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The Lancet Gives Up On COVID-19 Origins

The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) Hubei province, Wuhan, China May 15, 2020 (Stringer/Reuters)

On the menu today: The Lancet medical journal abruptly disbands its investigation into the origins of COVID-19; the World Health Organization inches toward a new COVID investigation; the U.S. government is mum about any further COVID investigation on its part; a 2018 grant proposal shows that Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance lied from the start; President Biden takes it easy; President Trump only wants to talk about one thing; and South Carolina senator Tim Scott makes an important point about minority communities and the police.

Apparently, Investigating the Origins of COVID-19 Is Just Too Hard for Scientific Journals

Back in June 2020, the medical journal The Lancet formed a commission to investigate and offer guidance on all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a pledge to create a task force focusing on “the nature, origin, and prevention of zoonotic diseases.” The Lancet named Dr. Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University, one of the world’s most celebrated experts on international development and an adviser to the United Nations, as chairman of the commission.

By November 2020, the commission had formed the task force on COVID-19’s origins and selected Dr. Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, to chair it. You didn’t have to be a wide-eyed conspiracy theorist to find a problem with a man who had extensive financial ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology being the one in charge of investigating whether a global pandemic started from an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak  is the favorite American COVID-19 expert of Chinese-state-run media. What’s more, in an interview with the state-run Global Times in February 2021, Daszak echoed the supremely implausible claim of the Chinese government that SARS-CoV-2 originated in another country and was somehow imported into Wuhan. Daszak stated that EcoHealth Alliance was focusing its own investigation into the origins of COVID-19 by examining similar viruses in Thailand, Japan, and Cambodia. After being the only American whom the Chinese government would allow to visit Wuhan as part of the World Health Organization team, Daszak said in a March interview with CBS News’ Leslie Stahl that, “It wasn’t our task to find out if China had covered up the origin issue.” Daszak said he took his Chinese colleagues at their word that there was no reason to suspect a lab leak.

In June, Daszak recused himself from the COVID-19 commission established by The Lancet — not over his public embrace of China’s implausible blame-shifting theories but because of complaints that he didn’t disclose past conflicts of interest in his contributions to that journal.

The good news is that Sachs has realized that the conflict of interest goes beyond Daszak, concluding that other members of the task force had collaborated with Dr. Daszak or EcoHealth Alliance on various projects. The bad news is that Sachs has disbanded the entire commission investigating the origin of COVID-19, and instead the commission will “continue studying the origins for a report to be published in mid-2022 but broaden its scope to include input from other experts on biosafety concerns including government oversight and transparency regarding risky laboratory research,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Lancet’s investigation has ceased; apparently it is just too hard to find qualified scientific minds who don’t have some past tie to Daszak or EcoHealth.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is launching a new investigation: “A new team of about 20 scientists — including specialists in laboratory safety and biosecurity and geneticists and animal-disease experts versed in how viruses spill over from nature — is being assembled with a mandate to hunt for new evidence in China and elsewhere.” This represents a modest win for the Biden administration, as “officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have pressed WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus publicly and privately to renew the inquiry, which is likely to include at least one American.”

It is unclear how intensely the U.S. government is still investigating the origins of a pandemic that has killed at least 4.7 million people worldwide (some estimates put it much higher), infected 232 million, briefly shut down the world, disrupted the education of hundreds of millions of children, and set off a global economic slowdown.

Back on May 26, President Biden announced that he had “asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days. As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China. I have also asked that this effort include work by our National Labs and other agencies of our government to augment the Intelligence Community’s efforts. And I have asked the Intelligence Community to keep Congress fully apprised of its work.”

Three months later, the U.S. intelligence community came back with a report that was useless, offering almost nothing new to what was publicly known about the start of the pandemic. The publicly released summary of its investigation is barely a page and a half, and offered less information than most lengthy magazine pieces, offering the obvious and unhelpful conclusion that “All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and laboratory-associated incident.”

Neither the intelligence community nor the Biden administration ever shared any specific questions for China. We never heard any details about any work by the National Labs. Whatever the intelligence community did find out in those three months, the Biden administration and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines have no interest in sharing it with the American people or the world. No one in the administration has said anything about the origins of COVID-19 since the intelligence community’s report arrived.

One aspect of the ongoing debate that is particularly frustrating is that nearly two years after the pandemic started, some (possibly disingenuous) voices still insist that any evidence of a zoonotic origin — that is, evidence that the virus jumped from a bat or other animal — is ipso facto evidence that the pandemic could not be caused by a lab leak. But the Wuhan Institute of Virology kept live bats within its walls, a verified fact that Daszak initially denied. We know that in the past, Chinese researchers and EcoHealth Alliance researchers collected bats in the wild without protective equipment. And we know visiting American researchers concluded that the Wuhan Institute of Virology suffered from “a shortage of the highly trained technicians and investigators required to safely operate a [Biosafety Level] 4 laboratory and lack of clarity in related Chinese government policies and guidelines.”

We also know that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducting gain-of-function research on novel coronaviruses found in bats — that is, taking existing novel coronaviruses found in bats and figuring out ways to make them more virulent and more contagious. And in a point that cannot be emphasized enough, the pandemic began on the metaphorical doorstep of one of three institutions in the world doing gain-of-function research on novel coronaviruses in bats.

As Dr. Richard Ebright, a board of governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University and a longtime critic of gain-of-function research, summarized it to Vanity Fair, “It’s not a dozen cities. It’s three places.”

The independent investigative group DRASTIC found a March 2018 grant proposal from EcoHealth to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) proposing an effort to “introduce appropriate human-specific cleavage sites” into SARS-like viruses; in other words, to take existing bat viruses and make them more likely to infect human beings. The proposal declared that “Dr. Shi, Wuhan Institute of Virology will conduct viral testing on all collected samples, binding assays and some humanized mouse work.” This is Shi Zhengli, nicknamed “Bat Woman,” who said in a March 2020 interview with Scientific American that when she first heard of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, one of her first questions was, “Could they have come from our lab?” She vehemently denies that the WIV is the source of the virus.

Over at The Atlantic, Daniel Engber and Adam Federman examined the EcoHealth proposal to DARPA; the headline concludes that, “The Lab-Leak Debate Just Got Even Messier,” which is a painfully obfuscatory summary. (Engber and Federman may not have written the headline.) Their piece ends with a not-very-messy conclusion:

In May 2020, only a few months into the pandemic, EcoHealth’s Peter Daszak ridiculed discussions of the furin cleavage site and whether it might be bioengineered as the ranting of conspiracy theorists. Six months later, Daszak was involved in two major, international investigations into the pandemic’s origins, organized by the World Health Organization and the British medical journal The Lancet. Now it appears that, just a few years earlier, he’d delivered a detailed grant proposal to the U.S. government, with himself as principal investigator, that described doing exactly that bioengineering work. “It’s just shocking,” Chan said.

The pattern here is unmistakable: At every turn, what could be important information has been withheld. Two weeks ago, The Intercept published 528 pages of documents, obtained only after a litigated FOIA request to the National Institutes of Health and a 12-month delay, that describe experiments on hybrid coronaviruses that some experts consider risky, carried out in Wuhan with the support of EcoHealth and the U.S. government.

What’s fascinating is that we have a new virus whose genetic code is most similar to those found in samples taken from a mineshaft in southern China and taken to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for additional study, a Chinese government that lied at every step of the opening weeks of the pandemic, and a U.S. virus-research bureaucracy that has deliberately withheld, covered up, lied, and obscured relevant information . . . and some people still dismiss all of this as a “conspiracy theory.”

Presidential-Schedule Watch

President Biden has had two public events in the past four days, both around the middle of the day on Friday. As of this writing, there are no public events on his schedule for Monday.

Trumpian Monomania

Almost everyone thinks Donald Trump will run for president again in 2024, and many people inside and outside of the Republican Party think the GOP nomination is his for the taking. But Americans see Trump differently than they did in 2016, and he may even be considerably different than he was on the campaign trail in 2020. Have you bothered to look at Trump’s online public-statement archive, the de facto substitute for his Twitter account? About 90-some percent of the former president’s comments focus on his unhinged belief that he’s the real winner of the 2020 election. “Massive fraud was found in the Arizona Forensic Audit, sometimes referred to as ‘Fraudit.’ The numbers are Election Changing!” “The Fake News Media refuses to write the facts, thereby being complicit in the Crime of the Century. They are so dishonest, but Patriots know the truth! Arizona must immediately decertify their 2020 Presidential Election Results.” “Hopefully the Unselect Committee will be calling witnesses on the Rigged Presidential Election of 2020, which is the primary reason that hundreds of thousands of people went to Washington, D.C. in the first place.”

If President Trump thinks about anything besides nutty conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, he hides it well. He doesn’t talk about Americans left in Afghanistan. He doesn’t talk about inflation. He has little interest in the giant spending bills being negotiated in Congress. He barely mentions China, and certainly doesn’t comment on it in depth. He doesn’t even talk about the border much anymore.

Trump’s favorite topic is himself. But his political success was driven in large part by his willingness to talk about issues that affected other people — immigration and trade, but also taxes, regulation, judicial selections, crime, and bombing-the-you-know-what out of ISIS, etc. If the Donald Trump of the 2024 cycle goes on the campaign trail and focuses obsessively about audits and rigged elections and re-litigating 2020, it is fair to wonder how many people will still be thinking about the previous presidential election — particularly in contrast to candidates who are talking about the road ahead, instead of what’s in the rear-view mirror.

ADDENDUM: Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, writing in the most recent issue of National Review: “For too long the liberal media have convinced folks that there is a binary choice between the police and communities of color. It’s clear that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. An investment in bettering our police is an investment in the communities they serve. You have to help one to help the other.”

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