In January 2018, two U.S. Embassy officials from Beijing visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and characterized the WIV as having “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate his high-containment laboratory. This observation was memorialized in a January 19, 2018 cable from the U.S. Embassy Beijing to the U.S. Department of State by two officers from the Science Section of the Embassy, according to the Washington Post.
The WIV is one of China’s BSL-4 laboratories, similar in nature and protocol as that located at Fort Detrick, MD. The WIV has partnerships with a number of U.S. entities to include, University of Alabama, University of North Texas, EcoHealth Alliance, Harvard University, The National Institutes of Health, the United States, National Wildlife Federation, and the Canadian International Development Research Center.
The Chinese interest in bio-weapons or survival are both sides of the same coin.
We know that in mid-2019 a Chinese scientist was dismissed from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Canada. The scientist, Xiangguo Qui, is recognized as having formulated a drug for treating Ebola – Zmapp. She was accused of stealing pathogens and taking/sending them to China.
The stolen pathogens included a henipavirus which has a 100% kill rate. Where Xiangguo landed in China has not be ascertained, but we speculated in August 2019, and will today, that China’s interest in henipavirus detection and treatment were high priorities, sufficiently high to warrant having a well placed researcher abscond with the pathogens and be dismissed by the western institute with which she was associated.
In that vein, it’s important to note, WIV has been researching coronaviruses for many years.
In late-November 2017, for example, the WIV published their study “Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus” in the PLOS – Pathogens, a peer-reviewed open access journal. The article discusses SARS-CoV and the multi-year observation of the horseshoe bats traced back to a single cave located in Yunnan, China.
The Embassy officers who visited the lab in 2018 noted that the biologists were working on how various “SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus.”
University of California at Berkeley scientist Xiao Qiang, according to the Post, noted that while no concrete evidence exists that the Novel Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) was engineered by the WIV, it is not the same as saying “it didn’t come from the laboratory.”
In a Pew Research poll released on April 8, 29% of all Americans believe that COVID-19 was created intentionally or released accidentally by Chinese researchers, with 25% saying they don’t know and 43% going with the natural evolution of the virus.
We know from CDC’s inspections of the Fort Detrick BSL-4 laboratory the level of difficulty which exists in maintaining protocols surrounding these sensitive laboratories. When Fort Detrick faltered, the CDC shut them down. There is no information readily available which indicates if similar inspections were conducted by the Chinese CDC, what we do have, however, is the observation of the U.S. Embassy officials in January 2018, indicating the WIV had safety issues.
The Lancet article of January 24 points the point of origin to the Hunan Seafood Market, with 66% of the initial patients having some sort of connection to the market. The remaining 33% had no association with the market. What we don’t know is what portion of the first 27 patients had an association with WIV laboratory personnel or if WIV laboratory personnel visited the wet market as patrons. The market’s proximity to the WIV would make it both probable and possible personnel would shop at the market.
Two Chinese researchers Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao of the Guangzhou South China University of Technology, published on ResearchGate that the “killer coronavirus probably originated in a laboratory in Wuhan.” They point out the proximity of the WIV to the market (280 meters).
The piece has since been retracted by Botao Xiao.
Willingly or under direction, we don’t know, but we remember the late-Li Wenliang who was forced to sign a letter of apology for highlighting the situation in Wuhan in late-December 2019. We also know China is putting restrictions on the “publication of academic research on the origins of coronavirus.” These action are consistent with the Chinese desire to shape the conversation surrounding the origin of COVID-19 and their handling of the genesis of the epidemic.
Indeed, in the January 31 Congressional Research Service piece on “Novel Coronavirus (COVID019): Developments in China and International Response”, the CRS notes that China pivoted from downplaying the seriousness of the situation to one of urgency following a January 20 State Council meeting – and appropriate national health guidance was issued requiring the mandatory quarantine of patients.
Of particular note is that the Department of State ordered the mandatory evacuation of U.S. consulate personnel and dependents on January 23, just three days after the State Council meeting, and thus the United States eyes in Wuhan departed, and the ability to engage with those on the ground dealing with the crisis within the Wuhan virology community, the same individuals who met with consulate personnel in 2018, was no longer possible.
Researchers in Ottawa suggest the transmission of COVID-19 is due to stray dogs ingesting bats and transferring the coronavirus to humans. Nature magazine suggests that it came from bats sold at the market, to the Chinese scientists and U.S. diplomatic personnel highlighting the security issues at the lab – which suggest a possibility not unlike the 2016 television series “Containment,” – the COVID-19 point of origin lays with a researcher error.
It may be a while until we learn the true story surrounding the origin of COVID-19.