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It Is Important to Know This Virus’s Origins

A man passes by a billboard depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping as the spread of the coronavirus continues in Belgrade, Serbia, April 1, 2020. (Djordje Kojadinovic/Reuters)

On the menu today: one long deep dive into the Fox News report that unnamed “sources” are increasingly confident that the origin of this virus is an accidental release or infection from a laboratory, and how every possible transmission path paints the Chinese government as incredibly reckless and unconcerned about the risk to human life around the world.

Fox News: ‘Increasing Confidence that COVID-19 Likely Originated in a Wuhan Laboratory’

I can’t quite spike the football yet; I wish Bret Baier and Gregg Re of Fox News had been able to use named sources, and that these sources could have at least hinted at anything not yet publicly known about the labs in Wuhan that made them suspect that SARS-CoV-2 started from an accidental release.

But you can feel the ground shifting underneath your feet:

There is increasing confidence that COVID-19 likely originated in a Wuhan laboratory, though not as a bioweapon but as part of China’s effort to demonstrate that its efforts to identify and combat viruses are equal to or greater than the capabilities of the United States, multiple sources who have been briefed on the details of early actions by China’s government and seen relevant materials tell Fox News.

This may be the “costliest government coverup of all time,” one of the sources said.

The sources believe the initial transmission of the virus was bat-to-human, and that “patient zero” worked at the laboratory, then went into the population in Wuhan.

The “increasing confidence” comes from classified and open-source documents and evidence, the sources said. Fox News has requested to see the evidence directly. Sources emphasized — as is often the case with intelligence — that it’s not definitive and should not be characterized as such. Some inside the administration and the intelligence and epidemiological communities are more skeptical, and the investigation is continuing.

What all of the sources agree about is the extensive cover-up of data and information about COVID-19 launched by the Chinese government.

Documents detail early efforts by doctors at the lab and early efforts at containment. The Wuhan wet market initially identified as a possible point of origin never sold bats, and the sources tell Fox News that blaming the wet market was an effort by China to deflect blame from the laboratory, along with the country’s propaganda efforts targeting the U.S. and Italy . . .

China “100 percent” suppressed data and changed data, the sources tell Fox News. Samples were destroyed, contaminated areas scrubbed, some early reports erased, and academic articles stifled.

If someday there is an outbreak of a new, strange, and deadly virus in the Cumberland area of northwest Atlanta, people will understandably wonder if the virus first manifesting there had anything to do with the fact that the headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is nearby. If someday there is an outbreak of a new, strange, and deadly virus in Frederick, Md., people will understandably wonder if the outbreak has anything to do with the nearby U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.

And when there is an outbreak of a novel coronavirus that originated in bats in Wuhan, China, people understandably start to wonder if it has anything to do with the two laboratories in the city that were doing research on novel coronaviruses in bats.

A few people sometimes ask whether it really matters whether this virus originated from someone being less careful than they needed to be with a bat in a laboratory or biological material from the bats. I assume these are good faith questions, and not some sort of effort to preserve the good name of the Chinese government. Indeed, to the doctors trying to save lives right now, and to those suffering the effects of SARS-CoV-2 right now, the scenario that brought the virus into humans doesn’t matter that much, at least at this moment.

But if we want to ensure nothing like this happens again, we need to know how this virus first got into humans.

The irony is that every possible transmission path paints the Chinese government as incredibly reckless and unconcerned about the risk to human life.

If it originated from a person eating bat or pangolin at a wet market, then we need to take steps to ensure that bat and pangolin consumption and trade stops everywhere in the world. (This would probably be a good idea even if the virus didn’t come from bat and pangolin consumption.) Every time a person comes in contact with one of these animals in a setting without proper health and safety protocols, they run the risk of a new strain of the coronavirus jumping from animals to humans. The danger has been clear for more than a decade. A 2007 study from virologists at the University of Hong Kong concluded, “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.”

Chinese state-run media says that 94 percent of the wet markets in China are still open. No, not all of them sell exotic animals, but law enforcement and health inspections were lax at best.

As of this writing, this virus has infected 2 million people and killed more than 135,000. If wet markets are the source of the virus, humanity is every bit as vulnerable to a new strain of the coronavirus today as we were with the first patient, back in November or December.

The Chinese government is incredibly reckless and unconcerned about the risk to human life because they keep the wet markets open. Put another way, right now in your community, you’ve got to stand in line six feet apart to get into your local supermarket, but Beijing won’t even shut down the exotic animal butchers.

Bat guano is used as fertilizer in many countries, and that guano can be full of viruses. One of the alternative theories to the wet market theory is that some farmer or guano trader went into a cave, collected the guano for fertilizer, and SARS-CoV-2 got into his system, and then he went into Wuhan and started infecting others. (You would figure we would have seen some cases in some agricultural community somewhere outside of Wuhan first, but perhaps those first cases were mild or not properly diagnosed.) If this is the source of the virus, we need to get people to stop going into caves and using the guano as fertilizer. Even if this isn’t the source of the virus, we need people all around the world to know that going into a cave and coming in contact with bats and their guano puts them at serious risk for infectious diseases. Already, if you come into contact with a bat in your house, the CDC wants you to get checked by a doctor and perhaps vaccinated against rabies.

Scientists have known that bats carry a wide variety of coronaviruses since at least 2006. The Chinese government is incredibly reckless and unconcerned about the risk to human life because they allow farmers to keep using bat guano as fertilizer. Somehow this regime can make doctors and journalists disappear, but they can’t convince farmers to use anything else to help the crops grow or make animal smugglers disappear.

In a strange way, the “lab accident” scenario is one of the most reassuring explanations. It means that if we want to ensure we never experience this again, we simply need to get every lab in the world working on contagious viruses to ensure 100 percent compliance with safety protocols, all the time. You might contend that that sort of thing is impossible, but we’ve never had an accidental launch of a nuclear weapon. It is probably easier to get every scientist working on contagious diseases in the world to always follow the safety rules, than to get every farmer in the world to stop using guano as fertilizer, or to hunt down every exotic animal smuggler in the world.

This current pandemic means the world will never stop researching coronaviruses; the need to understand them better, and how to combat them once they’re in a human body, is too great.

But back in 2014, the U.S. government started getting worried about certain kinds of research — specifically, any experiments that involve enhancing a virus’s pathogenicity or by increasing its transmissibility among mammals by respiratory droplets. After instituting an unprecedented three-year pause on the research, the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced new rules designed to make the research process safer. But the NIH cannot control how other countries’ labs operate or shut down a foreign lab that makes them nervous.

We know that back in 2014, scientists like Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and biodefence expert at Rutgers University, were publicly expressing concerns that this research represented too much risk for too little benefit.

We know, from reporting by Josh Rogin, that Jamison Fouss, the consul general in Wuhan, and Rick Switzer, the embassy’s counselor of environment, science, technology, and health, repeatedly visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology and in January 2018, wrote back to Washington “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory . . . the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”

A few years ago, the Chinese government announced plans to “build between five and seven biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) labs across the Chinese mainland by 2025.” In Lynn Klotz’s eerily prescient assessment in February 2019, she wrote, “For an already identified 14 labs creating or researching mammalian-airborne-transmissible, highly pathogenic avian influenza, the potential 16 percent probability of a laboratory release into the community over five years of research (a result found in a study now being prepared for publication) is already uncomfortably high.”

In addition to the U.S. and China, BSL-4 laboratories operate in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Gabon, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

There’s one other wrinkle to keep in mind. Right now, everything we know about the Wuhan Institute of Virology indicates it is a research laboratory that was studying coronaviruses in the name of health research. The original SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 had more than 5,300 cases in China and killed 349 people. It is entirely natural and expected that Chinese health officials and doctors would want to know more about coronaviruses, to be prepared to fight some future outbreak.

But this is not to say that Chinese government has no interest in biological weapons. China signed the Biological Weapons Convention in 1984, but a July 2019 report by the U.S. State Department noted that China “possessed an offensive biological warfare program from the early 1950s to at least the late 1980s” and that “the United States has compliance concerns with respect to Chinese military medical institutions’ toxin research and development because of the potential dual-use applications and their potential as a biological threat.”

This does not mean that SARS-CoV-2 is a biological weapon. What it means is that the Chinese government’s interest in and enthusiasm for researching contagious viruses may not be entirely driven by altruistic reasons.

ADDENDUM: Maybe this experience will scramble the usual partisan alliances. Progressive Democrat Ted Lieu is calling out World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus for excluding Taiwan from being a Member of the World Health Organization:

Taiwan not only got it right at the crucial early stages of this virus, it has done a good job suppressing it.

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