Editor’s note: More than a year after the pandemic started, Americans are still sifting through facts and conspiracy theories to understand just what happened. This series goes back to the beginning of COVID-19 and brings us up to date on our unprecedented odyssey through politics, infectious disease, public health mandates, and societal shutdown. Part 1 showed how a theory about the origins of coronavirus has come full circle: declarations that the virus came from a Chinese lab were firmly rejected, though the evidence is mounting that these allegations could hold water. Read part 3 here.
In the first part of our series, we outlined background information on the Wuhan lab in China and the theory that the virus started at a wet market that sold bats – although they were not available for purchase at the time of the outbreak. In this segment, we’ll look at the governments involved and the seeming reluctance to deeply investigate the laboratory facility as ground zero for the spread of COVID.
Links to COVID from 2012
In 2012, six miners were tasked with shoveling out bat feces from the floor of a mine shaft in Mojiang County. They became sick a few weeks later, displaying symptoms of fever, cough, and labored breathing. Zhong Nanshan, a pulmonologist who had treated SARS patients (and later led the expert panel for China’s National Health Commission for COVID-19), was called in. In 2013, Nanshan concluded that the rufous horseshoe bat was the culprit – the same creature suspected of spreading today’s version of the virus.
Three of the six miners died within months of contracting the illness. “The disease was acute and fierce,” Nanshan noted in his thesis. “[T]he bat that caused the six patients to fall ill was the Chinese rufous horseshoe bat.” Blood samples from the bats were sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and it was determined that the animals were positive for SARS antibodies. This was the first time scientists found a coronavirus that could potentially be transferred from bats to humans. Shi Zhengli, WIV’s lead coronavirus researcher, began studying both the bats and the virus.
First COVID Victims May Have Been Lab Workers
At least three researchers at the lab fell ill with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019 – a month before official reports of any patients. That was a key detail left out of the public eye in the early days of the pandemic, but it has sparked renewed interest in determining if COVID-19 came from a lab leak. According to Vanity Fair – which claims to have compiled in-depth research, complete with interviews and official documents – a former State Department official said:
“These [patients from the lab] were not the janitors. They were active researchers. The dates were among the absolute most arresting part of the picture, because they are smack where they would be if this was the origin.”
The virus was initially being called a form of pneumonia. But Li Wenliang, a Wuhan ophthalmologist, tried to warn the world in January 2020 that it was a form of SARS. The doctor was arrested and forced to write a retraction – and died with COVID in February.
Media and Governments Take Action
On January 23, 2020, Daily Mail ran an article with the headline “China built a lab to study SARS and Ebola in Wuhan – and U.S. biosafety experts warned in 2017 that a virus could ‘escape’ the facility that’s become key in fighting the outbreak.”
Meanwhile, top officials had begun investigations into the origins of the virus since a host animal responsible for the animal-to-human spread had yet to be found. According to Vanity Fair’s probe:
“[C]onflicts of interest, stemming in part from large government grants supporting controversial virology research, hampered the U.S. investigation into COVID-19’s origin at every state.
In one State Department meeting, officials seeking to demand transparency from the Chinese government say they were explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. government funding of it.”
Thomas DiNanno, former acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, wrote in a memo that staff from his bureau, along with the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, “warned” their leaders “not to pursue an investigation into the origin of COVID-19” because it would “’open a can of worms’ if it continued.”
Skeptics argue that the absence of a host animal, as well as evidence of the sickness originating from the lab itself, and the cluster of virus victims being nearby, the Wuhan lab is the logical choice for ground zero. Rutgers University’s Dr. Richard Ebright said that it took him “a nanosecond or a picosecond” to consider a link between the two. He pointed out that there are only three labs in the world doing similar coronavirus research: Galveston, TX, Chapel Hill, NC, and Wuhan, China. “It’s not a dozen cities,” he said. “It’s three places.” And the initial outbreak was at one of those locations: Wuhan.
On Dec. 9, 2020, several State Department employees held a conference to plan a fact-finding mission to Wuhan. One of the topics discussed was what information to share with the public. Christopher Park, the director of the State Department’s Biological Policy Staff in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, reportedly warned “not to say anything that would point to the U.S. government’s own role in gain-of-function research.” In 2017, Park had been involved in lifting a U.S. government moratorium on funding for gain-of-function research, Vanity Fair reported. DiNanno said the warnings “smelled like a cover-up, and I wasn’t going to be part of it.”
As Liberty Nation reported in Part 1 of this series, The Lancet released a statement signed by scientists that condemned the theory of a lab leak. Peter Daszak, a zoologist, was one of the signers. On Jan. 14, 2021, he joined 12 other “experts” to investigate WIV. The group spent the first two weeks of their four-week stay in quarantine. During the remaining time, they toured an exhibit showing President Xi Jinping’s leadership. According to VF’s research, they only visited the institute once and met with Zhengli, also known as the “Bat Woman.”
While there, the group did not ask for access to the database of virus samples, and Daszak remarked at an event in London a month later that there had been no need. “[W]e did not ask to see the data … As you know, a lot of this work has been conducted with EcoHealth Alliance … We do basically know what’s in those databases. There is no evidence of viruses closer to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13 in those databases, simple as that.” Zhengli claimed to have taken the databases offline due to hacking during the pandemic, but the database had been taken down on Sept. 12, 2019, three months before the start of the pandemic.
After a couple of weeks of investigations, Chinese and international experts voted with a show of hands which scenario they believed was the most plausible:
- Direct transmission from bat to human: possible to likely.
- Transmission through an intermediate animal: likely to very likely.
- Transmission through frozen food: possible.
- Transmission through a laboratory incident: extremely unlikely.
In April 2021, former Centers for Disease Control director Robert Redfield announced that he believed COVID-19 had escaped from the lab. He received death threats from other scientists. “I was threatened and ostracized because I proposed another hypothesis,” he told Vanity Fair. “I expected it from politicians. I didn’t expect it from science.”
While the debate continued with one side insisting the virus had to have been transferred from a host animal and the other saying it was a lab leak, President Joe Biden announced on May 26 that further investigation is needed to find COVID’s origin. This decision comes more than a year after former President Donald Trump had his administration look into the lab leak theory and was called racist for the effort.
Coming up in Part 3: How has gain-of-function played a significant role in uncovering the truth of the origins of the virus and WIV’s experiments that involved making animals more human to test the spreading of COVID?
Read more from Kelli Ballard.