The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Before you click away, we have something to ask you…

Do you value independent journalism that focuses on the issues that matter? Do you think Canada needs more in-depth, fact-based reporting? So do we. If you’d like to be part of the solution, we’d love it if you joined us in working on it.

The Tyee is an independent, paywall-free, reader-funded publication. While many other newsrooms are getting smaller or shutting down altogether, we’re bucking the trend and growing, while still keeping our articles free and open for everyone to read.

The reason why we’re able to grow and do more, and focus on quality reporting, is because our readers support us in doing that. Over 5,000 Tyee readers chip in to fund our newsroom on a monthly basis, and that supports our rockstar team of dedicated journalists.

Join a community of people who are helping to build a better journalism ecosystem. You pick the amount you’d like to contribute on a monthly basis, and you can cancel any time.

Help us make Canadian media better by joining Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
Get our free newsletter
Sign Up
Analysis
  |  
Politics
  |  
Coronavirus
  |  
Science + Tech

So Where Did COVID Come from, Anyway?

Did the virus leap from animals straight to humans, or from a lab? The case for each. And for sweeping away secrecy.

Andrew Nikiforuk 1 Nov 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

“Three things lead to error in writing history. First, partisanship. Secondly, gullibility. Thirdly, ignorance of what is intrinsically possible.” — Ibn Khaldun

Knowing the origin of what transpires matters. It provides meaning, and gives all life a compass.

And in the case of a viral tsunami that has killed more than five million people and subtracted trillions of dollars from the global economy, knowing its origin can also provide critical information about preventing future pandemics.

That’s why the contentious and highly political debate about whether COVID spilled from animals into humans or leaked from a Chinese laboratory merits our full attention.

Before delving deeper into this complicated story let me declare as a science journalist that I believe that both the animal spillover and lab leak hypotheses deserve equal attention and are equally probable. I am not taking sides here.

Rather I am exploring each theory using the current reporting and data available. I am also asking why the lab leak theory has encountered so much resistance from some scientists, the World Health Organization and the government of China. Neither theory has been properly investigated in a transparent and credible way. Too many deliberately constructed barriers to knowledge stand in the way. As a result, the questions that still beg for answers are momentous.

THE ANIMAL SPILLOVER THEORY

The origin story still favoured by most scientists is called “animal spillover.” Since the advent of agriculture and civilization the domestication and confinement of one animal species after another such as cattle, goats, pigs and sheep has resulted in a variety of viruses colonizing people. As Europeans began to intensely terraform their continent, it became a global hotspot for disease.

China has long occupied a similar role in Asia for similar reasons: dense human and animal populations combined with the relentless land modification of tropical systems coupled with unrelenting pressures on wildlife and their viral ecosystems. About 70 per cent of all emerging diseases come from animals.

According to the animal spillover theory a coronavirus most likely leapt from a horseshoe bat into a wild or domesticated animal where it mutated and then spilled over into humans. When a virus breaks into a human population, it takes a while for it to mutate and find its place. It is rare for a virus to arrive on the scene readily adapted for rapid human transmission as COVID did. That’s why scientists think that a raccoon dog, mink, pangolin or palm civet probably served as an intermediate host.

So the hypothesis goes like this. Someone in China working in the wildlife trade (pangolins) or the fur industry (raccoon dogs and minks) got infected and then spread the disease through their social networks into a market such as the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan City.

China, of course, harbors a massive meat and fur industry to provide for its highly dense cities. (China’s fur industry farms more than 70 million carnivores.) Markets which place dozens of caged wild and domestic species cheek to jowl can accelerate viral evolution. One recent study found that between 2017 and 2019, 17 different markets in Wuhan sold 38 species of live animals by the thousands both legally and illegally.

The animal spillover theory has a well-documented history and precedent on its side. In 2002 SARS, a much deadlier coronavirus than COVID jumped from civet cats into restaurant workers and food handlers in the crowded markets of southern China. That outbreak killed 800 people, and nearly started a global pandemic.

MERS, a less transmissible coronavirus, moved from bats into camels and then into middle aged camel handlers in the Middle East. It never gained pandemic potential, and largely remains a hospital acquired infection.

But the animal spillover theory has several missing parts including evidence of an intermediate host.

Alina Chan, the author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, notes that “Tens of thousands of animal samples including those from susceptible host species in Wuhan, Hubei and across China have all tested negative for the virus.” Clusters of infections that were found near the Huanan market may be simply explained by the density of highly vulnerable elderly shoppers in the area.

Pangolins, a widely smuggled ant eater and delicacy, does not naturally carry coronaviruses. Only one virus has been sequenced, and it came from a pangolin in Guangdong province.

Wuhan City is also not located in China’s southern tropical zones. Nor do bats reside in great numbers in Hubei province. In fact exposure to bat viruses is so rare in the region that the Wuhan Institute of Virology uses local residents for studies on populations not exposed to coronaviruses. Given these realities even China’s premier bat virus expert Shi Zhengli was shocked when the pandemic started in Wuhan: “I had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China.”

Christian Drosten, an eminent German virologist who has worked extensively on coronaviruses, believes the virus probably originated in animals farmed for their fur.

But like Chan, he is puzzled by the absence of evidence — particularly from wild and farmed animals in China. “I can tell you that there are no studies in the scientific literature — none at all — that shed light on the question of whether raccoon dog breeding stocks or other carnivore breeding stocks, for example minks, carry this virus, SARS-2, in China,” he recently told the Swiss news magazine Republik.

Meanwhile a new study on bats from caves in Laos has found coronaviruses so closely related to COVID that they could directly infect humans. Given that these viruses are more than 95 per cent similar to COVID, some virologists now believe that nature can make a virus as well adapted to humans as any lab.

THE LAB LEAK THEORY

In the last decade scientists have perfected techniques to alter viruses and change their transmissibility, lethalness, host range and even their resistance to drugs and vaccines. Not all of these techniques are “gain-of-function” which broadly refers to a wide range of experiments that can lead to a genetically altered organism with new or enhanced powers. Others include “rescue” — the act of constructing or synthesizing a virus from fragments or frozen corpses.

But gain-of-function has attracted the most attention. In 2011, for example, scientists figured out how to make one strain of avian flu spread faster among humans in experiments with ferrets. The researchers defended their meddling by arguing that avian flu might become a threat and therefore scientists needed to show proof of that potential. So they constructed one of the world’s most dangerous pathogens. Avian flu, which did not show any proclivity to spread easily before the experiment, kills 60 per cent of those infected.

Researchers in China and the United States now have done similar kinds of gain-of-function research on members of the coronavirus family including ones with pandemic potential such as SARS and MERS. The focus is understandable given that this now notorious viral family has spawned one pandemic and two major outbreaks. But the risks are high. U.S. virus expert Ralph Baric has admitted that researchers can do such experiments seamlessly without leaving a genomic signature of their tampering. As a result scientists cannot with great confidence determine whether the coronavirus causing COVID — SARS-CoV-2 — was or was not an engineered virus.

Lynn Klotz, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, argues that these God-like technical advances have taken society into hazardous territory. In particular, Klotz has repeatedly raised questions about “the advisability of performing such experiments at all, and particularly in laboratories placed at universities in heavily populated urban areas, where laboratory personnel who are potentially exposed are in daily contact with a multitude of susceptible and unaware citizens.”

As they said about their avian flu experimentation, virologists claim they need gain-of-function experiments to figure out which pathogens will have the potential to go global and to accelerate vaccine development. But critics say there is absolutely no proof such experiments have improved pandemic preparedness. They also ask two related questions: why are we poking the bear so relentlessly? And did the pandemic prevention industry inadvertently or purposely do that with COVID?

The debate solidly pits scientists like Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University microbiologist long concerned about the safety and proliferation of biomedical technologies, against a group of global virus researchers that share two things in common. They are funded by U.S. and European taxpayers and have actively collaborated with Chinese scientists on coronavirus research.

Most prominent is Peter Daszak, a highly published disease ecologist and zoologist, who has diligently worked for years trying to identify viral hot spots around the world. (I have cited his research repeatedly.) With the goal of preventing pandemics, Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, a New York based non-profit, has funded China’s famous bat virus expert Shi Zhengli at the WIV. Her passion for studying bats that carry a wealth of viruses have earned her the moniker of Bat Lady. Both Daszak and Shi have co-authored more than a dozen scientific papers on SARS-like coronaviruses and their pandemic potential.

The contrast between Ebright and Daszak’s research is stark and illuminating. Ebright, for example, is a founder of the Cambridge Working Group, which warned in 2014 that leaks and accidents at biosafety labs now occur on average “over twice a week with regulated pathogens” in the United States. Ebright has advocated for public risk reviews of gain-of-function research.

At the same time Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance has been accused of taking risks in the name of pandemic prevention. While such experiments were temporarily banned in the United States, EcoHealth Alliance has funded more than $200 million of research at Level 2 and Level 3 labs at Shi’s Wuhan Institute of Virology between 2004 and 2017. A Level 2 lab has the same biosafety as a dentist’s office.

Ebright has likened Daszak’s pioneering approach to pandemic prevention — hunting down novel viruses in bats and fowl in remote locations and then ferrying samples back to urban biosafety labs for intensive study — to “looking for a gas leak with a lighted match.”

From the start of the pandemic Ebright immediately considered a lab leak as a legitimate and possible origin. He also castigated the World Health Organization for not demanding an unbiased forensic investigation requiring full study of the records, samples and personnel working at three Wuhan laboratories.

Daszak has labelled such a proposition as crackpot if not racist. He characterized China’s problematic response to the pandemic as a “resounding endorsement of China’s emergence as a 21st century scientific superpower.” He also orchestrated a highly influential Lancet article signed by 27 scientists that dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as a “conspiracy theory” last year. That article had the effect of shutting down much valid debate for a year. The letter also expressed “solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China.”

An investigation by the Telegraph later revealed that 26 of the 27 researchers who signed the Lancet article had an undeclared conflict of interest. All but one were linked to Chinese researchers, their colleagues or funders. Five of the letter’s signers worked at Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance. Another five had published studies with researchers who collaborated with Shi Zhengli and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

At least three of the article’s signers later changed their minds. “I’m convinced that what happened is that the virus was brought to a lab, they started to work with it… and some sloppy individual brought it out,” Bernard Roizman, a University of Chicago virologist told the Wall Street Journal last May. “They can’t admit they did something so stupid.”

PeterDaszak.jpg
Virologist Peter Daszak, the only American scientist approved by China to serve on the WHO’s mission to Wuhan to investigate the origins of COVID, insists the coronavirus leapt from animal to human — the process his non-profit EcoHealth Alliance researched intensively for years with Wuhan scientists and US funding. Such ties, say some, signal a conflict of interest. Photo: EcoHealth Alliance.

The technical concerns raised by Ebright and other scientists are not idle ones. In 2015 Alison Young, then an investigative reporter at USA Today, documented safety lapses at elite labs throughout the United States run by government, universities and private firms. She found that leaks weren’t rare and that human error was common. She also discovered that no universal, mandatory requirement exists for reporting lab accidents or lab-associated infections with dangerous pathogens. (My 2008 book Pandemonium documented a long history of fatal leaks from numerous U.S. and Russian biowarfare programs.)

Researchers now agree that the risk of leaks and accidents increase as the number of labs and researchers studying dangerous pathogens multiplies. Canada has nearly 1,000 licensed labs that study pathogens. They include Level 2 labs which have the safeguards of a dental office and Level 3 labs with greater biosecurity. The country has only one high containment Level 4 facility and it cost $140 million to build and is located in a poor neighbourhood in Winnipeg. Level 4 labs can handle pathogens with pandemic potential. According to Elaine Dewar in her excellent new book On the Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years, even Canada’s most secure facility, the National Microbiology Lab, appears to record two accidents per month such as needle pricks and exposure to HIV or Ebola.

Nearly a decade ago the Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch looked at the risks posed by tinkering with the genomes of viruses like smallpox, SARS and the 1918 strain of influenza at 42 high containment facilities around the world. Lipsitch cited one calculation that estimated the risk of an escape of a potential pandemic pathogen from one of these facilities at 0.3 per lab per year. That translated into an 80 per cent risk of an escape of a deadly pathogen every 13 years. The probabilities have become more fearsome now that there are now 60 Level 4 labs open or planned around the world. In addition much high-risk research takes place in more numerous less secure Level 2 and Level 3 labs.

Lipsitch, also a founder of the Cambridge Working Group, recommended improved safety guidelines, monitoring and specific risk benefit protocols. He also thought scientists should have to explain why working on safer or less deadly organisms would not suffice to test the medical questions that need testing.

“Funders, regulators and researchers who propose experiments that could place the global populace at risk have a responsibility to involve those whose well-being is affected (the global public) in considering the principles for undertaking such research,” wrote Lipsitch.

In 2018 an Oxford University study looked at the risk of laboratory-acquired infections in the Asia Pacific region where 4.5 billion people live. An online search (there is no uniform reporting) identified 27 cases, between 1982 and 2016, of researchers pricking or contaminating themselves with pathogens as varied as SARS (three events) and dengue fever. Nineteen per cent of these events happened in China. And that’s just what was reported.

The study pointed out that “non-reporting” of such events “could pose a risk of disease transmission from infected laboratory staff to communities and the environment.” Adding: “Many laboratories are located in middle or low income countries where biosafety infrastructure, regulator practices and enforcement of regulations may not exist or be as robust as high-income countries.”

A WHO report with holes

The World Health Organization has been largely blind to these issues. It has also changed its view on the possible origins of pandemics. A 2019 report to the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an arm of the WHO, clearly warned that the next pandemic could easily arise from one of three sources: Mother Nature, an accidental lab leak or an engineered organism.

“In addition to a greater risk of pandemics from natural pathogens, scientific developments allow for disease-causing micro-organisms to be engineered or recreated in laboratories,” warned the WHO. The report added that an accidental release (a human-made event) could be more devastating than a natural pandemic. The WHO underscored these possibilities in four separate sections of the report.

But that’s not what WHO concluded in its report on the origins of COVID jointly produced with China.

Its investigators completely ruled out an engineered organism. The team, half of whose members were Chinese researchers who held a veto over the report’s directions, devoted but three pages to a lab leak or accident and characterized such an error as “very unlikely.” The rest of the report, which marshalled no new evidence on animal hosts, claimed an animal spillover was “extremely likely.”

Daszak was the only American scientist approved by China to serve on the panel. Investigators spent barely two weeks in China and had no access to lab records.

The WHO report never declared Daszak’s conflict of interest, given his 15-year relationship with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It also left out pertinent Chinese concerns about lab incidents. It failed, for example, to acknowledge a warning about biomedical advances issued by George Gao, the head of China’s Center for Disease Control in the journal Biosafety and Health in 2019: “The proliferation of such technologies means they will be available to the ambitious, careless, inept and outright malcontents who misuse them in ways that endanger our safety.”

The report also failed to note that many Chinese scientists suspected a lab leak as a possible source from the get go. In February 2020, two Chinese scientists, Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao, published a paper on the possible origins of COVID noting the obvious. Namely, that two facilities in Wuhan studied bats and coronaviruses: the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

They argued that the virus probably did not originate in a Huanan seafood market, as authorities then suggested, because the virus was only found in 33 out of 585 samples collected from the market. They added that the people of Wuhan didn’t eat bats, and that horseshoe bats didn’t live near the northern city.

The researchers concluded that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan. Safety levels may need to be reinforced in high-risk biohazardous laboratories. Regulations may be taken to relocate these laboratories far away from city centre and other densely populated places.”

The paper was immediately taken down but survived on the internet. It is illegal in China to publish anything on the pandemic without first going through a co-ordinating committee due to “social concerns.”

Nor did the WHO report mention that China tightened biosafety regulations at its labs after its COVID outbreak started the pandemic. One biosurveillance expert told science journalist Nicholas Wade that the Chinese state was sending a not-so-subtle message. “To me, the fact that the [Communist Party of China] enacted a major series of laboratory biosafety regulations this past year is an indication that China’s political leadership believes that a lab accident is likely to have caused the pandemic.”

Peter Ben Embarek, who led the much criticized joint China-WHO probe, later admitted to a Danish documentary film crew that Chinese authorities “didn’t want anything about the lab” in the investigation because they maintained a leak “was impossible, so there was no need to waste time on that.” The Chinese only agreed to mention of the lab theory if the WHO agreed to not recommend any further studies on the subject, said Embarek.

He added that he considered it a “likely hypothesis” that a lab employee was infected in the field while collecting samples in a bat cave.

PeterBanEmbarek.jpg
Peter Ben Embarek, leader of the WHO investigation in Wuhan, speaks to journalists as he prepares to depart China on Feb. 10, 2020. The resulting report failed to reflect worries he later made public about biosafety standards at a lab close to the market where the first human cases were detected. Photo by Ng Han Guan, the Associated Press.

To appreciate the incomplete nature of the WHO report on COVID’s origins, consider this well-documented lab incident. In 2007, two herds of cattle fell ill with highly infectious foot-and-mouth disease in central England. The highly transmissible virus is considered a Level 4 animal pathogen requiring the highest security and containment. In fact, FMD has long been studied as a biological warfare agent because of its ability to disrupt food supplies. The outbreak infected 300 animals with blisters and sores, and cost England’s agricultural sector more than $270 million to contain.

After the outbreak the British government immediately ordered an investigation. It found that the pathogen didn’t come from nature or wildlife. It was a 1957 strain of the virus used by the U.K.’s Institute for Animal Health and a commercial manufacturer to make vaccines. The institute, a high containment Level 4 facility, just happened to be located close to the infected farms.

The origin story went like this: the virus leaked from a wastewater pipe carrying partially treated water. That water created a pool of mud at a construction site. Trucks passing though the muck carried the virus to the farms.

A lucid 82-page report on the incident noted that “An accidental release from a high security containment facility is of obvious concern to the public and raises issues of public trust in both science and government."

The findings included: “It is an irony that those facilities that help us to control outbreaks of disease have the potential to cause disease if organisms are accidentally released into the environment.”

This is exactly the probability the WHO-China study could not consider for political reasons. This avoidance didn’t surprise many credible scientists. At the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO produced a highly inaccurate report that hailed China’s response to the outbreak as exemplary. It did not mention how the government had censored whistleblowers, suppressed evidence, initially denied human-to-human transmission and refused help from international investigators.

China’s ambitious viral study program

Many scientists initially dismissed the lab theory as a crackpot idea. They did so for a variety of reasons. Some wanted to protect their own research funding on coronaviruses while others thought lab leaks were rare. When then-president Donald Trump rapidly exploited the possibility for political reasons, many scientists closed their minds as a point of honour.

Some context here is necessary. After the first SARS outbreak, China learned that having the capacity to study lethal viruses in Level 4 and Level 3 labs was essential. In addition its “One Belt, One Road” program guaranteed that more exotic pathogens would be introduced to the country as Chinese engineers economically colonized large parts of Africa and Latin America with infrastructure projects that destroy wildlife and viral ecosystems.

China’s scientific establishment also has ambitions to lead the planned Global Virome Project. It proposes to locate and sequence all the viruses that might possibly infect humans extant on Earth. And so China’s one party state rapidly built a large network of national and provincial labs to study emerging pathogens including coronaviruses. A national ethos of “China speed, China quality” guided their construction.

With French assistance China built its first BSL-4 lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2017. In her book on COVID’s origins, Elaine Dewar describes the Wuhan National Laboratory as a large complex with multiple buildings that house 20 Biosafety Level II laboratories, two Biosafety Level III laboratories, and 3,000 square metres of Biosafety Level IV space. The Chinese plan another four high containment labs including two for military experiments.

Staff from Canada’s own high containment lab based in Winnipeg helped to train Chinese researchers on safety protocols as did technicians from French, U.S. and Australian labs. Studying pathogens in high-tech facilities is a global business.

The Chinese government advertised WIV’s new BSL-4 as a place to diagnose, research and develop antiviral drugs and vaccines “while additionally preserving highly pathogenic BSL-4 agents for future scientific research.”

The BSL-4 lab, however, didn’t become fully operational until 2018. Until then, Chinese scientists conducted studies requiring top bio security at other Level 4 labs such as Canada’s National Microbiology Lab. Or they conducted these experiments in less secure environments at Level 3 and 2 labs in China.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which occupies two distinct campuses, now houses one of the largest libraries of bat coronaviruses (22,000 samples) in a modern city of 11 million people. The Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention also studies coronaviruses at a separate facility.

A cluster of concerns in Wuhan

In 2019 a prominent biosafety researcher named Guizhen Wu admitted in a scientific journal that “a comprehensive system of legal and regulatory standards” didn’t exist for Level 2 labs where many coronaviruses were being handled in China.

In that same year Yuan Zhiming, then the director of the BSL-4 lab at the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory at the WIV identified a list of growing pains. They included the enforcement of pathogen, waste and laboratory animal management regulations. He added that “several high-level BSLs have insufficient funds for routine yet vital processes.”

Evidence amassed by a diversity of sources including Elaine Dewar, Alina Chan, the U.S. Congress and an internet group called DRASTIC have now documented how Chinese scientists at the WIV have sequenced, mass produced and genetically manipulated horseshoe bat viruses with the help of U.S. funding largely orchestrated by Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance.

In plain language three different labs operating in Wuhan City became unnatural reservoirs of bat viruses with a focus on one species: SARS-related coronaviruses.

A few examples will suffice. In 2007 Shi took a SARS-like coronavirus that didn’t infect humans and modified it so it did so. In 2013 her lab isolated a wild coronavirus responsible for the death of three copper miners in Yunnan province. She proved it could bind to a protein called ACE2 in human lungs without passing through an animal host. The closest relative to the virus that became COVID is RaTG13 and comes from this very cave.

Other Chinese scientists later engineered mice to make their lungs more like humans’ in order to study their susceptibility to SARS-like coronaviruses. The mice got sicker than animals infected with a wild virus. And so on. According to Shi, most of her research was done in Level 2 or Level 3 labs — a revelation that has shocked many scientists.

Given these factors, the first human infection of COVID could have arisen from a simple unreported laboratory accident with a SARS-like coronavirus. A needle prick. A ripped safety suit. An aerosol exposure. A bat bite. A spilled sample. Somebody doing something careless in a hurry.

The infected researcher, bat specimen collector, staffer or technician could then have walked out the door of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a neighbouring lab, got on public transit and inadvertently delivered COVID to the greater public in the fall of 2019.

That didn’t happen, according to Wuhan Institute of Virology deputy director Yuan Zhiming. "I have repeatedly emphasized that it was on Dec. 30 (of 2019) that we got contact with the samples of SARS-like pneumonia or pneumonia of unknown cause sent from the hospital," Yuan told NBC News in 2020. "We have not encountered the novel coronavirus before that, and without this virus, there is no way that it is leaked from the lab."

But the lab leak hypothesis has as much precedence as the animal spillover story.

After SARS nearly erupted into a global storm, six separate lab escapes came close to reintroducing the virus to the world again in 2003 and 2004.

“Inappropriate safety practices” provoked a SARS leak at a Singapore lab. A spill of liquid waste at a Taiwan lab followed resulting the quarantining of 70 people. In 2004 an accident at the National Institute of Virology in Beijing infected two technicians, killed one citizen and sparked a small outbreak requiring more than 1,000 people to quarantine. A doctor who documented these lab escapes noted that “the virology community is still reticent to discuss laboratory escapes.”

Shi has denied that her lab leaked or accidently or deliberately engineered an organism. “The novel 2019 coronavirus is nature punishing the human race for keeping uncivilized living habits,” she wrote in a 2020 WeChat post. “I, Shi Zhengli, swear on my life that it has nothing to do with our laboratory.” She advised those who spread rumours to “shut their stinking mouths.”

SecurityGuardWuhanLab.jpg
A security person moves journalists away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after the WHO team arrived in February to investigate COVID origins. Doubts were raised about the resulting report, including by team members, and the WHO has assembled a second panel to revisit the question, but the Chinese government so far refuses to allow new access. Photo by Ng Han Guan, the Associated Press.

The Republican-led U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on COVID’s origins offers a much different judgement.

The committee’s final report, released in August, concluded the following:

The virus may be natural or manipulated. It probably originated in the cave 1,000 miles away from Wuhan City at the Mojiang mine sometime between 2012 and 2015. The Wuhan Institute of Virology took samples and studied the virus.

“Its release was due to poor lab safety standards and practices, exacerbated by dangerous gain-of-function research being conducted at inadequate biosafety levels, including BSL-2.”

The Congressional report further posits that in October 2019, the virus spread throughout central Wuhan, likely via the Wuhan Metro, just prior to the Military World Games. Those games became an international super spreading event that took the virus to multiple continents months before the outbreak unsettled Wuhan.

A lab leak scenario that starts at a copper mine

Two independent scientists who work at the non-profit Bioscience Resource Project in New York have added an interesting twist to the lab leak theory.

Virologist Jonathan Latham and molecular biologist Allison Wilson focused their attention on a little reported disease outbreak at Mojiang Copper Mine in Yunnan province in 2012.

Three of six infected workers died with pneumonia. Their disease symptoms all matched that of COVID eight years before the pandemic.

Both the WIV and Shi investigated the incident. They recovered a wealth of coronaviruses (nine different species) from the cave where the miners had been shovelling guano including RaTG13, the only known coronavirus to share a 96 per cent lineage with COVID.

Given that two of the infected miners were sick for six months in the hospital, Lantham and Wilson speculate that the virus underwent hyper evolution and mutated rapidly. In the process a novel bat virus learned how to become well adapted to humans. They note that the U.K. variant B117 most likely evolved in an immunocompromised patient where it also found unfettered opportunities to mutate.

Latham and Wilson hypothesize that virus leaked from a medical sample obtained from the outbreak. The Mojiang theory answers lots of questions about COVID’s origins including why it erupted in Wuhan and why no intermediate animal host has been found. “It provides plausible answers to key questions,” said Lantham in a recent presentation to the British Medical Journal.

WHY IT MATTERS

So where does this great scientific debate leave us as the Delta variant takes its toll, while the world must live with the prospect that COVID will again mutate into a more infectious, vaccine-averse and deadly strain?

For starters the trail is growing cold. Every competent virologist knows that if you don’t track down the earliest patients of an outbreak and identify all their exposures, the path will become faint and disappear. And that is now happening in China and, many would add, willfully.

After the embarrassment of its first conflicted origins report, the WHO last month assembled another team for another examination of the origins of COVID.

"The emergence of new viruses with the potential to spark epidemics and pandemics is a fact of nature, and while SARS-CoV-2 is the latest such virus, it will not be the last," stated WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "Understanding where new pathogens come from is essential for preventing future outbreaks with epidemic and pandemic potential, and requires a broad range of expertise."

But skeptics point to the fact that many members of the original WHO panel that gave short shrift to the lab leak theory are included in the second one. And the Chinese government continues to resist a second visit by investigators.

It is also clear that the world has another problem. It is now possible for civilization to design its own pandemics. Our global biomedical technologies, just like social media technologies, have made the world a more complex and fragile place.

The pandemic — whether it originated inside or outside of a laboratory — has provided a moment to re-examine how we go about researching pathogens in a globalized technosphere. The proliferation of labs and their technicians, whether they are synthesizing or changing the function of viruses, can deliver unintended consequences with non-linear effects.

The current focus on predicting pandemics by collecting virus samples from the wild and sequencing them in urban labs is high risk. Given the unknown number of viruses that play pivotal ecological roles essential for biological diversity, such efforts are more likely to cause pandemics than prevent them.

The French virologist Simon Wain-Hobson notes that no one specifically predicted the COVID-19 pandemic let alone SARS because viral evolution is random.

“Virological crystal-ball-gazing is even harder than the real thing,” he writes. “Virology can only deliver a limited number of answers in this area, very few of which may be useful for the development of effective pandemic vaccines, anti-viral drugs, or enhanced pandemic preparedness.”

And so we are left to draw the proper cautions from a complex story involving a global cast, high-risk technologies, identity politics, conflicts of interest, two superpowers and a global economy hell-bent on terraforming all natural ecosystems.

The issues raised have been simmering for years. Scientists studying the pandemic potential of pathogens don’t want to endanger their funding or limit the reach of their technologies. At the same time governments that sponsor large networks of biosafety labs with the capacity to identify, sequence and engineer deadly viruses, fear transparency because they don’t want to be held responsible for leaks or accidents.

“If SARS-CoV-2 was shown to be the product of gain-of-function experiments by scientists in China supported by the taxpayers of the European Union and the U.S., the rage against globalized science would be considerable,” notes Dewar in On the Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years. “Mobs with pitchforks came to mind.”

It won’t just be mobs. Nations around the world would insist on economic reparations and the rising Chinese industrial colossus could become a shunned entity.

Such a finding would rattle the field of virology the same way Chernobyl blew up nuclear science. Citizens would likely demand restrictions or prohibitions on technologies that can engineer viruses along with tougher controls on how the virologists use these technologies.

The issue is not solely about the tight-lipped and totalitarian government of China and its fear of openness and failure. Secrecy abounds everywhere in this story. The British government, which plays a critical role in funding 600 Level 3 labs in the U.K., is no fan of transparency either. It recently refused to release emails on conversations about the pandemic’s origins between prominent experts in Britain and the United States.

In Canada, transparency regarding pathogens and labs is even worse. The Liberal government, for example, has refused to hand over redacted documents to Parliament about the firing of two Chinese scientists that worked at its only Biosafety Level 4 lab in 2019. Both researchers were involved with research on Ebola for China’s military including Major-General Chen Wei, a bioweapons expert with the People’s Liberation Army. Moreover, the director of the once renowned lab, a Harper appointee, simply left the facility at the beginning of the pandemic with no cogent explanation.

If you have read this far with the hope of gaining a conclusive answer to the question of where and how the pandemic originated, I can only offer this: Although the best available data and information remains consistent with both natural and lab origin hypotheses, the information changes daily.

There seems not to be even much consensus about whether you have a right to know the answers you seek.

From the beginning, identity politics have been summoned by some to cloud questions about COVID’s origins and obscured proper and timely investigations. Of course, it is obscene to exploit pandemic fears to deliberately sow division and fan racism as Donald Trump and others have done by, for example, calling SARS-CoV-2 the “China virus.” But if criticism of the Chinese state represents an attack on all Chinese people, as the Communist party daily maintains on social media, how can inquiry thrive?

And if questions about the technologies and labs employed by the global scientific community represent an attack on efforts to prevent pandemics as some disease experts maintain, how can science endure?

Whether wildlife or scientists started the pandemic, one conclusion remains unassailable, says Elaine Dewar at the end of her book:

“The truth remains in a desperate state, splayed out in the narrative equivalent of an ICU.”  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.

Do:

  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

LATEST STORIES

The Barometer

Tyee Poll: Are You Preparing for the Next Climate Disaster?

Take this week's poll