Origins of SARS-CoV-2

Origins of SARS-CoV-2

Origins of SARS-CoV-2 512 342 Jamie Metzl

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:

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.
18 Comments
  • Keep on keeping on Jaime! We’re here for the truth. I’m sure your going to dig it up …. somehow🦠…. balanced but true.🇺🇸👍

    • The triple truth ruth May 19, 2020 at 1:55 am

      The problem with speculation concerning the possibility of an accident is that we still end up in the same place A TWO to THREE YEAR PANDEMIC that can go either way—–deadlier orr benign. As it is it will be hard enough for the rest of the world to get back to the task at hand rebuilding the global economy. I remember past futurists and they all ended up talking what ended up being garbage crystal eyeballing. Anything that makes this worse is exactly the sort of stupidity that got us all here. No one is looking good. Even New Zealand will sooner or later have to deal with the economic consequences. Enough with the blaming and scapegoating. IT’S THE RNA, STUPID and the stupid too.

  • Just FYI, that wet market in Wuhan did sell a lot wild animals in addition to seafood. It even had a wild animal restaurant inside. Apparently not many seafood on the menu.

    • There are identical wet markets in every small and large city all over China with it’s vast 1.3 billion population. Certainly Guandong and Yunan where the suspects are from host countless such markets, and are ~1000 miles away from Wuhan. Everyone please I appeal to your commonsense and try not to believe that somehow this bat virus “choose” Wuhan all places in China to jump to humans, which would be an insane coincidence with no comparison in history.

  • I have an article proving that they were studying Corona type viruses derived from bats at the wuhan lab.
    If you are interested email me at
    aaron@riderzlaw.com

  • Thank you sharing your insight and review methodology. If you haven’t you may want to look at Curtards published paper that came out early April. It was detailed and thorough. Curtard made the observation that he had only seen this combination of strains expiermently. The link to the full paper is in pubmed. Thank you for asking the difficult questions which it seems for whatever reason the majority in postions of influence, media, institutions or policy arent asking at best or worst censoring those who are. This applies to questions not only of origin but of treatments and management including public policy decisions. Unfortunately the general public en masse are also getting angry about these questions being raised which is baffling; you cant make robust and critical decisions that affect many without vigirous review of all the data, science and scenarios especially from the perspective of cost benefit analysis and therapeutic management.

  • This is in that Nature Medicine paper you reference first:
    “Theories of SARS-CoV-2 origins
    It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus. As noted above, the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 is optimized for binding to human ACE2 with an efficient solution different from those previously predicted7,11. Furthermore, if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used19. However, the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone20. Instead, we propose two scenarios that can plausibly explain the origin of SARS-CoV-2: (i) natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer; and (ii) natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer. We also discuss whether selection during passage could have given rise to SARS-CoV-2.”

    • No one is asserting that this virus was manipulated with genome editing tools or even that it was grown via in vitro culture (evidence of immunoevasive adaptations make it most likely to have evolved in a host); but there is evidence that these labs were collecting wild type viruses and doing animal passage gain of function experiments, both of which could have brought this strain to Wuhan before an accidental release.

  • I referenced a paper looking at the covid19 strains earlier. In error I listed the scientist name as Curtard. Its Coutard. You can access it here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166354220300528

  • Thank you so much for putting together this excellent summary. I’ve been following this closely since the beginning and you brought out some points that I was not aware of.
    We have the freedom to speak out and if we don’t speak out we might find some day in the near future that we can no longer. So thank you and keep on keepin on.

    • Steven Atukwase May 3, 2020 at 6:47 am

      As some one with some knowledge in zoology, i think that it would be necessary for the habitat of the alleged animals ie bats that could have been the source of COVID-19 virus to be thoroughly scanned in minute detail to confirm or dismiss that hypothesis. Because if the virus was from bats that were taken from a natural ecosystem, then there must be other bats over the habitat which carry those pathogens. There is no way that only one animal ( one bat) could have contracted and spread the virus because they normally live in large groups., there should be others which have it. If it is discovered that there are no other bats carrying the virus then this is likely to help question the validity of that hypothesis. With the natural occurrence of the virus eliminated, that would leave the scientists to highly suspect the artificial (lab) hypothesis.
      At the same time there is need to ask: If infected bats were experimented on, didn’t other people e.g hunters at a different location or traders at a different market get into contact with bats from the same source and get infected? The assumption here is that the habitat was not restricted, but freely accessed. If it was restricted then the controller should be contacted for information.
      The inquiry into the origin of COVID-19 is essential to prevent the resurgence of the disease after some time so it should be highly encouraged.
      Mr Jamie Metzl, thank you for the interest to conduct that research as it will contribute to preventing the likely resurfacing of that virus.

  • Hi Jamie, keep up your good work. At the moment we don’t know why China behaved the way it did. This makes for conspiratorial thinking. While we have the freedoms to question China’s behaviour and motives we should. If our conspiratorial ideas turn out to wrong at least we shall be sure of this. Keep up the investigating,
    Diane

  • I used to manage a BSL-3 virology lab. I agree the most likely explanation is a laboratory accident. If this had occurred anywhere else in China I would have believed otherwise. As stated in the article these accidents happen, for instance, a very uncommon but highly lethal infection is monkey B virus which has killed researchers in the past:

    https://www.cdc.gov/herpesbvirus/cause.html

    A comment that has troubled me coming out of the Chinese government was along the lines of how their authoritarian government was superior for fighting pandemic outbreaks. This was likely a reaction to some White House comment, but China is definitely a student of history and one has to wonder what steps they would take to finally become the biggest power in the world and have the Renminbi become the world’s reserve currency. The later would require an enormous debt event, which we are now facing.

  • Hazel Henderson May 11, 2020 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you for this very useful summary. I co- wrote an article in March, 2020 with physicist Fritjof Capra, as a global systems -oriented futurist scenario , pointing to feedback loops from natural ecosystems to our unsustainable industrial lifestyles which not only make pandemics more likely, but also relate to all the crises in natural systems resulting from fossilized sectors emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants..This article ” Pandemics :Lessons Looking Back from 2050 ” is at http://www.ethicalmarkets.com , which is a global alternative media Certified B.Corporation I founded and have personally funded with my book royalties and our global TV series since 2004. We take no advertising and have 30,000 professional users .We would be happy to serve pro bono as one of your ” media partners”.I just signed up for your Newsletter .

  • Thank you so much Jamie for helping everyone to focus on the “on the record” facts, common sense, and logic.
    As someone with a strong connection to China, I can say that there are identical wet markets in every small, medium, and large city all over China with it’s vast 1.3 billion population. Certainly Guangdong and Yunnan province where the suspects bats are from, 1000 miles from Wuhan, have countless such markets. Everyone please I appeal to your commonsense and try not to believe that somehow this bat virus “choose” Wuhan near the WIV of all places in all of China to jump to humans, which would be an unbelievable coincidence with no comparison in history.
    On more thing that is little mentioned. is that this prolific “bat woman” coronavirus research program based out of the WIV regularly treks to bat cave in Yunnan and elsewhere to collect virus samples. So the accident itself does not necessarily have to have happened inside the WIV. Despite the requirement for full hazmat suits and virus deactivation at collection, humans make mistakes and they could have accidentally infected themselves and brought it back to Wuhan where they work and live.
    A final point is that the WIV is a very new lab, only commissioned 2-3 years ago as the flagship lab in China, widely praised by state media in print and even video documentaries. It’s China’s first attempt at the top BSL4 security. Again, common sense: new lab, new practices = higher likelihood of accidents.

  • I didn’t want to believe you at first because it’s the same theory that Chump is pushing but science is science and we must get to the bottom of this! 🙂 I believe you now because you don’t have a dog in the hunt and you said:

    – There weren’t any bats for sale;
    – They would’ve been hibernating during that time;
    – The virus was a 96.4% match;
    – China has a history of poor security; and
    – Although you didn’t say this, I believe this theory now because Pompous said that he had significant evidence that he couldn’t share with a smug look on his face. It’s like he’s got the smoking gun document and he’s going to release it right before the election…

    Anyway, what I don’t understand is why you don’t think the virus hasn’t been genetically manipulated? I’m not a scientist, but as a layman, I have been following COVID-19 closely, and I’ve noticed that it has attacked in sequence:

    1) The elderly;
    2) Those with comorbidities;
    3) Those with latent comorbidities — almost like it’s accelerating whatever is going to kill you when you grow old;
    4) People of color;
    5) Now children; and
    6) Possibly hiding and coming out later.

    It’s acting like a bioweapon?

  • Hi Jamie, it’s a great summary and analysis, thanks.
    I’d as well add here a link to the withdrawn paper of dr. Xiao, cited as well in
    https://project-evidence.github.io/
    https://chanworld.org/wp-content/uploads/wpforo/default_attachments/1581810860-447056518-Originsof2019-NCoV-XiaoB-Res.pdf

    I think that this is really important for these reasons:
    – I think it’s the first (only?) Chinese scientist paper which tries to explain the outbreak.
    Some statements are actually also pretty seious and wild like
    “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.”
    and
    “In summary, somebody was entangled with the evolution of 2019-nCoV coronavirus”

    – dr Xiao also hypothesized two possible ways in which the contamination might have occurred:

    1) from the WCDC to the market:

    “Surgery was performed on the caged animals and the tissue samples were collected for DNA and RNA extraction and sequencing
    The tissue samples and contaminated trashes were source of pathogens. They were only ~280 meters from the seafood market.”

    2) in another hypothesis he links a possible contamination between the WHCDC (WIV)
    and the adjacent Union hospital:

    “The WHCDC was also adjacent to the Union Hospital where the first group of doctors were infected during this epidemic.
    It is plausible that the virus leaked around and some of them contaminated the initial patients in this epidemic, though solid proofs are needed in future study. ”

    – and then he goes on explaining the chimeric researches performed at the WHCDC(or WIV) and why a lab accident is likely.

    “The second laboratory was 12 kilometers from the seafood market and belonged to Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
    This laboratory reported that the Chinese horseshoe bats were natural reservoirs for the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) which caused the 2002-3 pandemic
    . The principle investigator participated in a project which generated a chimeric virus using
    the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, and reported the potential for human emergence
    . A direct speculation was that SARS-CoV or its derivative might leak from
    the laboratory.”
    p.s.
    typo: the market is 280 meters away from the WCDC not 3 miles
    “The market is also less than 3 miles away from the Wuhan Centre”