical, and Shi was surely trying to do good science. But when the pandemic hit in her city, the party took over. “Like all other forms of knowledge in the [People’s Republic of China], science is not open on principle; it is only open as far and as long as it suits the Party,” Tiffert said.
The clash between national security officials and the U.S. scientific community over China was already heating up before covid-19. In December, the Moffitt Cancer Center fired its chief executive and five other officials for not disclosing they were being paid by the Chinese government under its Thousand Talents recruitment program. In January, the chair of Harvard’s chemistry department was arrested and charged with hiding his own paid participation in that program.
In January, the FBI arrested and charged Chinese researcher Zheng Zaosong, who was caught with 21 stolen vials of biological samples in a sock in his luggage. In most countries, showing up with vials in a sock would raise questions. In China, the government welcomes collaboration with open arms and steals science at the same time.
Rather than battle each other, national security officials and scientists in the West must work more closely together to make sure any scientific collaboration with China is as free from abuse as possible. The Party’s political interests must not come before public health.
According to its own website, on July 1, 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology held an event to celebrate the 98th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. The meeting’s theme was “Do not forget the original intention and remember the mission.” Shi’s life is dependent on her doing exactly what the Chinese government says. But our lives can’t be.