At last, expert opinion is beginning to agree.
Nearly a year and a half into the pandemic, the new consensus among experts is beginning to agree that the virus actually did come from a Chinese laboratory and that the Chinese government likely caused the single worst man-made disaster in human history. Last week, President Joe Biden finally asked his intelligence agencies to step up their efforts to get to the truth about the origins of Covid-19 amid growing concerns. This followed a new report published by Republican members on the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, recounted in last week’s The Sunday Guardian, claiming a “cover-up”, with the Chinese government lying and obfuscating since the outbreak of the pandemic.
A string of scientists have recently admitted that they may have leapt to conclusions in assuming that the virus may have jumped from an animal host in the wild to humans. Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases and Biden’s chief medical advisor, has always maintained that he believes the virus was passed from animals to humans, but even he conceded this month that he was no longer confident. Perhaps it’s because we now know that determined efforts in both China and the wider world to prove that Covid-19 had a natural zoonotic origin have so far failed to find, despite testing 80,000 samples, an intermediate host animal that might have turned a bat virus into such a lethal, well adapted pathogen for human beings.
The debate over the nature of the experiments conducted by the Chinese in Wuhan long predates the current pandemic, but it has gained a new urgency as scientists investigate the origin of the virus that has killed more than 3 million people around the world.
The core of the dispute is simply this: did the virus emerge from nature, zoonotically from animals, or was it the result of a lab experiment gone awry?
Immediately after the outbreak last year, most scientists were saying that the balance of scientific evidence strongly supported the conclusion that the new coronavirus emerged from nature—it was zoonotic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and China released a joint report in February which supported this view, saying that a lab escape of the virus was “extremely unlikely”. But this only served to raise more questions as Beijing had delayed access to international investigators for months, virtually guaranteeing that the lab had been deep-cleaned before any forensic analysis could be done. It also strictly controlled the visit by the WHO team, allowing them only three hours inside the Wuhan lab and denying them access to any of the Wuhan Institute’s safety logs or records of testing on its staff.
This overly deferential WHO report is now considered a propaganda document of Beijing and holds little credibility among the scientific community, who are now turning to the lab-escape theory. Of course, China continues to insist that Covid-19 did not originate in the Wuhan lab, accusing the US of “concocting inconsistent claims which fully show that people in the US don’t care about facts and truth”. As people in the free-world know, “facts and truth” are words rarely associated with China.
Current focus is on the type of virology research carried out in Wuhan, in particular the highly dangerous “gain-of-function” (GOF) category. In order to better understand disease pathways, GOF studies specifically increase the ability of infectious agents to cause disease by enhancing their pathogenicity or by increasing its ability to transmit. In other words, dangerous pathogens are created for the stated purpose of defending against them. But viruses are always mutating and for more than a decade scientists have expressed concerns about the risk of accidental infection in these GOF laboratories that created highly transmissible, novel strains of dangerous viruses. Such was the concern, that in 2014 a group of scientists and experts, called the Cambridge Working Group, issued a statement calling for a “pause of experiments involving the creation of potential pandemic pathogens until there has been a credible assessment of the risks and risk mitigation”. These calls were met with deaf ears in Wuhan, whose scientists were ordered to carry on with GOF research regardless.
Bio-security experts around the world have long been fierce critics of this approach. Professor Richard Ebright of Rutgers University in New Jersey argues that the only outcome is “the creation in the lab of a new, non-natural risk”. He raised fears over a possible lab leak last year. Now he believes discussions over safety must become a priority as “the risk of another pandemic originating in a lab is real”, adding that people need to focus on “the inadequacy of biosafety and biosecurity standards worldwide in the complete absence of regulations”.
So what happened in Wuhan? Here researchers were combining snippets from strains of bat coronaviruses to increase virulence, injecting viruses into “humanised” mice, testing how disease can jump the species barrier and creating chimeric diseases using cloning techniques. Although similar experiments take place in other parts of the world, often in secret, there is a suspected problem in Wuhan because of the appalling history of pathogenic outbreaks at Chinese research institutions, mostly as a result of failure to comply with safety procedures. On 7 December 2019, the Beijing News reported that 96 staff and students at the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute were found to be infected with the bacterium Brucella, typically found in farm animals, but which can trigger fatal complications in people. On 10 December, the health commission for the province of Heilongjiang confirmed that 13 students at the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute also had the infection.
Perhaps the most infamous case of a released laboratory strain of a virus was the H1N1 influenza-A virus, which was first observed in China in May 1977 and in Russia shortly afterwards. The virus escaped from a Chinese lab, which was attempting to prepare a vaccine in response to the swine flu pandemic alert. The 1977 H1N1 pandemic spread rapidly worldwide, but virologists and public health authorities were ordered to keep their mouths shut because any revelation might have brought to an end any cooperation with Russian and Chinese virologists, which at the time was vital to worldwide influenza surveillance. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), caused by a coronavirus, an epidemic that began in China in 2002, also resulted from no less than four distinct mal-events at the same laboratory in the country.
These worrying examples are only a “tip of the iceberg” of numerous laboratory accidents caused by poor biosecurity procedures in Chinese handling of dangerous pathogens. Reports attributed to US intelligence sources that three members of the Wuhan Institute of Virology were admitted to hospital in November 2019, several weeks before China acknowledged the first case of the new disease in the community, are hardly reassuring. Beijing angrily rejected the reports, weirdly suggesting that the virus originated in a US laboratory instead. China clearly believes that the best form of defence is attack, no matter how bizarre and nonsensible their argument.
But what would a Wuhan lab-leak really mean? The result would be uncomfortable not just for the Chinese Communist Party, which would be guilty of overseeing the biggest cover-up event in history, an event which caused economic chaos, millions of deaths and misery around the world. It would also shake science to its foundations for carrying out risky research despite clear warnings of the dangers from past mistakes.
Of course, it’s unlikely that any definitive proof of a lab-escape will ever be produced. The Chinese state is ruthless in its efficiency, as shown by the sudden removal of a key virus database in mid-September last year and the hastily censored paper by two Chinese scientists blaming a lab-leak. We know that the Chinese officials were guilty of an initial cover-up that inflamed the impact of the disease with devastating global consequences, and that Beijing promoted false theories, smeared critics and expelled foreign reporters, so they were obviously concerned that the truth would come out. There is also the coincidence that this pandemic began in a city that is home to Asia’s biggest coronavirus research at Wuhan Institute of Virology, as well as several other key research centres, yet hundreds of miles from the southern Chinese caves where samples are collected from the bats.
The lab-leak theory has now come in from the cold, having earlier been dismissed as a crazy conspiracy theory promoted by ranting right-wingers and nasty Sinophobes. China is clearly guilty “beyond reasonable doubt”, a verdict that will justifiably exonerate the small handful of brave scientists who have been saying it all along.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.