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Will the WHO Actually Ever Discover the Virus’s Origin?

Journalists approach Peter Daszak, a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

We’re asking our readers for help again. I hope that you feel like we’ve earned it. Rich lays out our needs here, and our appeal for support will run until March 29. Our goal is $250,000, but our real needs dwarf that sum. As of this writing, more than 850 of our readers have donated more than $101,000, and I hope you will consider joining those generous souls.

One year ago, everything changed. I hope that in the past year, this newsletter, my reporting, and my colleagues’ work have been useful, edifying, and illuminating, helping you get through a time when the whole world seemed to have turned upside down in the worst way. The reader response over the past year demonstrates that what I’ve written about the pandemic reached a wider audience than almost anything else I’ve ever published: The comprehensive timeline of China’s lies, the trail leading back to the Wuhan labs, the colossal misjudgment of China by America’s policy community, Biden’s pick for coronavirus task force declaring that, “Living too long is also a loss,” the timeline of how Bill de Blasio “prepared” New York City for the pandemic, the exodus from America cities, bad state policies on nursing homes in places such as New York that killed seniors, the at-times-alarming gap between the number of vaccine doses sent to states and how many are ending up in arms. . . .

Right around one year ago, the virus thrust us into a new and unfamiliar world, and we’ve been trying to figure it all out ever since. My colleagues and I have thrown ourselves into covering just about every nook and cranny of the pandemic and its effect on us — everything from public health to economics, politics, society, and much more.

WHO: Don’t Worry, We’ll Figure Out the Origin of COVID-19 in a Few Years

Yesterday, Peter Daszak, a member of that World Health Organization team that went to Wuhan, China, earlier this year, said he believes that the world will discover the origin of SARS-CoV-2 “within the next few years,” and that the team’s leading hypothesis “is that a bat or other wildlife species carrying a progenitor, or closely related virus, infected a farm animal or a person, who then carried it to the Huanan market.

You may have missed the news that Daszak’s team, which is investigating the origins of COVID-19, is scrapping its interim report on its recent mission to Wuhan. Meanwhile, two dozen scientists have written in protest that the WHO team “did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses — whether natural spillover or laboratory/research-related incident.”

Josh Rogin, who writes for Politico and the Washington Post, has some exceptional sources in the U.S. State Department, and he recently offered a more detailed report of what those American scientists and diplomats learned in those meetings in Wuhan in 2017 and 2018:

These researchers, the American officials learned, had found a population of bats from caves in Yunnan province that gave them insight into how SARS coronaviruses originated and spread. The researchers boasted that they may have found the cave where the original SARS coronavirus originated. But all the U.S. diplomats cared about was that these scientists had discovered three new viruses that had a unique characteristic: they contained a “spike protein” that was particularly good at grabbing on to a specific receptor in human lung cells known as an ACE2 receptor. That means the viruses were potentially very dangerous for humans—and that these viruses were now in a lab with which they, the U.S. diplomats, were largely unfamiliar.

Knowing the significance of the Wuhan virologists’ discovery, and knowing that the WIV’s top-level biosafety laboratory (BSL-4) was relatively new, the U.S. Embassy health and science officials in Beijing decided to go to Wuhan and check it out. In total, the embassy sent three teams of experts in late 2017 and early 2018 to meet with the WIV scientists, among them Shi Zhengli, often referred to as the “bat woman” because of her extensive experience studying coronaviruses found in bats.

When they sat down with the scientists at the WIV, the American diplomats were shocked by what they heard. The Chinese researchers told them they didn’t have enough properly trained technicians to safely operate their BSL-4 lab. The Wuhan scientists were asking for more support to get the lab up to top standards.

Then Rogin offered this eye-popping detail:

After receiving the cables from a source, I called around to get reactions from other American officials I trusted. What I found was that, just months into the pandemic, a large swath of the government already believed the virus had escaped from the WIV lab, rather than having leaped from an animal to a human at the Wuhan seafood market or some other random natural setting, as the Chinese government had claimed.

I don’t know if SARS-CoV-2 jumped naturally from an animal somewhere far from the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it’s quite possible we will never know. I do find it to be a remarkable coincidence, if indeed it was a natural jump to humans, that it just happened to occur in a city with not one but two large institutions researching novel coronaviruses found in bats — including SARS-like viruses that had spike proteins. The history of China’s lab accidents proves that the argument “Chinese labs are too professional to have an accident like this” is absolute garbage. The first SARS virus escaped from the Beijing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention twice. And please spare me any arguments that the Chinese government wouldn’t lie about something as consequential as this, or that Beijing’s government simply isn’t powerful or authoritarian enough to cover up a lab accident.

There is one angle that I ran across while doing research for my novel that I should have explored a little deeper, a little sooner.

China has a lot of state-run and state-affiliated biological-research facilities. A 2015 defense-journal article laid out “12 facilities affiliated with the ‘defense’ establishment, plus 30 facilities affiliated with the [People’s Liberation Army], that are involved in research, development, production, testing or storage of BW [biological weapons].” That paper referred to a “Wuhan Institute of Biological Products,” which is separate from the Wuhan Institute of Virology but apparently works regularly with the WIV. Another one of the facilities listed in that paper was the “People’s Liberation Army Key Genetic Engineering Laboratory.” Yes, it is real.

There is also the People’s Liberation Army Hospital in Wuhan, China, which one doctor and researcher, Dr. Steven Quay, contends is a more likely origin spot for the virus. Whether or not you find that notion plausible, Quay does make some compelling arguments about how the Wuhan metro-train system probably played a key role in the spread of the virus:

Line 2 is uniquely positioned to have been the worldwide human-to-human COVID pandemic conduit as it carries five percent of the population of Wuhan every day, allowing rapid spread throughout Wuhan and the entire Hubei Province; it includes the high-speed rail station, allowing rapid spread throughout China; and it terminates at the international airport station, allowing rapid spread throughout the world. Line 2 also services the Hunan Seafood Market, previously suggested to be associated with the origin of the pandemic.

Imagine you’re the Chinese government, and you’ve secretly been doing all kinds of research on viruses that are arguably dual-use — meaning what is learned in the research could be used for noble and benevolent purposes, or weaponized for malevolent purposes — including gain-of-function research, which can “enhance the pathogenicity or transmissibility of potential pandemic pathogens.” (In fact, we know that in past experiments, the Wuhan Institute of Virology “generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse adapted SARS-CoV backbone.”)

Now imagine that some bat, pangolin, ferret, badger, or rabbit brings a natural version of these viruses into the city that houses some of your viral-research labs. Even if the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and every other PLA or Chinese-government institution had nothing to do with the outbreak . . . you can’t have any outsiders investigating those laboratories, or they would find plenty of evidence you’ve been violating the Biological Weapons Convention all along. Thus, the Chinese government would attempt to downplay the outbreak, mislead the WHO, deny the danger, make accusations against other countries, and do everything possible to deter or avoid a full examination of their labs in Wuhan — in other words, everything that they’ve done since the pandemic began.

Whether it was a lab accident or a natural transmission, what is indisputable is that doctors on the ground in Wuhan knew they were dealing with a contagious and potentially deadly novel coronavirus in December, yet local and national health authorities insisted, until January 20, 2020, that it was could not spread from human to human. That cost humanity at least three weeks, and possibly as many as six weeks, in the race to contain the virus. By the time the Chinese government admitted the virus wasn’t just a matter of people eating bad meat, SARS-CoV-2 had spread to Thailand, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. It was already too late. Direct flights from Wuhan to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York didn’t stop until January 23.

You can criticize Donald Trump or Andrew Cuomo or Bill de Blasio or any American leader for their decisions in response to this crisis — in many, many cases, they deserve the criticism. But keep in mind, they are all responding to a new and strange life-and-death threat that the Chinese government dumped in the world’s lap with literally no warning.

ADDENDUM: Kevin Williamson’s essay about China’s view of the world order is terrific, but I loved this observation about the changing identities of media institutions:

In ye olden days of print, a newspaper was about a place, usually but not always a city. The New York Times really was about New York City for most of its history. If you started the paper today, you’d call it the Unbearable Yuppie Lefty Who Is Just a Little Too Upscale for Salon.com Times, because media is now demographic rather than geographic.

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