For months, anyone who said the new SARS coronavirus might have come out of a virology research lab in Wuhan, China was dismissed as a right wing xenophobe.
When Zero Hedge — a financial news website whose comment section certainly fits the right wing stereotype — first put out its own bombastic version of the bat-borne virus escaping a research lab, they were banned from Twitter.
FOX host Tucker Carlson starting banging this drum last week.
But on Tuesday, the narrative flipped. It’s no longer a story shared by China bears and President Trump fans. Today, Josh Rogin, who is said to be as plugged into the State Department as any Washington Post columnist, was shown documents dating back to 2015 revealing how the U.S. government was worried about safety standards at that Wuhan lab. In fact, they were worried that one day, one of these experiments — including the one on bat coronaviruses — could escape and become a global nightmare.
“I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory. I think it’s a legitimate question that needs to be investigated and answered,” Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley told Rogin. “To understand exactly how this originated is critical knowledge for preventing this from happening in the future.”
China has not been forthcoming about the new SARS coronavirus origins. They’re not being entirely transparent, despite being heralded as such by some leaders.
An example of that secrecy from Rogin:
“In January 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing took the unusual step of repeatedly sending U.S. science diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which had in 2015 become China’s first laboratory to achieve the highest level of international bioresearch safety (known as BSL-4). WIV issued a news release in English about the last of these visits, which occurred on March 27, 2018. The U.S. delegation was led by Jamison Fouss, the consul general in Wuhan, and Rick Switzer, the embassy’s counselor of environment, science, technology and health. Last week, WIV erased that statement from its website, though it remains archived on the Internet.”
Worth noting, at least one young researcher from the lab —Huang Yanling — a graduate student thought to be patient zero — was scrubbed from the lab’s website.
The first, mysterious samples from infected individuals arrived at Wuhan Institute of Virology on December 30, 2019. Shi Zhengli, a renown bat scientist in China, was told by the Institute’s director that the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention — modeled after our own CDC — had detected a novel coronavirus in two hospital patients. They were suffering from an odd pneumonia. They wanted her laboratory to investigate because the virus belonged to the same family of bat-borne viruses that caused SARS, a disease that — by comparison — only infected 8,100 people and killed just under 800 in an 8 month period in 2002-03.
“I had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China,” she was quoted as saying by Scientific American on March 11. Her studies had shown that the southern, subtropical areas of Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan had the greatest risk of coronaviruses jumping to humans from animals—particularly bats, a known reservoir for many viruses. If bat coronaviruses were the culprit, she recalled to Scientific American, “could they have come from our lab?”
She has since promised the world that it did not come from her lab, though how she would know that for sure is unknown. We don’t know where she is. If she is making the media rounds on Chinese television, few in the U.S. would believe her at this point.
Her research on bat coronaviruses goes back to 2015. Here is one published in 2015 in Nature magazine. There is a lot of information about this new SARS, yet the world still seems stuck in the unknowns.
The U.S. government helped build and fund Wuhan virology labs. The thinking was that it was important for China to get up to par in the global life sciences. It was already a known center of previous outbreaks. Investing there and educating them on international safety standards was just preventative medicine.
Rogin’s reporting suggests that government officials were well aware of the research being conducted in the lab on bat coronaviruses and were worried that the lab still had sub-par safety standards.
Rogin writes that, “What the U.S. officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.”
Rogin’s article probably stemmed from conversations with someone inside the State Department boiling at the rim over many weeks as the U.S. faces a “stop the world” moment because of this pandemic.
Over the weekend, the Chinese government banned academic and other research institutions from publishing its research on coronaviruses on their websites.
The thinking there is, perhaps, that people in the U.S. and Europe are using those studies to place blame on the Chinese government. China has been working overtime to convince people that questioning the origin of the disease is racist.
The Washington Post story today brings the possibility of a lab leak into the mainstream.
In a best case scenario, Rogin’s reveal may ultimately get China to cooperate more in regards to the origins of the virus, setting the table for better drugs to mitigate or even cure the deadly COVID-19. At the very least, for a government that likes to save face, the fact that the U.S. government helped build and fund the Wuhan virology lab in question should be enough for China to open that info vault to scientists at the World Health Organization.