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The Case of the Missing COVID Bat

A bat ecologist detangles a bat caught on a net set up in front of a building with a bat roost at the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB), in Los Banos, Philippines, February 19, 2021. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters )

Memorial Day weekend is almost here — but before then, it’s “back to the lab again.” Chinese scientists’ efforts to find a bat infected with SARS-CoV-2 have been extensive . . . and fruitless. Apparently, the U.S. intelligence community has a whole lot of data relating to Wuhan that has yet to be analyzed. And finally, it’s fascinatingly difficult to nail down just when this pandemic started.

The Extensive, Fruitless Chinese Search for an Infected Bat

SARS-CoV-2 may be a naturally occurring virus. Genetically similar, but not quite identical, viruses have been found in horseshoe bats in Yunnan Province, China. Genetically identical viruses may be in bats in Yunnan Province or somewhere else, and researchers just haven’t found them yet.

Or SARS-CoV-2 may be a version of a naturally occurring virus that mutated while it was being researched at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or some other institution. Or it may be a virus that was altered through gain-of-function research in some lab.

If SARS-CoV-2 is a changed version of what is naturally found in horseshoe bats in Yunnan Province, it might explain why this particular virus has not yet been found in the wild. And until I ran across this article in MIT Technology Review, I hadn’t realized just how far-reaching and extensive the search for the host species in China has been. Liang Wannian, the Chinese head of the joint Chinese–WHO effort, is quoted as saying that Chinese authorities “tested 50,000 animal specimens, including 1,100 bats in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. But no luck: a matching virus still hasn’t been found.”

Some may wonder whether an assessment performed by scientists, researchers, investigators, and health officials who answer to the Chinese government is trustworthy. But at least in this particular situation, the Chinese government’s inability to find the virus amounts to an admission against interest. If researchers found the virus in a bat out in nature somewhere, the case for the lab-leak theory would be seriously undermined — the bat out in nature could have spread the virus to people.

A persistent inability to find animals with the virus is not the way things progressed during the first SARS outbreak:

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 search for any cases outside of Wuhan before the outbreak became big news seems similarly exhaustive:

A first step was to double-check that the outbreak really did start in Wuhan, not elsewhere. China undertook a fairly vast effort to see if COVID-19 could have been spreading, unseen, any earlier than December 2019. Chinese researchers checked records of more than 200 hospitals around the country for suspicious pneumonias, tracked how much cough syrup pharmacies had sold, and tested 4,500 biospecimens stored before the outbreak, including blood samples that could be screened for antibodies. The WHO team says it even interviewed the office worker who, on December 8, 2019, became the first recognized covid-19 case in China.

So far, there is no evidence the outbreak went undetected elsewhere before the Wuhan cases. Genetic evidence also narrows the chance that the virus was spreading much earlier. Because of how the germ has accumulated mutations with time, it’s possible to estimate when it first started spreading between people. That data, too, points to a start date of late 2019.

It is . . . odd that the world hasn’t been able to find SARS-CoV-2 in an animal species yet. As the U.K. Bat Conservation Trust summarized:

The COVID-19 virus hasn’t been isolated from any of the world’s 1400+ species of bat. A coronavirus with 96 percent of its genome in common with SARS-CoV-2 has been found in a single species of bat (Rhinolophus affinis) in China. This may sound significant, but to put it in context, we share 96 percent of our genome with chimpanzees, but we are not the same species. It is important to stress that in this pandemic it is humans that transmit COVID-19 to other humans, not bats.

Scientists don’t yet know precisely what the “minimum infectious dose” is for COVID-19, but they think it’s around 100 virus particles, maybe 1,000. This virus spreads like wildfire among human beings, so why can’t we find it in any bats? If it’s a pangolin virus, why can’t we find it in any pangolins?

Unfortunately, that MIT Technology article also includes the sentence, “One problem with the lab leak theory is that it presumes the Chinese are lying or hiding facts, a position incompatible with a joint scientific effort.” Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, is cited as an authority declaring Chinese-government dishonesty as an unthinkable scenario. As our Jimmy Quinn, among others, reported, “as president of the research nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, Daszak partnered with the WIV in 2014 to study bat coronaviruses and, over the course of the next five years, provided $598,000 in NIH funding to the Chinese lab to support that research.”

Wait, We’re Only Now Looking at Databases of Chinese Communications?

Is the problem that our intelligence community collects way more data than it can ever sort through and analyze in a timely fashion? Because that’s the undertone from the big New York Times scoop of Thursday night:

President Biden’s call for a 90-day sprint to understand the origins of the coronavirus pandemic came after intelligence officials told the White House they had a raft of still-unexamined evidence that required additional computer analysis that might shed light on the mystery, according to senior administration officials.

The officials declined to describe the new evidence. But the revelation that they are hoping to apply an extraordinary amount of computer power to the question of whether the virus accidentally leaked from a Chinese laboratory suggests that the government may not have exhausted its databases of Chinese communications, the movement of lab workers and the pattern of the outbreak of the disease around the city of Wuhan.

“Databases of Chinese communications, the movement of lab workers and the pattern of the outbreak of the disease around the city of Wuhan”? Doesn’t that sound like the kind of stuff that would be first in line to get studied and analyzed? Please tell me that the answer to the origin of this pandemic hasn’t been sitting in some database for the past 18 months, waiting for somebody to look at it or listen to it.

The Difficulty of Nailing Down Exactly When the Pandemic Started

Yesterday’s extensive layout of the evidence pointing in the direction of a lab leak noted that in May 2020, NBC News reported that, “Private analysis of cellphone location data purports to show that a high-security Wuhan laboratory studying coronaviruses shut down in October, three sources briefed on the matter told NBC News.” I wrote that “since that report, there has been no subsequent elaboration, no further details, no ensuing leaks of new information of what, if anything, happened in that laboratory building in that autumn.”

University of Colorado environmental-studies professor Roger Pielke Jr. was kind enough to share the private-sector analysis that NBC News was referring to, and you can see it here. Back in May 2020, the Daily Beast wrote an article pooh-poohing the conclusions of the private analysis. They contend the analysis’s assessment of cell-phone activity in and near the lab is only using location data for seven phones — too small a sample to be useful, and that the sudden absence of certain phones can be explained by holidays, vacations, or users losing phones. They contend that the analysis’s description of roads being blocked off near the Wuhan Institute of Virology aligns with construction projects in the area. Perhaps most glaringly, the analysis contended that a November conference on biosafety lab management at the Wuhan lab scheduled for the first week of November was canceled. But the investigator hired by the Daily Beast found a Facebook post from a Pakistani scientist who had attended the event and taken selfies there, including at the BSL-3 laboratory. In the absence of further evidence, that analysis of cell-phone-location data probably should be put aside.

The thing that stuck out to me is that the analysis suggested some sort of incident occurred in the Wuhan Institute of Virology on October 6, 2019. That seems a little early, based upon what else we know about the timeline of the pandemic. One of the first comprehensive studies of the first COVID-19 patients concluded that the “symptom onset date of the first patient identified was December 1, 2019,” and the hospitals in Wuhan really started seeing waves of patients in mid to late December. Could a virus as contagious and virulent as this one really have floated around the city of Wuhan from October 6-ish into December before anyone felt the need to go to a hospital?

Then again, maybe October 6 isn’t that early. Last month, a study by researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues at the University of Arizona and Illumina ran “epidemiological simulations to determine how long SARS-CoV-2 could have circulated before the time of the most recent common ancestor of all sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genomes. Our results define the period between mid-October and mid-November 2019 as the plausible interval when the first case of SARS-CoV-2 emerged in Hubei province, China.”

Three other claims of events in the Wuhan area in November 2019, all brought to you with a heavy dose of “for what it’s worth”:

  • The South China Morning Post cited Chinese-government data declaring the first person who presented similar cases was a 55-year-old male patient from the province of Hubei on November 17.
  • In March 2020, George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview that, “There is no solid evidence to say we already had clusters in November.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that a U.S. intelligence-community report determined that three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough to require hospitalization in November 2019.

ADDENDA: Dan McLaughlin is right: We need public testimony, under oath, about what can be determined about this pandemic’s origins. And any day I can make Dana Perino’s day is a good one.

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