Today’s newsletter reads like a thriller novel: The Wall Street Journal gives us a slightly better look at what U.S. intelligence knows about researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology requiring hospitalization in November 2019; why you should never fly over Belarussian airspace; and summer beach-reading season is almost upon us.
Did COVID-19 Put Three Wuhan Lab Researchers in the Hospital? Or Just ‘Common Seasonal Illness’?
It would be preferable if this Sunday’s big Wall Street Journal scoop had a few more specifics attached to it:
Three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report: the researchers with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness.
That’s kind of a big distinction, now, isn’t it?
Let’s observe that most people who work in biosafety-level-four laboratories such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology are in their adult years and are in good health. While I suppose it is possible that a lab technician or virologist who handles dangerous pathogens could be immunocompromised or elderly, that seems like a significant and unusual risk for both the individual and the institution. If you go midway down the page on my April 3, 2020, examination of the evidence, you’ll see five photos of the staff from the website of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Lab of Diagnostic Microbiology available at the start of the pandemic; the staffers appear to be in their 20s, 30s, or 40s.
Perhaps “common seasonal illnesses” in central China are more likely to put a healthy adult in the hospital. Here in the United States, the two groups at the highest risk of developing serious complications from influenza during flu season are the elderly and the immunocompromised. While it’s not unheard of for a healthy adult to require hospitalization from the flu, it’s pretty rare. The CDC offers two sets of estimated figures for the 2017–2018 winter season. In the first, roughly one out of every 177 American adults between the ages of 18 and 49 years who was diagnosed with the flu required hospitalization. A second estimate calculates that 221 out of every 100,000 American adults between the ages of 18 and 49 years required hospitalization, which comes out to one out of every 452. Neither figure separates out immunocompromised adults; either way, it’s really rare for an American adult to require hospitalization for our “common seasonal illnesses.”
And yet, if this previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report is accurate, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had three hospitalizations either simultaneously or in rapid succession. This means that one of three things happened. Either three employees of the WIV caught a particularly virulent common seasonal illness, bad enough to put healthy adults in the hospital, right before the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, and completely unrelated to that outbreak; their illness was connected to their work at the WIV, but what they caught was not SARS-CoV-2; or they caught SARS-CoV-2 and were the first cluster of COVID-19 cases.
Yes, this is circumstantial evidence, but the circumstantial evidence keeps piling up higher and higher.
You may recall that back in March of this year, virologist Marion Koopmans, who was part of that World Health Organization team that traveled to Wuhan earlier this year, told NBC News that “maybe one or two” scientists working on coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology did get sick with flu-like symptoms in autumn of 2019, shortly before the first cases of COVID-19 — but that she’s confident those illnesses are unrelated to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“There were occasional illnesses, because that’s normal,” Koopmans told NBC News. “There’s nothing that stood out. . . . It’s certainly not a big thing.”
She added that she knows these illnesses couldn’t be connected to the COVID-19 outbreak, because the Chinese government told the WHO that those researchers tested negative for COVID-19.
And as we all know, the Chinese government would never lie about this virus, except for all the times it did.
The Journal reports that “Shi Zhengli, the top bat coronavirus expert at WIV, has said the virus didn’t leak from her laboratories. She told the WHO-led team that traveled to Wuhan earlier this year to investigate the origins of the virus that all staff had tested negative for Covid-19 antibodies and there had been no turnover of staff on the coronavirus team.”
A little more than a year ago, Chinese social-media users and those watching China’s Internet kept hearing rumors that a Wuhan Institute of Virology researcher named Huang Yanling was “patient zero,” and a statement from the institute named her specifically, denying the rumor, and declaring she left the institution in 2015. A public appearance by Huang Yanling would dispel a lot of the public rumors and is the sort of thing the Chinese government could and would quickly arrange in normal circumstances, but that never happened. Huang Yanling has not been seen in more than a year, and her fate remains unknown:
A post purporting to be from Huang later appeared on social media platform WeChat.
“To my teachers and fellow students, how long no speak,” the message said. “I am Huang Yanling, still alive. If you receive any email (regarding the COVID-19 rumour), please say it’s not true.”
Her former boss made a separate post on social media claiming that she had left the institute in 2015, while a Chinese news agency claimed that it had spoken with her new employer but provided no other details.
Inexplicably, however, Huang has disappeared from social media and has not been heard from since being identified as Patient Zero, while her biography and research history have been scrubbed from the institute’s website.
Almost one year on, the only trace of the student researcher is a grainy picture of her salvaged from the institute’s website and circulated on the internet.
In the days after the initial reports, bloggers and internet users in China suspicious of officials’ denials pleaded with Huang to make a public appearance to prove she was alive. ‘To stop this rumour spreading, Huang should just come forward and do a blood test,’ said one. Another posted: ‘No matter where you live, Huang, you will be found.’
China’s internet censors quickly stamped out discussion of Huang, and extensive enquiries within the country by The Mail on Sunday, including messages to her former colleagues, have failed to turn up any trace of her.
Maybe Huang Yanling is indeed alive, well, and merely very afraid of making a public appearance. Maybe she’s being detained by the Chinese government. Or maybe she’s dead.
Remember, dear readers, you and I are lab-leak-theory hipsters. We were into it before it was cool. Now, no less a figure than Dr. Anthony Fauci is no longer willing to say it’s too farfetched to be plausible:
PolitiFact’s Katie Sanders noted that there is still “a lot of cloudiness around the origins of COVID-19” and asked Fauci if he is “still confident that it developed naturally,” according to footage of the event which was resurfaced by Fox News on Sunday.
“No actually,” Fauci said at the “United Facts of America: A Festival of Fact-Checking” event.
“I am not convinced about that,” he added. “I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened.”
He continued: “Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out. So, you know, that’s the reason why I said I’m perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus.”
On the home page today, Michael Brendan Dougherty declares that, “If COVID-19 is a man-made disaster, searching for the people, the institutions, and the governments that authored this disaster is not scapegoating, it’s necessary fact-finding before doing justice.”
From the beginning, there have been people in the West who were understandably deeply uncomfortable with the thought that this could be the result of the Chinese government’s recklessness, as opposed to just bad luck or those darned animal smugglers. Everybody hates animal smugglers. They’re the perfect villain. They don’t have lobbyists. They don’t have public-relations firms. There’s no International Association of Illegal Animal Smugglers, addressing international conferences about the joys of black-market pangolin scales. You know what animal smugglers have zero impact upon? Apple’s manufacturing; Disney’s revenues from movies, theme parks, and merchandise sales; America’s exports of soybeans, oil, natural gas, microchips, cotton, and corn — $124 billion in U.S. trade revenues.
You know what does have an impact on $124 billion in U.S. trade revenues? The Chinese government, which is why a whole lot of America’s business, political, cultural, and social elites don’t want to antagonize the Chinese government. For 30 years, most of America’s leaders have pushed all their chips to the middle of the table and bet that the U.S. and China “can continue to advance our mutual interests for the benefit not only of our two peoples, but for the benefit of the world.”
It’s increasingly clear that for 30 years, America’s leaders bet wrong on China — and they’ve been in denial of how wrong they were for ten to 15 years. And if Beijing was experimenting with dangerous viruses and accidentally set off a worldwide pandemic that, as of this morning, has 167 million cases and 3.4 million deaths worldwide, it means that the Chinese regime is far too reckless and irresponsible to be trusted with any kind of power — never mind nuclear weapons, one of the world’s largest militaries, biological-weapons research, DNA databases of American citizens, groundbreaking artificial intelligence, and God knows what other tools and weapons the People’s Liberation Army is developing.
Every Airline Should Avoid Belarusian Airspace Immediately
Get ready for another big test of what the Biden administration is willing to do when an autocratic Eastern European country metaphorically takes international law and blows its nose into it, as agents of the Belarusian government pretty much hijacked an Irish airliner yesterday:
A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president was arrested Sunday after the airliner in which he was traveling was diverted to the country after a bomb threat, in what the opposition and Western officials denounced as a hijacking operation by the government.
Raman Pratasevich, who faces charges that could bring 15 years in prison, was aboard the Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius when it changed course to head for Minsk . . .
The press service of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said the president himself ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the airliner after he was informed of the bomb threat. Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the plane’s crew made the decision to land in Minsk.
Oh, really? What’s a MiG going to do to help stop a bomb threat?
The statement from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken calls it a “forced diversion” of the flight, not a hijacking, which does not seem like a good start.
ADDENDUM: Thanks to Oliver Wiseman for the kind words in his column about the lab-leak theory in The Critic, a new publication over in the U.K.
Memorial Day is approaching, which means summer is almost here, and lots of folks will be looking for summer beach reading. My first thriller, Between Two Scorpions, is up to 281 ratings and reviews on Amazon and is just $3.99 on Kindle. The post-pandemic-focused sequel, Hunting Four Horsemen, is at 124 ratings and reviews, and is just $7.99 on Kindle. The Weed Agency, a comic satire of the federal bureaucracy that would have been useful reading for anyone coming to Washington and worried about a “deep state” undermining their efforts, is at 173 ratings, and is $11.99 on Kindle. (While they’re very different genres, there are a few clues that the thrillers and The Weed Agency are occurring in the same “universe.”)