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Yup, the Wuhan Institute of Virology Kept Live Bats within Its Walls

People shop at a steamed food stall at a street market in Wuhan, China February 8, 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)

On the menu today: New evidence shows that despite the contentions of Peter Daszak, the Wuhan Institute of Virology did indeed have live bats within its walls; a spectacularly inaccurate op-ed attempting to dispel the lab-leak theory; and why so many people want the term “leaked” to mean “engineered.”

Peter Daszak Is Wrong

Sky News Australia has uncovered an official Chinese Academy of Sciences video from May 2017, marking the launch of the new biosafety-level-4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Perhaps the most intriguing revelation in the video is the depiction of bats being held in a cage at the Institute, along with a scene of a scientist feeding a bat with a worm.

For much of 2020, 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 — insisted that there were no live bats within the Institute. He tweeted in December that, “No BATS ‘were sent to Wuhan lab for genetic analyses of viruses collected in the field’ That’s not how this science works. We collect bat samples, send them to the lab. We RELEASE bats where we catch them!” At some point, Daszak deleted his tweets making that assertion, but if he ever publicly admitted he was wrong, he was awfully quiet about it.

The counterevidence for Daszak’s claim has been piling up for a while now, even before this video.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology reportedly filed patents for bat cages. Multiple accounts of WIV staff described bringing at least a handful of live bats back to the lab for further study. As one Chinese Academy of Science website described it, “Founded in 1956, Wuhan Institute of Virology is a comprehensive research institution specializing in basic virology research and related technological innovation. The institute currently has 3 sets of barrier facilities with a facility scale of 1,216 square meters. The facility has 126 cages for Japanese white rabbits, 340 cages for SD and Wistar rats, inbred strains, closed groups, mutant strains, and genetically engineered mice. There are 3,268 cages, 12 ferrets, 12 bats, and 2 species of cotton bollworm and beet armyworm, totaling 52 strains.”

If no live bats or other animals are collected and taken back to the lab, why would the laboratory need all those cages?

The WIV video featured on Sky News declares that the Institute collected “more than 15,000 samples from bats in China and many countries of Africa, searching for the origins of SARS, as well as isolating and characterizing many new viruses.” It is likely that the WIV had more samples of bat viruses within its walls than any other building on Earth. And the contention of the zoonotic-spillover theory is that the COVID-19 outbreak beginning so close to the WIV is simply coincidental.

The Sky News video also features a bat hanging off the hat of one researcher who is wearing a mask and glasses but no other protective head covering — the kind of cute and fun image that looks much more unnerving when you realize that one scratch from that bat could infect the researcher with a novel virus that the researcher’s immune system might be completely unprepared to face.

A lot of people want to cast Daszak as the villain of this story. At minimum, it appears Daszak got out over his skis by making assertions that he wasn’t 100 percent certain about — and about topics that one would think he would be in a position to know for certain.

Be aware that, in Daszak’s mind, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is something separate from the research on novel coronaviruses in bats that his organization conducts. He sees his organization’s mission as discovering new viruses, not necessarily assisting in government efforts to determine the origin of this one. In an interview with Nature last August, Daszak fumed about a list of requests from the National Institutes of Health — you know, the same NIH that had been funding his organization — and insisted that the research on SARS-CoV-2 and passing along NIH requests to the WIV were “is absolutely outside the remit of the work we do.”

Q: The NIH has asked you to obtain a vial of isolated SARS-CoV-2 from the WIV. Did you work on the novel coronavirus during your project?

A: The grant isn’t used to fund work on SARS-CoV-2. Our organization has not actually published any data on SARS-CoV-2. We work on bat coronaviruses that are out there in the wild and try to predict what the next one is. We don’t work on sequencing SARS-CoV-2. It’s absurd because it’s absolutely outside the remit of the work we do.

The Most Inaccurate Op-Ed Dismissing the Lab-Leak Theory Yet

Meanwhile, the public discussion about COVID-19’s origins continues to get garbled and obscured by allegedly knowledgeable people repeating flatly wrong information. Over on the Guardian, David Robert Grimes writes that:

Alternatively, there is hypothesis two: a lab leak. For this to be viable, we are obliged to add additional assumptions. We’d need to accept that the virus was engineered and subsequently released by accident or design. More damning for this narrative are the implicit temporal conditions it imposes: Wuhan, a city with a population of more than 11 million, with thriving wet markets, has millions of human-animal interactions each day, occasions when a virus could jump to humans. But the city has only a single virology lab where, accidentally or by design, everything would have to go wrong at once to yield the same result.

First, the city has two labs researching novel coronaviruses in bats, not one — the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control. Second, an accidentally released virus is not necessarily an engineered one. Third, for “everything to go wrong at once” requires a scratch or bite from a bat, an improperly sealed mask, improperly disposed waste, or other biological material. Lab accidents happen with unnerving regularity — “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; pathogens manipulated outside of a biosafety cabinet or other equipment designed to protect exposures to infectious aerosols; failure to follow safety procedures; failure or problems with personal protective equipment; mechanical or equipment failure; and failure to properly inactivate pathogens before transferring them to a lower biosafety level lab for further research.”

We’re 18 months into this pandemic; how are op-eds in major publications still making these mistakes?

Why So Many People Prefer to Debate ‘Engineered’ Instead of Leaked

There’s nothing wrong with the intense debate about whether SARS-CoV-2 represents a purely natural virus, a virus whose natural evolution was artificially and deliberately accelerated through gain-of-function research, or a virus that was genetically altered.

Evidence of a deliberately human-altered genetic code in SARS-CoV-2 would confirm a lab leak, but the absence of evidence of a deliberately human-altered genetic code would not necessarily rule out a lab leak.

It is increasingly difficult to shake the feeling that the scientific community is circling the wagons, afraid that a major error attributed to one form of research will spur far-reaching restrictions on all kinds of research. If SARS-CoV-2 was indeed the result of gain-of-function research, many countries are likely to either ban such research entirely or enact new sweeping restrictions on when, how, and where that research can be done. Our Dan McLaughlin suggested that at minimum, all gain-of-function research on contagious viruses be done in remote locations as far away as possible from population centers.

But the engineered-vs.-zoonotic-origin debate isn’t really helping clarify the lab-leak/not-a-lab-leak distinction. Let’s presume SARS-CoV-2 originated in a bat. As discussed above, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan Centers for Disease Control were both researching novel coronaviruses in bats, and both went into caves in southern China to collect samples from horseshoe bats. It is reasonable to assume that the sample collection documented before the pandemic continued into late 2019. When Chinese authorities insist that SARS-CoV-2 was not in the databases of their virus research, they may well be hiding the fact that information about SARS-CoV-2 had not yet been entered into their databases, and the key infection occurred as a new group of the virus samples were being initially transferred to either the Wuhan Institute of Virology or Wuhan CDC. In this scenario, nothing about the genetic code or structure of the virus would have been altered by any researchers, but the infection still traces back to a laboratory leak or accident.

But as for gain-of-function research, it does seem a little spooky that back in 2015 — not that long ago! — some virologists warned about this precise sequence of events, specifically spurred by work that was done, in part, at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

In 2015, Shi Zhengli — a.k.a. “Bat Woman” — and a group of other virologists announced that they had “generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone.” Other scientists in the field warned that this research, designed to help prevent another SARS pandemic, was setting up a higher risk of setting off another pandemic. Nature magazine, November 12, 2015:

But other virologists question whether the information gleaned from the experiment justifies the potential risk. Although the extent of any risk is difficult to assess, Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, points out that the researchers have created a novel virus that “grows remarkably well” in human cells. “If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory ,” he says.

The only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk,” agrees Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and biodefence expert at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. Both Ebright and Wain-Hobson are long-standing critics of gain-of-function research.

ADDENDUM: The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is . . . not quite over, but it’s getting there. Earlier this year, Dr. Anthony Fauci contended that the U.S. shouldn’t relax restrictions until the number of new cases per day was below 10,000. Saturday, the U.S. had 9,427 new cases reported; yesterday, the U.S. had 5,285. The current seven-day average is 13,304. The seven-day average for daily new deaths is down to 371 — which sounds high, until you remember that back on January 28, it was at 3,401.

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