The Morning Jolt


Australian Scientist Who Worked in Wuhan Lab: Scientists Are ‘Gossipy’

A medical technologist tests a respiratory panel at Northwell Health Labs after being authorized to begin semi-automated testing by the FDA in Lake Success, N.Y., March 11, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

An Australian virologist who worked in the Wuhan Institute of Virology until November 2019 says everything she saw looked safe while she was there; President Biden bombs Iran; the Democrats realize just how slim their House majority is; and the U.S. National Archives denounces its own rotunda.

Australian Who Worked at the Wuhan Institute: ‘Scientists Are Gossipy and Excited’

It is good that Australian virologist Danielle Anderson is telling the world about her time at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that while working there, she saw nothing unusual or that concerned her:

An expert in bat-borne viruses, the Victorian is the only foreign scientist to have undertaken research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 lab, the first in mainland China equipped to handle the planet’s deadliest pathogens. Her most recent stint ended in November 2019, giving Anderson an insider’s perspective on a place that’s become a flashpoint in the search for what caused the worst pandemic in a century.

“It’s not that it was boring, but it was a regular lab that worked in the same way as any other high-containment lab,” Anderson says. “What people are saying is just not how it is.”

Those U.S. State Department science officials who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology and who came away with concerns about the laboratory’s safety protocols and practices wrote their memos in 2018; maybe the WIV really had improve its procedures by late 2019. Or at least, it sounds like when there was a visiting Australian researcher on the premises, everyone in the lab around her was on their best behavior.

Anderson’s description of the decontamination procedures is also reassuring:

From her first visit before it formally opened in 2018, Anderson was impressed with the institute’s maximum biocontainment lab. The concrete, bunker-style building has the highest biosafety designation, and requires air, water and waste to be filtered and sterilized before it leaves the facility. There were strict protocols and requirements aimed at containing the pathogens being studied, Anderson says, and researchers underwent 45 hours of training to be certified to work independently in the lab.

The induction process required scientists to demonstrate their knowledge of containment procedures and their competency in wearing air-pressured suits. “It’s very, very extensive,” Anderson says.

Entering and exiting the facility was a carefully choreographed endeavor. Departures were made especially intricate by a requirement to take both a chemical shower and a personal shower — the timings of which were precisely planned.

The problem is that Anderson wasn’t witnessing every handling of a dangerous virus or biohazardous material at every spot in the lab every day, and it only takes one screw-up for someone who thinks he’s been careful to walk out of the lab unknowingly carrying a contagious virus. And there’s a certain segment of the interview that suggests Anderson’s trust in her former colleagues at WIV is far-reaching:

Not only that, many of Anderson’s collaborators in Wuhan came to Singapore at the end of December for a gathering on Nipah virus. There was no word of any illness sweeping the laboratory, she says.

“There was no chatter,” Anderson says. “Scientists are gossipy and excited. There was nothing strange from my point of view going on at that point that would make you think something is going on here.”

If a strange new virus is circulating around Wuhan and making people sick, it is unlikely that Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers would go to a Singapore conference and say, “Hey, I think that new virus going around the city might be one of ours. Remember a few weeks ago when those three guys down the hall got really sick?” Are Chinese scientists really that “gossipy” about the sorts of topics that can get them arrested? Particularly when talking to foreign citizens? Doesn’t the experience of Dr. Li Wenliang suggest that most doctors, medical researchers, and scientists in China would be, at minimum, wary of talking about a potential major error by a state-run institution?

The interview continues:

It’s not that it’s impossible the virus spilled from there. Anderson, better than most people, understands how a pathogen can escape from a laboratory. SARS, an earlier coronavirus that emerged in Asia in 2002 and killed more than 700 people, subsequently made its way out of secure facilities a handful of times, she says.

If presented with evidence that such an accident spawned COVID-19, Anderson “could foresee how things could maybe happen,” she says. “I’m not naive enough to say I absolutely write this off.”

And yet, she still believes it most likely came from a natural source. Since it took researchers almost a decade to pin down where in nature the SARS pathogen emerged, Anderson says she’s not surprised they haven’t found the “smoking gun” bat responsible for the latest outbreak yet.

It is amazing how often the “It took many years to trace SARS back to an animal, thus it will take a similar amount of time with this virus” argument gets deployed, without mentioning that the original SARS was found in nearby animals quickly. From MIT Technology Review:

In fact, it was the origin of SARS, a similar coronavirus that panicked the world in 2003 when it spread out of southern China and sickened 8,000 people. With SARS, researchers tested caged market animals and quickly found a nearly identical virus in Himalayan palm civet cats and raccoon dogs, which are also eaten locally.

This time, though, the intermediate-host hypothesis has one big problem. More than a year after covid-19 began, no food animal has been identified as a reservoir for the pandemic virus. That’s despite efforts by China to test tens of thousands of animals, including pigs, goats, and geese, according to Liang Wannian, who leads the Chinese side of the research team. No one has found a “direct progenitor” of the virus, he says, and therefore the pandemic “remains an unsolved mystery.”

The scenario that lab-leak-theory advocates probably ought to keep in mind is that the wet-market scenario is almost as embarrassing to China as the lab-leak scenario. If the outbreak were definitively traced back to a wet market, it would mark the second time in 17 years that a global pandemic was set off by wild animals being sold for food consumption in unsanitary, barely monitored Chinese markets. This is also is the second time that the world suffered unnecessary infections and deaths because the Chinese government attempted to cover up the severity of the new virus. Beijing has a strong incentive to point the finger of accusation away from the Wuhan labs and from the local wet markets, and its best-case scenario is that the origin of the virus remains a confusing, contradictory mystery. This is why the state-run Xinhua “news” organization remains obsessed with “evidence showing the coronavirus was first detected in the United States, France and Italy before the outbreak in Wuhan, China.”

The Biden Administration’s Schizophrenic Iran Policy

I’m glad to see that President Biden authorized airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria:

At President Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted defensive precision airstrikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region. The targets were selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq. Specifically, the U.S. strikes targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq, both of which lie close to the border between those countries. Several Iran-backed militia groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), used these facilities.

It does raise the question of why Biden would be contemplating lifting sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, if Iran is supporting militias trying to kill Americans in Iraq.

Back before the pandemic took over our lives, Concerned Veterans for America — the Koch-aligned veterans group — was pushing heavily for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now, the organization sees no further point in keeping a U.S. presence in Iraq or Syria, either. CVA senior adviser Dan Caldwell responded to last night’s airstrikes with the statement:

The best way to keep our troops currently serving in Iraq safe is to withdraw them. An American military presence in Iraq is not necessary for our safety nor is it in our national interest. The current American military mission in Iraq is to train Iraqi Security Forces, which often work with and even equip the same militias we are bombing in Iraq and Syria — it is completely counterproductive and self-defeating. Instead of risking the start of another disastrous war in the Middle East by engaging in escalatory air strikes, President Biden should bring our troops home from Iraq.

The Democrats’ Slim House Majority Starts to Have Consequences

Back on May 4, I wrote, “The dirty little secret of American politics right now is not that progressives can’t get 60 Senate votes to pass their agenda; it’s that they often can’t get 50.”

Likewise, another dirty little secret of American politics right now is that progressives can’t always get 218 votes in the House of Representatives. Politico reports that the Democratic House moderates don’t want a runaway “infrastructure” spending bonanza enacted through reconciliation, declaring that some House Democrats “privately say any price tag over $4 trillion is a nonstarter for the Democrats-only bill, and that they would prefer any party-lines proposal be more narrowly targeted toward augmenting popular programs like a permanent expansion of the child tax credit. New immigration policies, major tax reforms or stricter climate rules, they say, would be tougher to swallow.”

Remember, right now, because of four vacancies, the House has 431 members, 220 of whom are Democrats. This means that if five House Democrats vote “no” with Republicans and everyone is in attendance, a bill or amendment would fail.

ADDENDUM: You can’t make this stuff up: “The National Archives’ task force on racism claimed in a newly unearthed report that the agency’s own rotunda housing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights is an example of ‘structural racism.’”


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