On the menu today: House Republicans unveil the results of their investigation into the origins of COVID-19, which uncovered an utterly inexplicable massive expenditure by the Wuhan Institute of Virology shortly before the pandemic began; and the three professions that need to get vaccinated the most will probably never face workplace mandates because of the strength of their unions.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology’s $606 Million Air-Conditioning-Repair Bill
On September 16, 2019 — roughly two and a half months before the first reported cases of COVID-19 — the Wuhan Institute of Virology signed a contract to spend a bit more than $606 million on a “Central Air Conditioning Renovation Project.”
Even if you’re used to the air-conditioning guy coming to you with a massive bill, that seems like a lot. For perspective, Microsoft is building a new data-center campus on 53 acres near Chicago for somewhere between $450 million and $500 million. The Wuhan Institute of Virology wanted to spend more than that just to renovate its HVAC system.
This new fact comes from the Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a new report, The Origins of COVID-19: An Investigation of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Its source for that is the China Government Procurement Network. You can run the contract through Google translate; note the contract’s sum of 3,928,876,694 yuan actually calculates out to $607,855,882.69 at the current exchange rate.
The argument of House Republicans is that this massive expenditure, along with others in the preceding and subsequent months, indicates that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had equipment problems in the year before COVID-19 appeared in the surrounding city: “The references to maintenance at the BSL-3 and animal center at the WNBL, the procurement of an environmental air disinfection system, and renovations to the hazardous waste treatment system and central air conditioning system all raise questions about how well these systems were functioning in the months prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.” Josh Rogin notes that the contract announcement, along with one for a new $1.3 million “Security Service Procurement Project” on September 12, were later scrubbed from the Chinese Ministry of Finance website.
I find, even by the standards of government contracting, the sum of $606 million to replace an air-conditioning system so astronomically high that it is hard to believe that the contractor was just being asked to renovate the existing air-conditioning system. Garden-variety corruption doesn’t explain a building’s repairs costing that much. For comparison: “The building and sophisticated equipment that make up the Galveston National Laboratory cost more than $174 million when it was completed in 2008” — that comes out to $219 million once adjusted for inflation.
Why would China’s bill to replace an air-conditioning system be three times the cost of building a new lab from the ground up here in the United States?
Last night, someone in the field insisted that the Institute buildings’ air-conditioning systems had nothing to do with the air-handling system for the biocontainment suites. Fine. But the sheer size of the sum of money in that contract raises the question of just what the contractor was really being asked to do. Beyond that — even by the standards of a secretive and ruthless authoritarian government — who posts and then subsequently takes down the air-conditioning-repair bill, unless there’s something significant about it?
The House Republicans’ report doesn’t mince words, declaring right at the start that:
The preponderance of evidence suggests SARS-CoV-2 was accidentally released from a Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory sometime prior to September 12, 2019. The virus, or the viral sequence that was genetically manipulated, was likely collected in a cave in Yunnan province, PRC, between 2012 and 2015. Researchers at the WIV, officials within the [Chinese Communist Party], and potentially American citizens directly engaged in efforts to obfuscate information related to the origins of the virus and to suppress public debate of a possible lab leak. It is incumbent on these parties to respond to the issues raised herein and provide clarity and any exonerating evidence as soon as possible. Until that time, it must be assumed General Secretary Xi and the Chinese Communist Party, prioritizes preserving the Party over the lives of its own people and those around the global suffering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is not a perfect report; I would quibble with its emphasis on two points.
The first disputable contention is when the report notes that, “athletes at the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October 2019 who became sick with symptoms similar to COVID-19 both while in Wuhan and also shortly after returning to their home countries.” Testing these athletes for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 would be a simple task, and yet I have not heard about any positive tests that confirmed exposure to the virus in October 2019. As Rogin noted back in June of this year, “no one performed any antibody testing or disease tracing on these thousands of athletes. No one even attempted to find out whether the games in Wuhan was, in fact, the first international pandemic super spreader event.” It’s possible that SARS-CoV-2 was spreading among those athletes at that time, but that remains unproven.
The second disputable contention is that, “satellite imagery of Wuhan in September and October 2019 that showed a significant uptick in the number of people at local hospitals surrounding the WIV’s headquarters, coupled with an unusually high number of patients with symptoms similar to COVID-19.” The problem is that we don’t know if those upper-respiratory illnesses and viral infections represented cases of SARS-CoV-2; Wuhan has a lot of other viruses going around! In June and July 2019, the streets of Wuhan saw massive protests of thousands of people, objecting to construction of a new incinerator plant, complaining that the city’s air quality was bad enough.
Beyond that, the House Foreign Affairs Committee report is excellent. Some details are almost comical:
Director Wang’s 2021 New Year’s speech makes reference to the Party Committee of Wuhan Institute of Virology, pledging that the party committee will “effectively play the role of a battle fortress of grassroots party organizations.” The WNBL also has its own party branch, the Zhengdian Laboratory Party Branch, which was “awarded the title of ‘Red Flag Party Branch’ by the Hubei Provincial Party Committee and Provincial Organization Working Committee, effectively playing an advanced and exemplary role.” Notably, in discussing the COVID-19 pandemic, Director Wang [Yanyi]’s 2021 speech takes pains to address questions of lab safety — “The institute’s high-level biosafety laboratory operates safely for more than 300 days throughout the year.” Her 2020 address, posted sometime after April 2020, makes no such mention.
Director Wang knows how many days are in a year, right? Declaring a lab operates “safely for more than 300 days throughout the year” is like saying you drive safely six days a week.
The report lays out why some figures in government strongly suspect that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is connected to Chinese biological-weapons programs:
The WNBL’s BSL-4 lab was constructed as a result of an agreement between the PRC and France that was signed after the 2003 SARS pandemic. At the time, all BSL-3 labs in the PRC were controlled by the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Then-President of France, Jacques Chirac, and his Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, approved the project despite concerns from both the French Ministry of Defense and French intelligence services – Raffarin himself described it as “a political agreement.” The PRC was suspected of having a biological warfare program, and the military and intelligence services were worried that the dual-use technology required to build a BSL4 lab could be misused by the PRC government. The uneasy compromise reached within the French government was that the agreement would require joint PRC-France research to be conducted in the lab, with French researchers present. In 2016, the PRC requested dozens of the containment suits required to work in the lab. The French Dual-Use Commission, tasked with considering exports of sensitive equipment, rejected their request. According to French reporting, the request was “well above the needs of the Wuhan [lab].” This continued to fuel concerns within the French Ministry of Defense that the PRC was seeking to engage in military research or open a second BSL-4 lab for military means. Despite the agreement that the BSL-4 lab would be a site of joint research, and an announcement at the 2017 inauguration by then Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve of €5 million in funding, there has only been one French scientist assigned to the lab. His tour ended in 2020.
It’s a thorough, detailed, and even-handed report. Read the whole thing here.
Of course, this report from House Republicans is just the appetizer. The intelligence community’s assessment is the main course.
Wait, Which Groups Are Refusing to Get Vaccinated?
I’m not a fan of vaccine mandates as a condition of employment — at least, not a mandate for a vaccine still waiting for a biological-license-application approval from the FDA. But if I had a magic wand and could instantly vaccinate everyone in three professions in America, I know exactly which groups I would choose. The first would be staffers at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, because the people they work with are the most vulnerable to both COVID-19 and all other infections. And only 59 percent of nursing-home staffers are partially or fully vaccinated nationwide.
The second would be staffers at hospitals and other medical facilities, because the people they work with are the most likely to be infected and symptomatic. About one in four hospital workers across the country remains unvaccinated; at the country’s 50 largest hospitals, the rate is one in three.
And the third would be teachers and anyone else who encounters large numbers of children; while the COVID-19 risk to children is still low, children are the one group in America that remains involuntarily unvaccinated.
ADDENDUM: Thanks to Andy McCarthy for the kind words.