Perhaps the most intriguing detail in the Wall Street Journal’s profile of Dr. Linfa Wang, a professor in the emerging infectious diseases program at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, comes near the very end:
In early January, 2020, Dr. Wang was on one of his regular trips to Wuhan, attending meetings on bat coronavirus research. Covid-19 was already spreading in the city.
He used public transportation and took taxis. He went with Dr. Shi — [Dr. Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, nicknamed ‘Bat Woman’] — and other friends to restaurants. “The best restaurants were crowded,” he said. “In January it was already very dangerous, but I didn’t see it that way.”
He flew back to Singapore on Jan. 18, five days before China locked down the city. He hasn’t been back since.
Some will see the description of Dr. Shi Zhengli behaving normally and attending restaurants as a sign that she was as oblivious to the growing viral threat as anyone else. Others will argue that any successful cover-up of any accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology would require the staff to continue their lives, as if nothing was wrong. Sudden changes to the WIV staff’s normal routines would indicate they knew going to crowded places carried a considerable risk – and that they knew more about the mysterious new virus than they were letting on.
Wang describes the city going about its daily life normally – even though evidence of an unprecedented threat was piling up throughout Wuhan and staring China’s national medical leadership right in the face.
By the first week of January, the number of infections had doubled in less than a week, from 27 to 59. By January 9, COVID-19 had claimed its first life; on January 10, the World Health Organization had issued a carefully-worded travel warning, and according to Reuters, “hospital respiratory wards began reaching capacity by around January 12, and some people were being turned away.” Thailand reported its first case on January 13. On January 14, the head of China’s National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, held a secret teleconference with provincial health officials concluding the “situation is still severe and complex, the most severe challenge since SARS in 2003, and is likely to develop into a major public health event.” Also that day, the World Health Organization declared it has seen “limited” human-to-human transmission.
By January 15, the U.S. Embassy in China had issued its own travel warning about “an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, preliminarily identified to be caused by a novel coronavirus,” an infected traveler from Wuhan arrived in the state of Washington, and health authorities in Japan had identified that country’s first case.
And apparently during this time, two top-tier virologists, who specialize in novel coronaviruses found in bats, were living in or visiting the epicenter of the outbreak, and going to crowded restaurants.
Dr. Wang emphasizes that the world may never definitively know the origin of COVID-19. Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, made similar comments in late June.
If the pandemic’s origins really are going to be an eternal mystery, then perhaps we must conclude that the risk of another pandemic comes from a human being interacting with an infected animal in the wild – or animal smugglers, or consumption at a wet market – as well as the risk of accidents or human error in laboratories handling virulent contagious viruses. More than four million people are dead, either because someone had contact with an infected animal, or someone was involved in a lab accident, or both, someone had a lab accident that involved contact with an infected animal.
If the U.S. intelligence community punts and declares, “well, we will just never know,” that doesn’t mean we should just move on from what the Chinese government did once it knew it was dealing with a deadly, and very contagious, new virus.