Long before Trump and Co. sought a Chinese scapegoat for the president’s incompetence, researchers understood that the possibility of a laboratory escape was plausible
Here's an excerpt from an excellent and authoritative article that's well worth reading in full.
Did the SARS-CoV-2 virus arise from a bat coronavirus research program in a Chinese laboratory? Very possibly.
By Milton Leitenberg
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 4, 2020
[excerpt only reproduced below – read the full article at the above link]
On May 15, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a short commentary titled, “Let evidence, not talk radio, determine whether the outbreak started in a lab,” by Ali Nouri, a biologist and president of the Federation of American Scientists. “The outbreak” referred to the pandemic of SARS-CoV-2 now circling the globe. It is a thin commentary, and it is puzzling why the Bulletin thought it desirable to publish it at all. Only two weeks earlier the journal had published a reasoned and competent appraisal by Kings College London biosecurity expert Filippa Lentzos titled, “Natural spillover or research lab leak? Why a credible investigation is needed to determine the origin of the coronavirus pandemic.”
The Nouri article very correctly pilloried the statements by President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, presidential legal advisor Rudy Giuliani, and radio personality Rush Limbaugh. These are as notorious a gang of four fabricators as will ever likely be recorded in American history. They were ably assisted by Fox News, which the Nouri critique also mentions. Nouri ended his commentary with these lines: “Our leaders ought to … take steps to prevent the next pandemic, instead of diverting our attention to unsupported sensationalist theories spread by cable TV and talk radio.”
Perhaps the most damaging blows to efforts to obtain a certain answer as to the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 “outbreak” have been the pronouncements by Trump, Pompeo, and their echo chambers. But they and their remarks are not the measure by which the question of the possibility that a laboratory escape began the pandemic should be examined. Trump’s diversionary ranting comes from a president who did nothing for two months in the face of an oncoming lethal pandemic, actively denied and denigrated intelligence warnings of the imminent danger, and said that SARS-CoV-2 would “just go away … like a miracle” and that “within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero.” All this has been widely and thoroughly chronicled.
But long before Trump, Pompeo and Co. sought a Chinese scapegoat for the president’s gross and willful incompetence, researchers understood that the possibility of laboratory escape of the pathogen was a plausible, if unproven, possibility. It is most definitely not “a conspiracy theory.”
The circumstantial evidence for a lab escape. By way of introduction, there are two virology institutes in Wuhan to consider, not one: The Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention (WHCDC) and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Both have conducted large projects on novel bat viruses and maintained large research collections of novel bat viruses, and at least the WIV possessed the virus that is the most closely related known virus in the world to the outbreak virus, bat virus RaTG13. This virus was isolated in 2013 and had its genome published on January 23, 2020. Seven more years of bat coronavirus collection followed the 2013 RaTG13 isolation.
One component of the novel-bat-virus project at the Wuhan Institute of Virology involved infection of laboratory animals with bat viruses. Therefore, the possibility of a lab accident includes scenarios with direct transmission of a bat virus to a lab worker, scenarios with transmission of a bat virus to a laboratory animal and then to a lab worker, and scenarios involving improper disposal of laboratory animals or laboratory waste.
Documentary evidence indicates that the novel-bat-virus projects at Wuhan CDC and the Wuhan Institute of Virology used personal protective equipment and biosafety standards that would pose high risk of accidental infection of a lab worker upon contact with a virus having the transmission properties of the outbreak virus.
In assessing the possibility of a lab accident, one must take into consideration each of the following eight elements of circumstantial evidence:
1. Official Chinese government recognition early in the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak of biosafety inadequacies in China’s high containment facilities. In February 2020, several weeks after the outbreak of the disease in Wuhan, China’s President Xi Jinping stressed the need to ensure “biosafety and biosecurity of the country.” This was followed immediately by a China Ministry of Science & Technology announcement of new guidelines for laboratories, especially in handling viruses. Almost at the same time, the Chinese newspaper Global Times published an article on “chronic inadequate management issues at laboratories, including problems of biological wastes.”
A PBS NewHour presentation on May 22, 2020 provided the following information:
"On January 1, Wuhan Institute of Virology’s director general, Yanyi Wang, messaged her colleagues, saying the National Health Commission told her the lab’s COVID-19 data shall not be published on social media and shall not be disclosed to the media. And on January 3, the commission sent this document, never posted online, but saved by researchers, telling labs to destroy COVID-19 samples or send them to the depository institutions designated by the state. Late Friday [May 16, 2020] the Chinese government admitted to the destruction … but said it was for public safety."
The Chinese government explanation for the destruction of SARS-CoV-2 samples has no scientific credibility. For purposes of “public safety” any samples would surely be stored and studied, exactly as with the ones that were isolated from patients, and their RNA genomes decoded and published.
2. Recognition by Zhengli Shi, a renowned scientist who leads a research team at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that a laboratory escape was a possibility. Shi took the possibility of a laboratory escape perfectly seriously. Jonna Mazat of the University of California-Davis, a collaborator with Dr Shi, told Josh Rogin of the Washington Post, “Absolutely, accidents can happen.” In an interview with Scientific American, Shi admitted that her very first thought was “If coronaviruses were the culprit, she remembers thinking ‘Could they have come from our lab?’”
Meanwhile she frantically went through her own lab’s records from the past few years to check for any mishandling of experimental materials, especially during disposal. She breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves. ‘That really took a load off my mind,’ she says. ‘I had not slept a wink for days.’
3. Questions surrounding Chinese government attribution of the Wuhan’s Huanan South China Seafood Market as the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Many China scholars noted that it was quite unusual for Chinese government authorities to identify Wuhan’s Huanan South China Seafood Market so quickly as the source of the outbreak. They thought this behavior so uncharacteristic that it raised suspicions in their minds. The authors of a newly published paper wrote that
"…we were surprised to find that SARS-CoV-2 resembles SARS-CoV in the late phase of the 2003 epidemic after SARS-CoV had developed several advantageous adaptations for human transmission. Our observations suggest that by the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission to an extent similar to late epidemic SARS-CoV. However, no precursors or branches of evolution stemming from a less human-adapted SARS-CoV-2-like virus have been detected…. It would be curious if no precursor or branches of SARS-CoV-2 evolution are discovered in humans or animals….Even the possibility that a non-genetically-engineered precursor could have adapted to humans while being studied in a laboratory should be considered, regardless of how likely or unlikely."
It is important to note that no intermediary host has yet been identified for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The authors also noted that “[n]o animal sampling prior to the shutdown and sanitization [of the Wuhan fish market] was done.”
The question of whether the index case appeared in the Wuhan fish market appears to be moot in any case. Chinese researchers have published data showing that there were 41 cases of SARS-CoV-2 between December 1, 2019 and January 2, 2020. Fourteen of these had no contact with the Huanan seafood market, including the very first recorded case on December 1, 2019. And that supposes that the true index case was December 1, which is doubtful.
On May 26, the Chinese government scrapped the previous official story about the Wuhan fish market:
"China’s top epidemiologist said Tuesday that testing of samples from a Wuhan food market, initially suspected as a path for the virus’s spread to humans, failed to show links between animals being sold there and the pathogen. Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in comments carried in China state media."
No SARS-CoV-2 isolates were detected in any of the animals or fish sold at the market, only in environmental samples, including sewage. Gao Fu added, “At first, we assumed the seafood market might have the virus, but now the market is more like a victim. The novel coronavirus had existed long before.”
4. Suppression of information and individuals by Chinese authorities. A publication by two Chinese university academics discussed both the WHCDC and the WIV and concluded that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan”; the publication was removed from the internet by Chinese government officials. The paper had been posted on Research Gate but was blocked after 24 hours. After being placed on an archive file by internet users, it was again blocked after a week, and the two Chinese authors were pressured to retract the paper. However, it is still available on Web archives.
The Chinese government closed the laboratory in Shanghai that first published the genome of COVID-19 on January 10, explaining that it had been shuttered for “rectification”; the closure happened on January 11. The government then permitted the same genome to be published by Shi on January 12. Chinese citizens who reported on the coronavirus were censured and, in some cases, “disappeared.” These have included businessman Fang Bin, lawyer Chen Qiushi, former state TV reporter Li Zehua and, most recently, Zhang Zhan, a lawyer. They are reportedly being held in extrajudicial detention centers for speaking out about China’s response to the pandemic. They are usually accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” ...