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Let’s Focus on China’s Origin Story Again

Workers in protective suits examine specimens inside a laboratory following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, February 6, 2020. (China Daily via Reuters)

On the menu today: a return to the topic of the Wuhan labs and the origin of the coronavirus, as China’s top epidemiologist declares the Huanan Seafood Market was not the origin point of the coronavirus.

China Stops Blaming the Huanan Seafood Market for Launching the Pandemic

The fact that scientists backed by the Chinese government insist that SARS-CoV-2 didn’t come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology is not surprising. But the fact that an official Chinese source, on state-run television, is now changing the current official theory of the origin point of the virus is intriguing:

The director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, at the center of allegations around a potential laboratory accident, Wang Yanyi, over the weekend told China Central Television that the coronavirus was significantly different from any live pathogen that has been studied at the institute and that there therefore was no chance it could have leaked from there.

Note that there were two labs in Wuhan working on coronaviruses found in bats; the other was the Wuhan Center for Disease Control. For what it’s worth, some bright minds like Matt Ridley believe this other lab should be the focus of scrutiny, in part because it is a lower biosafety level and closer to the market that was believed to be the source of the outbreak.

But now we must put greater emphasis on “was” believed to be the source of the outbreak:

Separately, China’s top epidemiologist said Tuesday that testing of samples from a Wuhan food market, initially suspected as a path for the virus’s spread to humans, failed to show links between animals being sold there and the pathogen. Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in comments carried in Chinese state media, “It now turns out that the market is one of the victims.”

If you don’t believe anything said by any official in China, that’s understandable. And anyone who believed or continues to believe the origin point was a wet market has good reasons to lean in that direction. Virologists warned about these markets for years, calling them the perfect spot for a new virus to jump into humans. Smithsonian magazine, back in 2017:

China is uniquely positioned to create a novel flu virus that kills people. On Chinese farms, people, poultry and other livestock often live in close proximity. Pigs can be infected by both bird flu and human flu viruses, becoming potent ‘mixing vessels’ that allow genetic material from each to combine and possibly form new and deadly strains. The public’s taste for freshly killed meat, and the conditions at live markets, create ample opportunity for humans to come in contact with these new mutations.

Could there be a third vector? Sure. Farmers all over Asia go into caves to collect bat guano to use as fertilizer, and a 2013 study looked at samples of guano sold in Thailand and found group C betacoronavirus. (You can learn more about the types of coronaviruses here and betacoroaviruses here; the upshot is that most group C betacoronavirses aren’t a serious danger, with the glaring exception of the one that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.) That scenario would be a little strange; we haven’t heard about any cases among farmers preceding the known outbreak in Wuhan. But the first moments of this outbreak are still murky and unclear; more on this point further below.

You probably recall that back on April 3, my lengthy examination of the evidence pointing to a lab release pointed out a few problems with the wet-market theory. No one had evidence that bats or pangolins were sold in that market. Chinese scientist Botao Xiao claimed he had spoken to “31 residents and 28 visitors,” and none could recall bats ever being sold in the market. Quite a few of the early cases in Wuhan hospitals could not be traced back to that market.

One last point: As I encounter pushback against the lab theory, I feel like certain people really want this to be a story of bad exotic animal poachers and bad animal smugglers. If these sorts of criminals are deemed ultimately responsible for worldwide pandemic that has nearly 6 million cases and more than 360,000 deaths, government authorities around the globe might finally cooperate and shut down this multi-billion-dollar illicit industry. I’d love to see that, too, but animal smugglers make a particularly convenient villain; just about everybody except their customers already hates them. If the trail leads back to a Chinese government lab . . . the ramifications are much more troubling and disruptive to an existing world order.

We Don’t Know the Virus’s Origin . . . and We May Never Know

Earlier this week, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins made a statement of fact that shouldn’t be seen as controversial: At this point, while we see no indication of engineering or other manipulation of the virus and thus it is naturally occurring, we just don’t know how this virus jumped from animals to humans, and no scenario can be ruled out at this point. “Whether [the coronavirus] could have been in some way isolated and studied in this laboratory in Wuhan, we have no way of knowing.

As I mentioned in a video chat with the National Review Institute’s 1955 Society earlier this week — sign up to support a noble cause and get perks like watching me in my home office! — I suspect we will never definitively know the origin of this virus. If it came from a lab, the Chinese government has probably long since destroyed any “smoking gun “evidence, and they will never admit it. The Beijing authorities have remarkable skills, tools, and resources for silencing whistleblowers and dissenters. Even if the virus really did come from the Huanan Seafood market, Wuhan authorities made decisions that destroyed necessary biological evidence:

Local authorities in Wuhan collected extensive samples at the end of December from a market where the virus is believed to have first begun spreading widely, enlisting professional disinfection crews to help with the effort, The Wall Street Journal reported. Four months later, officials have yet to share any data from those samples with any labs outside of China.

Some Chinese and foreign researchers told The Journal they had been informed by Chinese officials that animals taken from the market were destroyed.

The Chinese argument that they acted responsibly hinges heavily on the point that they identified the genetic sequence of the virus quickly in late December and early January and released that information to the world about a week later. But on February 28, the Straits Times laid out an account that made it sound like it was much more of a coverup and strategic delay in releasing information:

On Jan 1, after several batches of genome sequence results had been returned to hospitals and submitted to health authorities, an employee of one genomics company received a phone call from an official at the Hubei Provincial Health Commission, ordering the company to stop testing samples from Wuhan related to the new disease and destroy all existing samples.

The employee spoke on condition of anonymity, saying the company was told to immediately cease releasing test results and information about the tests, and report any future results to authorities.

Then on Jan 3, China’s National Health Commission (NHC), the nation’s top health authority, ordered institutions not to publish any information related to the unknown disease, and ordered labs to transfer any samples they had to designated testing institutions, or to destroy them. The order, which Caixin has seen, did not specify any designated testing institutions.

In mid-May, an NHC official partially confirmed that account, saying the destruction of the samples was for safety reasons:

NHC official Liu Dengfeng confirmed that the commission had issued these guidelines at that time “for pandemic prevention and control, which also played an important role in preventing biosafety risks.”

“If the laboratory conditions cannot meet the requirements for the safe preservation of samples, the samples should be destroyed on the spot or transferred to a professional institution for safekeeping,” said Mr. Liu, supervisor of the commission’s Department of Health Science, Technology and Education.

To summarize the Chinese government’s argument, the virus could not have accidentally been released from one of their labs, because their labs are too diligent and professional to ever make that kind of mistake, and once they had identified the virus, they had to destroy the samples because of the risk of an accidental release.

What Was Happening in Wuhan in November?

Bit by bit, we continue to get anecdotes that don’t quite align with what we think we know about the early days of the virus. An unnamed source citing Chinese government data told the South China Morning Post that the first documented case was November 17; no other source has verified that. A study of early cases in the medical journal The Lancet declared, “The symptom onset date of the first patient identified was December 1, 2019.” Two weeks ago, there was a stir about athletes claiming they came home sick from Wuhan after the World Military Games in October. (Testing these athletes for antibodies should be simple. Have they been tested? Did they come back negative and no one found it newsworthy?)

Now there’s a curious little anecdote from the San Francisco Bay area. Charlie and Margaret Getz, an American couple, had booked a seven-day cruise along the Yangtze River in early November, and their first day was supposed to be in Wuhan on November 1:

Their relaxed overnight stay turned into a brief three-hour visit. Within minutes of getting off the plane, the two were rushed to a Wuhan history museum.

“We were the only ones at the museum, no local folks around,” he said. “Then, they had a brief concert for us.”

The itinerary suddenly changed and the Wuhan city tour was canceled.

“We were told we immediately have to leave that night, not the next day,” said Getz.

There was no warning and no explanation.

“My wife Margaret said, ‘Wait a second, we’re supposed to look at these historic districts. What’s going on here?’ Getz said, pointing out the brochure they showed the tour guide. “They said, ‘No, no, no.’ Then, they said, ‘Oh there’s a lot of traffic on the river.'”

But, Getz remembers seeing very little traffic.

It’s China, it’s a tour company, and itineraries get changed all the time. Even the Getzs say it could well be coincidental. But it’s easy to start wondering: Did certain people in Wuhan, perhaps including people connected to that tour visit, know something was wrong or unsafe in the city?

ADDENDUM: “It’s just unrealistic to think that a lab accident could have set off a global pandemic like this!”

Reuters, this morning: “A troop of monkeys in India attacked a medical official and snatched away blood samples of patients who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, authorities said on Friday. The attack occurred this week when a laboratory technician was walking in the campus of a state-run medical college in Meerut, 460 km (285 miles) north of Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh state.”

You knew something like this would happen after we lost Charlton Heston.

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