The publication of science writer, editor, and author Nicholas Wade’s well-researched article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists , The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan? , has set alarm bells ringing about the collusive cover up of the possible leak of the novel coronavirus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). He has laid out a strong case for a fuller investigation into the event.
The U.S. link
China promoted the narrative that the virus spread from a wet market (seafood and animal market) in Wuhan to avoid any scrutiny of what was being done in the WIV. Senior health officials in the United States seemed to concur. It soon became public that the coronavirus-related research in the WIV was funded by American money. Most experts embraced the natural spread narrative since the alternative was unimaginable. The lab-leak proposition was discredited as a conspiracy theory simply because it was being espoused by then U.S. President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
With advances in biotechnology, it is now possible to genetically engineer existing pathogens to make them more lethal and difficult to treat. Higher mortality and ethnic specificity could be the other features of such new, synthesised organisms or viruses. A possible antidote or vaccine would only be accessible to those conducting such research.
Dr. Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance obtained grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and subcontracted research to a group headed by Dr. Shi Zhengli at the WIV. Dr. Daszak claimed in a 2019 interview that after six or years of research, over 100 new SARS-related coronaviruses, some of which were introduced into human cells in the lab, caused SARS disease in humanised mice and were untreatable. The research carried out involved the creation of novel, life-threatening and pandemic-creating viruses.
The WIV operates a Biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) facility. Its deficient safety had been flagged by U.S. inspectors, but there is no record of any remedial action. A 2018 inspection report stated that the facility did not have appropriately trained professionals to safely operate the BSL-4 laboratory. A former Israeli intelligence official and visiting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Dany Shoham, now with the Bar Ilan University, Israel, has linked the WIV to China’s biological weapons programme .
Why were American funds made available to a Chinese laboratory to conduct sensitive research? No doubt because it was less expensive and dangerous to carry out the experiments in China. Besides, U.S. funding ensured it would have access to the experiments conducted at the WIV. In a recently released email , Dr. Daszak thanked the Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, for publicly stating that scientific evidence supported a natural origin for the coronavirus and not a lab release.
Admittedly, it is difficult to distinguish between a naturally occurring event, an accidental release of a genetically modified pathogen, or its deliberate use. Because of this and the lingering suspicions, it is the responsibility of the institution and the country where the first outbreak occurred to establish the facts.
China has done the opposite. It has covered up facts and impeded the investigation. A 34-year-old doctor in Wuhan, Li Wenliang , tried to alert others on a social media platform from his hospital bed in Wuhan about a possible outbreak of a SARS-type virus. Instead of treating the young doctor as a hero, Chinese security officials vilified him and charged him with making false claims, spreading rumours, and disturbing the social order. He died as a result of a coronavirus infection. While he was officially exonerated by an investigation into his death, the report has been criticised for only having recommended the reprimand be withdrawn. There are also other reports of the police making an apology to his family.
The WIV head of coronavirus research, Shi Zhengli’s database on SARS-like viruses went offline just before the virus outbreak in Wuhan. Countries demanding greater transparency and accountability have been either denounced or ‘punished’ by China. China’s vehement opposition to further investigations, actions to suppress facts from getting out, and reluctance to share data only fuel the suspicion that China has something to hide.
The release of the findings of the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 30 — and revised on April 6 — on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (coronavirus) that dismissed the lab-leak as “extremely unlikely” actually energised the controversy instead of laying it to rest. Subsequently, the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called for further studies on the virus origins and said that all hypotheses remained on the table, dismissing the earlier findings as non-definitive.
The WHO findings were tainted because Dr. Daszak, a self-declared partisan of the natural occurrence theory and with a personal financial stake in the WIV experimentation, was included in the inquiry team . Together with a group of fellow virologists, Dr. Daszak had already declared in February that they stood together to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories” suggesting that the virus did not have a natural, zoonotic origin . Including him in the WHO investigation team was akin to having a suspect investigate the crime scene.
It is unlikely that U.S. President Joe Biden’s call to the U.S. intelligence community — “to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days” — will result in a smoking gun being found. Unfortunately, the available evidence that is scant will compromise a credible forensic examination. Any determination of what went wrong will necessarily be circumstantial.
Present and future dangers
That the coronavirus escaped from the WIV is in fact increasingly plausible. Whether this was a negligent or wilful act can never be proven, but it is evident that the research at the WIV — bioengineering more lethal coronavirus variants — crossed ethical boundaries.
The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) — formerly known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction — has no systems to verify compliance with its prohibitions, nor any enforcement mechanisms to penalise infringement of its provisions. These shortcomings have been repeatedly highlighted in the five-yearly Review Conferences of the BWC, but the state parties to the BWC have been unable to agree on any measures to address them, thus compromising on biosecurity and wilful breaches of the Convention.
Smallpox and other viruses have escaped from secure laboratories before. Public knowledge is that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, and the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, Koltsovo, are now the only two “official” repositories of smallpox spores, but there have been persistent fears that these have been disseminated, and certain countries are experimenting with genetically modifying them. Smallpox was deadly enough. Its ‘improved’ version might be devastating.
The coronavirus research conducted in the WIV for years is an example of science that has run amok, without ethical restraints or any code of conduct for the scientists, who appear to be bereft of any accountability. Such action threatens the very existence of humankind. This is why China’s role requires closer scrutiny.
Jayant Prasad is a former diplomat and a former Director-General of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses