Wuhan, January 2021. Exhibition dedicated to China’s fight against covid-19. Photo by Nicolas Asfouri, AFP
Did the virus that caused the covid-19 pandemic escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after all? On June 10 this year, The Sunday Times newspaper published a twenty-page investigative report detailing the problematic cooperation of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. According to her, scientists there “combined the deadliest coronaviruses in the world before the start of the pandemic with the aim of creating a new mutated virus”.
The mentioned experiments in Wuhan have been going on since the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2003. A whole range of indications not only points to the fact that the virus that caused the pandemic leading to more than seven million deaths worldwide could have escaped from the Wuhan laboratory, but also supports the theory of human intervention in the genetic information of a new virus. The initial reactions of the Chinese authorities and the WHO only strengthen this suspicion.
This year, on June 23, the American intelligence agency also published its conclusions of the investigation into the origin of the covid-19 pandemic. According to the news agency report, there was no direct evidence that the virus escaped from the Wuhan laboratory. However, there is still no consensus among agencies regarding the lab leak hypothesis. The declassified materials relating to the Wuhan Institute of Virology clearly show that there are a number of strong reasons for this option.
Cautious intelligence conclusions
The aforementioned ten-page report issued by the Directorate of US Intelligence (DNI) was declassified after Congress passed the so-called Covid-19 Origin Act in March. It imposes an obligation on intelligence agencies to publish the accumulated information related to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The report was produced by specialists in weapons of mass destruction in cooperation with six US intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the FBI.
The agencies agree that both variants of the first transmission, by natural route and escape from the laboratory, are possible. They further point to the fact that the virus was probably not engineered in a laboratory and was not developed as a biological weapon.
They do, however, confirm the cooperation of scientists from the institute with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on “biosecurity” projects, some of which involved coronaviruses. According to the report, the collaboration was focused primarily on the development of vaccines and “oriented to public health needs.”
The Wuhan lab reportedly has “one of the largest repositories of bat specimens [virů]”, with which the scientists there worked. Since at least 2013, the institute has been running projects focused on the genetic engineering of coronaviruses and experiments with infecting humanized mice with live viruses. However, none of the documented samples were genetically close enough to SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of the covid-19 disease, to be considered a direct ancestor.
Thus, no direct evidence was found that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was laboratory modified. However, the report mentions a dissertation defended in 2016 at the Chinese Center for Infectious Disease Prevention and Control, which describes a technique for reverse genetic cloning of coronaviruses in which the genetic modification cannot be traced back.
The report also presents other circumstantial evidence, such as problematic laboratory security or the mysterious illness of several researchers in the fall of 2019. His symptoms resembled covid-19, but could theoretically have been caused by any of dozens of viruses that cause similar symptoms, including the flu or allergies.
Misting in collaboration with WHO
In addition to declassified materials, scientific articles and obtained e-mail communications, The Sunday Times’ report is primarily based on the testimony of interested experts and investigators. Many of them, “off-record” or under the guise of anonymity, lean towards the most radical and also the most controversial hypothesis, namely that secret projects related to the development of biological weapons were taking place in one of the laboratories in Wuhan in cooperation with the Chinese military.
Evidence for this, as the American intelligence community officially states, does not exist, partly because China has not acted transparently since the very beginning of the pandemic. The difference in the approach of the Chinese authorities is especially noticeable in comparison to the SARS epidemic in 2003, which was stopped in time, among other things, precisely because Beijing approached SARS transparently and cooperated willingly.
However, in January 2020, when there were already hundreds of infected people in Wuhan, the Chinese authorities first denied that the virus was transmitted from person to person, and then did not publish all the information, did not provide biological samples and hindered the investigation. They did not cooperate even when a WHO delegation arrived in Wuhan in May 2021 with the aim of obtaining information that could clarify the origin of the pandemic.
In the beginning, the approach of the WHO as such, and especially of its chairman, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was also problematic. He was elected to the position in 2017 thanks to the support of the African Union and some Asian countries, led by China.
The former Ethiopian politician, who served as Ethiopia’s health minister from 2005-2012 and as foreign minister from 2012 to 2016, appeared to be a rather controversial choice due to several past missteps and ties to the left-wing nationalist armed group Tigray People’s Liberation Front. His victory over the British candidate for the leadership of the WHO, David Nabarro, is considered one of the partial successes of Chinese influence in the bodies and organizations of the United Nations.
Tedros showed his sympathy and gratitude towards China and its representatives right at the beginning of the pandemic, when in January 2020 he met with President Xi Jinping and then — and again now — Foreign Minister Wang Yi. After the meetings, he refused to describe the new coronavirus as an international threat.
Even after the WHO declared an international emergency on January 31, 2020, Tedros was against restrictions on travel to and trade with China. Thus, the pandemic spread rapidly around the world at the time of the Lunar New Year celebrations.
At the same time, the head of the WHO did not spare praise for the way in which China, unlike the West, dealt with the pandemic throughout the pandemic. Western media have criticized Tedros’s approach from the beginning, citing it as being under Chinese influence. Taiwan, which was expelled from the WHO under Chinese pressure and allegedly ignored its initial warning about the transmission of the new coronavirus between people, also came under criticism.
From cooperation to non-transparency
The Sunday Times is piecing together scraps of information in an attempt to get a more complete picture of what happened in Wuhan from the SARS epidemic to the start of the covid-19 pandemic. The Wuhan Institute of Virology began collaborating with foreign scientists on SARS-CoV and similar coronavirus research in 2003, and received US government grants at the time, according to publicly available sources. The goal was to develop a universal vaccine to prevent a potential pandemic in the future.
The results of research and experiments with bat viruses, samples of which scientists collected in southwest China, were published in international professional journals until 2016. According to The Sunday Times, scientists in 2016 analyzed samples of bat coronaviruses from the former Mojiang copper mine in Yunnan province, where several local people died from a mysterious type of pneumonia in 2012.
The Chinese side did not share these deaths or the identified viruses with their American partners, but the information can be obtained from two defended qualification theses by Chinese researchers. It was at that time, according to American investigators, that a secret program was launched and information about research in the laboratory ceased to be transparent.
One of the goals of the project was to create a viral mutation that would be more contagious and dangerous to humans. Such a virus could then inadvertently escape from the laboratory and start spreading in the vicinity of the institute.
Due to the non-transparent behavior of the Chinese side, important sources of information are primarily Western researchers who worked in China or collaborated with Chinese colleagues. One such expert is Alice Hughes, a British zoologist engaged in bat research. She worked at the Chinese Academy of Sciences until the pandemic, but restrictions from Chinese authorities, including a ban on speaking about her research to the media or surveillance by Chinese security services, forced her to relocate to Hong Kong.
Another is Professor Richard Ebright, a microbiologist who has been familiar with the experiments taking place at the Wuhan Institute of Virology since 2004. He has long criticized them as too dangerous.
The risks of working with Chinese scientists
One of the key people in Wuhan is Dr. Shi Chengli, who started SARS research here with the aim of developing an effective vaccine. It was she who started researching bat colonies in southwestern China in 2004.
For many years, the British zoologist Peter Daszak, one of the members of the WHO team that went to Wuhan in early 2021 to investigate the origin of covid, also collaborated with her team on research. Through his work at the New York Wildlife Trust, the Wuhan Institute of Virology received US government grants for bat coronavirus research.
In 2009, the foundation received a five-year, eighteen million dollar grant called Predict to research viruses that could potentially cause a pandemic. The foundation was then renamed EcoHealth Alliance and Peter Daszak became its president. One million from the grant then also went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In 2013, a leading scientist in the field, Ralph Baric, who at the University of North Carolina experimented with combining the genetic information of coronaviruses and testing them on humanized mice, began to collaborate with Dr. Š’ on her research. A year later, her team received additional money for projects from the US government through the EcoHealth Alliance.
They published the results of this research and experiments in a professional periodical in the fall of 2015. Nevertheless, Baric and many other experts were aware of the risks associated with such research and a possible laboratory leak. At that time, however, the Wuhan laboratory had already begun to conduct its own experiments using the technology discovered by Baric. Peter Daszak reported on this research in the summary report for 2016.
However, the administration of Barack Obama has since banned this kind of experimentation, with only a few exceptions that were to be strictly monitored. Nevertheless, Daszak managed to get another grant from the American state agency National Institutes of Health (NIH). The request for $14 million has already been rejected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Some of the American investigators believe that a similar shadow project was taking place at the Wuhan institute in cooperation with the Chinese military. Some experts believe that the Chinese military was interested in developing a vaccine against coronaviruses, which would also allow their potential use as biological weapons. This suspicion is reinforced, for example, by the mysterious death of army scientist Zhou Yusen in May 2020 after he patented a vaccine against covid-19 just a month after the first cases were reported in Wuhan. Vaccinologists agree that such rapid development is impossible without prior preparation.
Hiding and blaming
All of this would explain the initial withholding of information and downplaying of the situation by both Beijing and the WHO, as well as the Chinese government’s ferocious efforts to shift responsibility for the outbreak of the pandemic elsewhere. Beijing has repeatedly accused the United States of producing biological weapons and has spread its own version of the origin of covid from the US military biological laboratory at Fort Detrick. Accusations of the development of biological weapons then resurfaced in connection with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when Chinese state media took over Russian propaganda.
However, from the available information, it rather seems that Western scientists have cooperated transparently with their Chinese colleagues for many years, with whom they shared the latest knowledge and technology, for example in the field of genetic engineering of viruses. This cooperation was partially supported by American grants in an effort to contribute to global efforts to prevent dangerous epidemics such as SARS or MERS.
The benefits of this cooperation could then be used by the Chinese army in its own projects without the participation and knowledge of foreign partners. While the results were not published for the needs of the international professional community, as is common in the academic world.