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U.S. Intelligence Community: Sorry, COVID-19’s Origin Remains a Mystery

Outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2021 (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

On the menu today: The U.S. intelligence community’s review into the origins of COVID-19 is due to be presented to the president today, and the early indication is that our best spies, analysts, and experts are shrugging and concluding they can’t clear up much. But the circumstantial evidence pointing to a lab leak is now overwhelming.

U.S. Intelligence Drops the COVID Ball Again

Gee, thanks a lot, U.S. intelligence community:

President Joe Biden is set to be briefed on the U.S. intelligence community’s investigation into how COVID-19 started, with the report likely to disappoint in delivering clear answers about the deadly pandemic’s origin in China.

. . . Three U.S. government officials and a fourth person familiar with the scope of the investigation said they did not expect the review to lead to firm conclusions after China stymied earlier international efforts to gather key information on the ground.

Instead, one official said the report would likely point to additional lines of inquiry that officials could pursue, including demands of China that are likely to further ratchet up tensions with Beijing at a time when the country’s ties with Washington are at their lowest point in decades.

“It’s basically impossible to have a proper investigation if one of the main parties doesn’t want to cooperate,” said Thomas Wright, Brookings Institution senior fellow and co-author of “Aftershocks,” a book about the pandemic with Biden’s Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl. “We need to proceed as if both hypotheses are true.”

Having a proper investigation of topics when the main party involved doesn’t want to cooperate is . . . why we have an intelligence community, isn’t it? Were Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan cooperative with the old OSS? Was the Soviet Union cooperative about its defense capabilities, nuclear arsenal, and long-term strategies? Were al-Qaeda and ISIS cooperative with investigations of what terror attacks each was plotting?

That Reuters report linked above does note that, “People familiar with intelligence reporting have said that there has been little corroboration over recent months that the virus had spread widely and naturally amongst wild animals.”

Back in June, I noted that Liang Wannian, the Chinese head of the joint Chinese–WHO effort, recently stated 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.”

A naturally occurring, highly contagious animal virus that can’t be found in any animals is quite odd. During the first SARS outbreak in 2003, the WHO issued a global alert on March 12; by May 23, Chinese researchers announced that they had found a virus similar to the one that caused SARS in several wild-animal species for sale at a market in southern China. In the original SARS, the first cases included chefs and people handling animals, and subsequent testing found that more people in such professions had antibodies to the virus, too. By 2017, virologists identified a single population of horseshoe bats in a remote cave in Yunnan Province, China, that had virus strains with all the genetic building blocks of the one that jumped to humans in 2002. (That investigation was led by “Bat Woman” Shi Zheng-Li and Cui Jie of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.)

The virus found in nature that is closest to SARS-CoV-2 was found in a copper mineshaft in Tongguan, Mojiang, Yunnan Province, China. In 2012, three of six miners were killed by viral respiratory infections after working in the shaft. Wuhan is about 1,140 miles away from the mineshaft, a 21-hour drive by car, roughly the distance from New Orleans to New York City. The city of Wuhan is well beyond the natural habitat and natural migration patterns of bats who are most likely to carry viruses such as this one. If SARS-CoV-2 were a naturally occurring virus, we would expect to find the first cases where the bats live, in Yunnan Province. But according to Chinese health officials, the first COVID-19 patient in Yunnan Province was diagnosed on January 21, 2020, well after the outbreak had started raging in Wuhan.

In fact, those who live closest to the bats in Yunnan Province carry surprisingly little biological evidence of being infected with bat viruses. In 2015, researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology traveled to southern Yunnan Province to get a sense of how much natural viral infection of human beings occurred among those living closest to the virus-shedding horseshoe bats in the province. Out of 218 people, the WIV researchers found just six samples that indicated past exposure to the kind of coronavirus likely to have originated in a bat. The researchers concluded that:

The 2.7 percent seropositivity for the high-risk group of residents living in close proximity to bat colonies suggests that spillover is a relatively rare event, however this depends on how long antibodies persist in people, since other individuals may have been exposed and antibodies waned. During questioning, none of the 6 seropositive subjects could recall any clinical symptoms in the past 12 months, suggesting that their bat SARSr-CoV infection either occurred before the time of sampling, or that infections were subclinical or caused only mild symptoms.

But there was one group of people that was handling a lot of bats from this region during this time period. In 2012 and 2013, the Wuhan Institute of Virology collected a lot of virus samples from the bats in the mineshaft that killed those miners. On December 24, 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology posted a job listing that, when translated, declared, “Long-term research on the pathogenic biology of bats carrying important viruses has confirmed the origin of bats of major new human and livestock infectious diseases such as SARS and SADS, and a large number of new bat and rodent new viruses have been discovered and identified” (emphasis added).

Jamison Fouss, the U.S. consul general in Wuhan, and Rick Switzer, the U.S. embassy’s counselor of environment, science, technology, and health, repeatedly visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and in January 2018, they wrote a memo to Washington articulating their concerns: “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.” Professor Richard Ebright of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology argued that, “Bat coronaviruses at Wuhan [Center for Disease Control] and Wuhan Institute of Virology routinely were collected and studied at BSL-2, which provides only minimal protections against infection of lab workers.”

A review of seven years of data from U.S. BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories found 749 incidents, including “needle sticks and other through-the-skin exposures from sharp objects; dropped containers or spills and splashes of liquids containing pathogens; bites or scratches from infected animals,” and more. The Wuhan Institute of Virology kept live bats in its walls, despite the denials from Peter Daszak — president of EcoHealth Alliance, longtime partner of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and one of the most staunch and outspoken critics of the lab-leak theory.

Our assessment of the virus’s origins should also include the decisions and actions of the Wuhan Institute of Virology right before, during, and after the scope of the pandemic became clear.

As DRASTIC uncovered, “On September 12, 2019, the main database of samples and viral sequences of the Wuhan Institute of Virology went offline; eventually every single of the 16 virus databases managed by the WIV was taken offline.” Separately, “Researchers at Wuhan University asked for [genetic] sequences to be removed from the Sequence Read Archive (SRA), a repository for raw sequencing data maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).”

At a time when the whole world needed as much information about the genes of this virus and how it worked as possible, why were so many Chinese researchers taking information offline? As Alina Chan asked, “What’s the point of funding more virus hunting when the virus databases just evaporate and cannot be used for anything when a pandemic actually occurs?”

Finally, China suffered more cases and fatalities from the original SARS outbreak than any other country. On paper, this should have made the Chinese government more likely to overreact to reports of a new viral infection. We would have expected Beijing to respond to a potential contagious outbreak in a major city and trade hub with all of the intensity, speed, and alertness of New Yorkers responding to a report of a hijacked passenger airliner. Instead, the Chinese government spent the first three to six weeks insisting that the virus was not contagious, even as the medical counter-evidence piled higher and higher. Was this just an authoritarian regime’s reflexive psychological denial? Or was the Chinese government trying to avoid looking guilty and hoping it seemed as surprised as anyone else by the virus’s danger?

To paraphrase Ebright, in the autumn of 2019, there were three institutions in the entire world that were doing gain-of-function research on novel coronaviruses found in bats. One was in Galveston, Texas, one was in Chapel Hill, N.C., and the third was in Wuhan, China. The COVID-19 pandemic started right outside one of them. What are the odds that’s a coincidence?

As of this morning, there are 213 million COVID-19 infections around the world, and more than 4.4 million deaths — and that is using the highly unreliable figures from large authoritarian countries such as China and Russia. In May, The Economist gathered all the data available — rejecting China’s numbers, deeming them unreliable — and calculated that the excess deaths during the pandemic were somewhere between 7 million and 13 million.

For all that I’ve written, it may surprise you to learn that I still think a spillover from a wet market is theoretically possible, and more importantly, wet markets are still a danger which might cause a future pandemic. Years before this pandemic, scientists had warned that China’s “wet markets” represented a unique threat for outbreaks: “Nowhere else on earth do so many people have such close contact with so many birds.” Just because this pandemic appears likely to have resulted from a lab leak doesn’t mean that natural spillover from an infected animal, outside of a research laboratory, won’t be the cause of the next one.

ADDENDUM: Our Jack Crowe has an exclusive interview with former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, in which Pompeo contends that the lack of American casualties for almost all of 2020 and 2021 represented the Taliban recognizing the consequences of provoking the coalition forces:

‘They broke the agreement a number of times: they moved forces where they weren’t supposed to move, they put certain elements of the Afghan forces at risk. And every time that happened, General Scotty Miller crushed them,’ he said. ‘We would call them and say ‘you did X, we responded with Y,’ stop doing X.’ And we modeled a deterrence mechanism that told the Taliban if you push the Americans under Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, there’ll be an enormous price to pay.’

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