Since the pandemic started, China has promoted various narratives on its possible origins. First, the country’s top scientists blamed a Wuhan market selling wild animals, which was rapidly cleaned up and all the samples kept secret. Then officials suggested the devastating disease might have come from outside the city, even pointing the finger at a possible laboratory leak — from a United States military base in Maryland rather than within their own borders. More recently, following the slaughter of infected mink at farms in Europe, prominent figures focused on these furry mammals as hosts of the virus, while pushing hard with another theory that Covid might have been imported on chilled or frozen food.
These ideas have been knocked down or failed to fly. Several studies showed Sars-CoV-2 — the strange new strain of coronavirus — was unlikely to have come from the market, leading to formal dismissal of this suggestion by Beijing’s top expert last May. More recent research by molecular epidemiologists assessed thousands of samples from infected patients to conclude the “progenitor” emerged in China in late October. Other scientists say there is no evidence of origin in mink. And even Kristian Andersen, a prominent US professor of immunology and microbiology who is dismissive of lab leak theories, said he does not find the data linking the virus to frozen foods to be “credible”.
Yet when the World Health Organisation (WHO) held its press conference in Wuhan to announce the surprisingly quick initial results of its inquiry into the origins, there was much talk of the market — although it stated this was not the birthplace — along with floating of that idea that mink might be linked. There was discussion of frozen food, musings that this disease might have emerged outside China, strong focus on the need to find the intermediate animal source as the “most likely” source. Yet they also confessed to a failure to find any clues backing this popular theory, even admitting that testing thousands of samples from scores of different species did not produce positive results.
The speakers said, rightly, there is much work to do in tracing the source. This is a vital quest to help guard against future — and potentially worse — pandemics. Yet these scientists were certain on one aspect of their investigation: this disease did not leak from one of the three laboratories in Wuhan studying bats and bat-borne coronaviruses. Never mind the extraordinary coincidence of an outbreak almost certainly connected to creatures living hundreds of miles away in the caves of southern China occurring in the city that was host to Asia’s top research centre into such viruses. The experts were adamant: there is no need for further inquiries into this concept since it is “extremely unlikely” to be the cause of this global catastrophe.
It was no surprise to hear such claims from Liang Wannian, the Chinese professor on the podium. He is, after all, head of the Covid-19 panel at their National Health Commission who led Beijing’s response to the crisis. He has defended his government’s “decisive” approach, despite the silencing of doctors trying to warn their fellow citizens, the denials of human transmission, the deletions of key data and the reluctance to share genetic sequencing. This Communist apparatchik was never going to be the most dispassionate person probing the pandemic origins. Predictably, he pushed from the outset an unproven idea this disease might have started beyond his country’s borders. He also claimed the earliest confirmed cases were December 8 2019, conflicting with his own nation’s main health body, a key early study by Chinese scientists in The Lancet and a well-sourced leak in the South China Morning Post that dated the first incidence back to November 17.
Yet how shameful to see the WHO — a branch of the United Nations tasked with protection of public health — diminish itself again by kowtowing to China’s dictatorial regime in such craven style. Beijing fiercely resisted this mission for months, even imposing sanctions on Australia after it called for such an inquiry. It gave consent after considerable haggling in return for the right to vet the team of scientists. Lo and behold, those picked included the British charity chief Peter Daszak, who has worked with Wuhan scientists for years on their controversial experiments and led efforts to dismiss claims of any lab leak as “baseless”. Now suddenly this is a “WHO-China Joint Study” — and it seems the chosen experts see their task as selling China’s story to the planet.
So why is WHO so dismissive of a possible lab leak? After all, Peter Ben Embarek, the Danish food safety scientist leading its mission, explained that all the work to identify the origin of Covid-19 continues to point towards a natural viral reservoir in bats — but accepted they were unlikely to have been flying over Wuhan. He said his team held a “very long, frank, open discussion with the management and the staff” at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), listened to their description of research carried out, accepted assurances that they did not posses Sars-Cov-2 in their virus banks, examined health data they were given, took the view such leaks are rare and then decided that microscopic pathogens could not escape from such a high-secure unit. “It was very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place,” he said firmly.
It is sweet these international scientists are so trusting of their Chinese colleagues, despite all the evidence of cover-up with the previous Sars epidemic soon after the turn of this century and then again in initial weeks of this pandemic. But this hardly sounds the most forensic, evidence-based approach given the seismic importance of their conclusions. We know the controlling nature of Chinese state repression. We know there have been many leaks before from labs, including 11 Sars infections from a top-security Beijing research centre in 2004. We know there were safety concerns since they were admitted by WIV’s head of security in a journal shortly before the outbreak. We know databases of unpublished viruses were hidden from outsiders. And we know that for all the WHO team’s faith in the WIV security, much of their Sars research was carried out at lower security labs in the city,
We also know scientists in Wuhan initially feared the novel coronavirus leaked from their lab. We know they were performing risky “gain of function” research that forces evolution of viruses, which some scientists have long feared might spark pandemic. We know they were combining snippets from different strains of bat coronaviruses and creating chimeric diseases using cloning techniques that display no sign of human manipulation. We know they were injecting viruses into “humanised mice” and trying to determine how bat diseases jump the barrier between species. We know also this new disease was well adapted to human transmission, possessing a mutation that allows its spike protein to bind to many human cells that is not found on similar types of coronaviruses. And we know two Chinese scientists in February claimed “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan” before their paper was hastily deleted.
Then there are the issues swirling around Shi Zhingli, Wuhan’s famed expert known as “Batwoman” for her sample-gathering trips in southern China, that have raised suspicions after being winkled out by Drastic, a group of researchers and scientists. Her actions include claiming three miners died of a fungal infection in 2012, when it later emerged they died from a respiratory disease similar to Covid that they caught clearing bat droppings in one of those caves. She obscured a link to their fatalities when publishing an influential Nature paper about the closest known relative to Sars-Cov-2 — and altered the name of this virus without mention of her action in that paper, widely taken as indication of natural transmission. Now she pushes ideas of transmission by mink and, yes, frozen food.
None of this amounts to proof. Science, like journalism, should rely on evidence and facts. And it is entirely possible that — as a majority of scientists believe — this cruel new virus emerged naturally from Mother Nature’s bosom, even if both China and the WHO experts have failed so far to find any animal source. There is also no doubt that Donald Trump’s botched intervention injected this important debate with lethal toxicity. Yet the US government in a sober statement from the State Department claimed it has “reason to believe” WIV researchers fell sick with Covid-like symptoms in autumn 2019 “before the first identified case of the outbreak”. We see also a growing number of highly-credible experts putting heads over the parapet to say that a leak is a plausible hypothesis deserving investigation. I have even spoken to senior figures in WHO who freely accept the leak possibility. Yet, instead, we are getting this patsy inquiry that accepts possibility of direct infection from bats but discounts the chance of infection during collection of their faeces or research into their diseases.
That charade of a press conference — after 12 days wandering around Wuhan that included visiting a propaganda exhibition celebrating China’s recovery — was simply embarrassing. There is also a major flaw in the logic expressed at the event. The WHO stance is based on placing faith in China, despite all the evidence that this is a state that cannot be trusted — whether lying about its horrific treatment of minorities in Xinjiang, breaking a historic deal with Britain to protect freedom in Hong Kong or silencing noble doctors trying to alert the world to looming disaster. Yet if a leak was covered up, is it possible to trust such a government? So if WHO is ruling out the likelihood of a laboratory accident, it must immediately release all data and evidence supporting its case.
“An investigative process should be transparent, collaborative, international and, to the extent possible, devoid of political interest,” wrote David Relman, a biosecurity expert at Stanford University, in a superb analysis of the origin scenarios. “Without these features it will not be credible, trustworthy or effective.” This renowned scientist has raised the coincidence of the world’s largest repository of bat coronaviruses being in the city that gave birth to global pandemic. “A more complete understanding of the origins of Covid—19 clearly serves the interests of every person in every country in the planet,” he said succinctly. Instead, we seem no closer to understanding the arrival of this new disease, which remains a perplexing mystery, while witnessing a grotesque display of appeasement of China’s dictatorship by an increasingly discredited UN body.