A number of people have reached out to me questioning my assertion that “the most likely starting point of the coronavirus crisis is an accidental leak from one of the Chinese virology institutes in Wuhan.” (See this CNN interview and this Newsweek editorial.) I do not believe this was a genetically altered virus, just that it had likely been isolated and cultured in on of the Wuhan labs (WIV or WCDC). I want to be clear that this is only my best guess based on publicly available information and my application of Occam’s razor (primarily that the outbreak began in the one city in China with a level 4 virology lab studying coronaviruses and a CDC right next to the seafood market and that China, like some other countries, has a troubling bio-security history). I have no definitive way of proving this thesis. Full international access to the data and relevant people in China, so far denied, could conceivably help allay some of my very deep concerns. I also in no way seek to support or align myself with any activities that may be considered unfair, dishonest, nationalistic, racist, bigoted, or biased in any way.
As I argued in my Newsweek piece:
Just as we wouldn’t imagine having a plane crash and not immediately trying to figure out what happened, we can’t let the COVID-19 crisis unfold without urgently understanding how our systems have so spectacularly failed. There are plenty of fingers to point, and we must thoughtfully point them now, at all of us, for our own good. For all we know, a new and even worse pandemic could begin even before we have overcome this one… Until we get to the bottom of all these failures and work to fix them, we remain dangerously susceptible to the next pandemic… Whatever the origins of the outbreak, including the possibility of an accidental leak from the Chinese virology lab in Wuhan, China’s dangerous and ongoing information suppression activities are the foundations of this crisis. We have to find out fast where and how this outbreak began… The WHO could have raised hell when China denied access to WHO experts for those critical early weeks, did not need to initially parrot Chinese propaganda and could certainly have sounded the alarm earlier. We have to ask how we can help the WHO do better… The United States had all the information it needed by January to mount a massive response, but Trump actively undermined the findings of his own intelligence and health officials. Worse, he passed misinformation to the American people that potentially led to many thousands of deaths. We’ve got to ask why this happened… Until we get to the bottom of all these failures and work to fix them, we remain dangerously susceptible to the next pandemic… We are all on the same plane with a shared interest in not letting it crash… Let’s work together to safely land the plane.
In this spirit, I think it fair to list some of the publicly available sources I am relying for my assertions. These include:
- This Nature Medicine study
- This Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article
- This Epoch Times documentary (which should be viewed with significant caution due to its is propagandistic tone)
- This Lancet piece
- This Washington Post article
- This The Diplomat editorial
- The Nature article
- This incredible Project Evidence site
- This Cell study
- This Science Direct study
- This New York Times report
- This Newsweek article
- This Washington Post article
- This Daily Telegraph story
- This Guardian article
- This Bloomberg article
- This Asia Times story
- This NBC News story
- This New Yorker piece
- This NPR report
- This E-PAI (Electronically Available Public Information) report
- This BioRxiv pre-publication research paper
- This Atlantic piece
My only mission is to seek the understand where this outbreak originated. I am extremely open to other views and welcome any additional information. If you have anything you believe relevant, I would be grateful for you to pass it along.
As I have already stated publicly, “Even if the coronavirus is an accidental leak from a Wuhan lab, we are all one interconnected humanity who must work together to get through this crisis.” It my view that Chinese researchers at these institutes were studying these viruses with the best intentions of developing surveillance systems, treatments, and vaccines for the good of humanity. Countries make mistakes, even terrible and deadly ones. I was in the White House when the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. We believed it was an accident but many Chinese people thought it was a deliberate act. I understood why.
Moments like these are inherently difficult and we should all do our very best to find the answers to our most important questions in the most honest, careful, and considered manner possible.
We must all be doing everything we can to build the surveillance, response, treatment, vaccine development, and public health capacities we need to make us safe. This pandemic is terrible but there could very well be much worse facing us in the future.
In this spirit, I have compiled this summary of the preliminary evidence, drawn from Project Evidence and, to a lesser degree, the other sources. Because China is still restricting access to the relevant data and people, the case remains speculative by necessity. Those restrictions themselves should concern us all.
- Beginning on December 10, 2019, increasing numbers of people, many of who had visited the Hunan Seafood Market in Wuhan, fell ill due to a new disease.
- There is strong evidence that the novel coronavirus outbreak did not originate in the seafood market (Lancet)
- The Huanan Seafood Market didn’t have bats for sale, and most bats species in Wuhan would be hibernating at the time of outbreak. It was reported that 34% of cases had no contact with the market, and ’No epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases.’ (Lancet)
- It seems extremely unlikely, perhaps borderline impossible, the outbreak originated in the seafood market. (New Yorker)
- This market is less than 9 miles away from The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), Chinese Academy of Sciences, which:
- Developed chimeric SARS-like coronaviruses
- Conducted ’dangerous’ gain-of-function research on the SARS-CoV-1 virus, some of which had been funded by the US government (Asia Times)
- Established a 96.2% match with SARS-CoV-2 and a virus they sampled from a cave over 1,000 miles away from Wuhan
- Injected live piglets with bat coronaviruses as recently as July 2019
- Published a paper on a close descendant of SARS-CoV-1, MERS-CoV, in November 2019
- Was hiring researchers to work on bat coronaviruses as recently as November 2019
- United States embassy and consular officials who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology in January 2018 were deeply concerned. Their cable sent to the State Department noted:
- “the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory”
- “the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.” (Washington Post)
- The market is also less than 3 miles away from the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control, which:
- Was accused of being the source of the outbreak from a now-withdrawn academic paper from a notable Chinese scholar at the South China University of China
- Once kept horseshoe bats, a known reservoir of SARS-CoV-1, within its labs
- Once performed surgery on live animals within its labs
- Had a researcher who quarantined on two separate occasions; once upon coming into contact with bat blood after being ’attacked’ and another time when he was urinated upon in a cave while wearing inadequate personal protection
- Even before this outbreak, China had a very poor safety record at many of its biosecurity facilities.
- In the years since the SARS outbreak, many instances of mishaps involving the accidental release of pathogens have taken place in labs throughout the world. Hundreds of breaches have occurred in the U.S., including a 2014 release of anthrax from a U.S. government lab that exposed 84 people. The SARS virus escaped from a Beijing lab in 2004, causing four infections and one death. An accidental release is not complicated and doesn’t require malicious intent. All it takes is for a lab worker to get sick, go home for the night, and unwittingly spread the virus to others. (Newsweek)
- Although it does not appear likely this virus was engineered (Nature Medicine), trying to determine the exact pattern and genomic ancestry of the virus is difficult, particularly as many of the recombinant regions may be small and are likely to change as more viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 are sampled. (Cell)
- According to a DIA report, “about 33 percent of the original 41 identified cases did not have direct exposure” to the market. That, along with what’s known of the laboratory’s work in past few years, raised reasonable suspicion that the pandemic may have been caused by a lab error, not the wet market. (Newsweek)
- A Broad Institute study asserts that genetic examination of four samples containing the virus from the seafood market to those taken from the Wuhan patient are ‘99.9 per cent’ identical. This suggests it came from infected visitors or vendors, indicating ‘Sars-CoV-2 had been imported into the market by humans’. The authors found no evidence ‘of cross-species transmission’ at the market.
- The Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally admitted in late May 2020 that it has ruled the site out as the origin point of the outbreak. According to Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese CDC, “It now turns out that the market is one of the victims.”
- China has taken a series of steps since the beginning of this crisis which seem consistent with a coverup. These include:
- On December 31, Chinese authorities started censoring news of the virus from search engines, deleting terms including “SARS variation, “Wuhan Seafood market” and “Wuhan Unknown Pneumonia.” (Daily Telegraph)
- Officials closed the market the day after notifying the WHO and sent in teams with strong disinfectants. Samples from animals were taken but, four months later, the results have not been shared with foreign scientists. The actions led to claims that they were deliberately wiping away crucial traces. (Daily Telegraph)
- The Hubei health commission ordered genomics companies to stop testing for the new virus and to destroy all samples.
- On January 1, an employee of a genomics company in Wuhan received a phone call from an official at the Hubei Provincial Health Commission, ordering the company to stop testing samples from Wuhan related to the new disease and to destroy all existing samples. (Caixin Global)
- On January 3, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) ordered institutions not to publish any information related to the unknown disease and ordered labs to transfer any samples they had to designated testing institutions or destroy them. (Caixin Global)
- Beijing did not notify the World Health Organization of the outbreak for at least four days after Wuhan officials were notified. A WHO investigation team was not allowed to visit Wuhan until three weeks after that, and the team was not given full and unrestricted access even during this preliminary field visit
- On Jan. 12, a Shanghai professor’s lab was closed down after it shared data on the virus’ genetic sequence with the outside world.
- On Jan. 14, the head of China’s National Health Commission said in a confidential teleconference with provincial health officials that the situation was “severe and complex,” that “clustered cases suggest that human-to-human transmission is possible,” and that “the risk of transmission and spread is high.” The Commission issued a 63-page document on response procedures that same day that was labeled “internal” and “not to be publicly disclosed.” The next day, the head of China’s disease control emergency center, announced on state television that “the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission is low.” This same message was delivered to the World Health Organization. (Washington Post)
- Offers from the United States to send medical experts Wuhan in early January were rejected by the central government. (Diplomat)
- This Chinese preprint paper was released in February 2020 and then mysteriously retracted.
- Although WIV officials have commented publicly about social media posting alleging that one of their prior researchers may be “patient zero,” the WIV has not provided any information about that person
- A WIV researcher who publicly accused the director of the Institute of selling infected lab animals to vendors on Weibo (with pictures of herself and her employee ID included) later claimed she was ’hacked’ and disavowed her prior allegation
- In contrast to its earlier (and in my view probably inaccurate) assertion that the outbreak originated in the Wuhan seafood market, a Ministry of foreign Affairs spokesperson on March 12 accused the United States Army of intentionally bringing SARS-CoV-2 to Wuhan
- Beijing disinfected the Wuhan market before a full international investigation could be conducted and has yet to provide U.S. experts with samples of the novel coronavirus collected from the earliest cases.
- The Shanghai lab that published the novel coronavirus genome on Jan. 11 was quickly shut down by authorities for “rectification.” Several of the doctors and journalists who reported on the spread early on have disappeared. (Washington Post)
- On Feb. 14, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a new biosecurity law to be accelerated. On Wednesday, The Chinese government has placed severe restrictions requiring approval before any research institution publishes anything on the origin of the novel coronavirus. (Washington Post)
- Labs analyzing the pathogen were instructed to destroy samples, a health center that had published the virus’s genome sequence was temporarily shut down the following day, and doctors were prevented from submitting case information to the country’s infectious disease tracking network. (Diplomat)
- Reports of health care workers falling ill, an early indicator of human-to-human transmission, were suppressed. More indirectly, state media coverage of doctors being penalized reportedly had a chilling effect on other medical professionals who might have sounded the alarm. (Diplomat)
- In March 2020, Beijing announced the expulsion of American journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, the media organizations who have exposed some of the most significant misdeeds and coverups by the Chinese government over recent decades
- In April 2020, with the outbreak in full swing, the WIV deleted a press release detailing the January 2019 U.S. State Department visit
- The Chinese government has now banned any researcher from publishing anything on the origins of this crisis without prior approval of the Ministry of Science and Technology (Nature)
- On April 24, the New York Times reported that Beijing has successfully pressured European Union officials to water down references to China an an EU report. The original language had stated, “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image… Both overt and covert tactics have been observed.”
- It appears there may have been a sudden drop in cellphone usage at WIV in early October followed be a cellphone blackout, suggesting the possibility of an accident inside WIV on October 6 followed by a traffic closure. Without further detail about sourcing, however, this information remains speculative. (E-PAI report)
- On April 18, 2020, Director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in an interview that “there is no way this virus came from us.”
- “At this stage, it is not possible to determine precisely the source of the virus which caused the COVID-19 pandemic,” the World Health Organization said in a statement to Newsweek.
- On May 3, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “There is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.” China’s Global Times, run by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said in an editorial responding to this interview that “The Trump administration continues to engage in unprecedented propaganda warfare while trying to impede global efforts in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.”
- On May 4, the Guardian claimed its sources insisted a “15-page dossier” highlighted by the Australian Daily Telegraph accusing China of a deadly cover up was not culled from intelligence from the Five Eyes Network, an alliance between the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
- Bloomberg reported on May 5 that a majority of the 17 agencies that provide and analyze intelligence for the U.S. government believe the pandemic started after the virus was leaked from the Wuhan lab, but based mostly on circumstantial evidence.
- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Britain’s National Cyber Security Center recently issued a statement saying hackers are “actively targeting organisations … that include healthcare bodies, pharmaceutical companies, academia, medical research organisations, and local government.” This was widely construed as suggesting that state-sponsored Chinese hackers were attempting to steal COVD-19 research. (NPR)
- On May 19, the World Health Assembly agreed to an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the international response to COVID-19. China did not object to the resolution but Chinese president Xi Jinping said the investigation should only take place after the pandemic is contained. This is not likely to happen any time soon.