A controversial report from the World Health Organization and China on COVID-19’s origins and its conclusions on the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis contradicts and ignores details laid out by State Department cables and a declassified fact sheet, putting it on a collision course with U.S. intelligence.
Officials from both the Trump and Biden administrations have said that the Chinese government worked to thwart investigations into the origins of the virus, which has killed 2.79 million people worldwide, and both administrations have cast doubt on the manner in which the joint WHO-China study was conducted in early 2021. The Chinese government denies the coronavirus originated in the Wuhan lab and has cast doubt on the idea that it originated in China.
The new report, released late Monday, said that the joint international team (containing 17 international scientists and 17 scientists from China) looked at four specific scenarios: “direct zoonotic transmission to humans (spillover),” “introduction through an intermediate host followed by spillover,” “introduction through the (cold) food chain,” and “introduction through a laboratory incident.” The joint team, which spent two weeks in quarantine in China then two more weeks in the country with a heavy Chinese government presence accompanying them, assessed that COVID-19’s emergent pathway was “possible-to-likely” through a direct animal spillover, “likely to very likely” through an intermediate animal host, “possible” through cold/food chain products, and “extremely unlikely” through a lab escape.
A Trump State Department fact sheet on the Wuhan Institute of Virology declassified in mid-January assessed that lab workers had fallen ill with COVID-19-like symptoms before the wider Wuhan outbreak in 2019 and that the Wuhan lab had conducted secret experiments with the Chinese military and gain-of-function research, though it did not draw specific conclusions about COVID-19’s origin. The Biden administration has declined to weigh in on the fact sheet, though the Washington Post reported that an unnamed Biden State Department official said that “there wasn’t significant or meaningful disagreement regarding the information presented in the fact sheet” and “no one is disputing the information, the fact that these data points exist, the fact that they are accurate.”
Matt Pottinger, Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, argued on Face the Nation on CBS in February that “if you weigh the circumstantial evidence, the ledger on the side of an explanation that says that this resulted from some kind of human error, it far outweighs the side of the scale that says this was some natural outbreak.” He has also called the WHO-China inquiry a “Potemkin exercise.”
Antony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state, cast doubt on the report on Sunday, saying: “We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it.”
The WHO-China report said the team explored the possibility that COVID-19 originated as “an accidental infection of staff from laboratory activities involving the relevant viruses” and “did not consider the hypothesis of deliberate release or deliberate bioengineering of SARS-CoV-2 for release, the latter has been ruled out by other scientists following analyses of the genome.”
The arguments in favor of the lab leak hypothesis that were considered by the WHO-China team were few while the listed arguments against it were longer, and the report’s summarization of both sides of the argument contradicted or ignored key concerns raised by the declassified U.S. intelligence and by former Trump officials such as Pottinger, former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Although rare, laboratory accidents do happen, and different laboratories around the world are working with bat CoVs. When working in particular with virus cultures, but also with animal inoculations or clinical samples, humans could become infected in laboratories with limited biosafety, poor laboratory management practice, or following negligence,” the WHO-China team said in purporting to summarize arguments in favor of the possibility of an accidental Wuhan lab escape. “The closest known CoV RaTG13 strain (96.2%) to SARS-CoV-2 detected in bat anal swabs have been sequenced at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Wuhan CDC laboratory moved on 2nd December 2019 to a new location near the Huanan market. Such moves can be disruptive for the operations of any laboratory.”
The arguments against the lab leak hypothesis included the claim that “the three laboratories in Wuhan working with either CoVs diagnostics and/or CoVs isolation and vaccine development all had high quality biosafety level (BSL3 or 4) facilities that were well-managed, with a staff health monitoring programme with no reporting of COVID-19 compatible respiratory illness during the weeks/months prior to December 2019.” Many of the other arguments against the possibility relied upon reports supplied from the Wuhan labs themselves.
But State Department cables sent from Beijing in 2018 had warned of biosecurity problems at the Wuhan lab, noting that “during interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”
Lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar),” the State Department fact sheet contended, adding that the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.”
“The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses,” the State Department fact sheet read, also claiming that the Wuhan lab “has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
Dr. Shi Zhengli, known as the “bat lady” for her work with coronaviruses, denied any Wuhan lab work with the Chinese military earlier this month. But Pompeo told the Washington Examiner that was “a high-confidence assessment.” These claims were largely not addressed by the WHO-China study.
The WHO-China report also contended that “there has been speculation regarding the presence of human ACE2 receptor binding and a furin-cleavage site in SARS-CoV-2, but both have been found in animal viruses as well.”
Pottinger stressed during a 60 Minutes appearance on Sunday that China had engaged in a cover-up, saying, “There was a direct order from Beijing to destroy all viral samples — and they didn’t volunteer to share the genetic sequences.” He also said intelligence showed that scientists at the Wuhan lab “were doing research specifically on coronaviruses that attach to the ACE2 receptors in human lungs just like the COVID-19 virus.”
“There is a body of research that’s been taking place conducted by the Chinese military in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has not been acknowledged by the Chinese government. We’ve seen the data. I’ve personally seen the data,” Pottinger said, adding all of this was “circumstantial evidence, but it’s a pretty potent bullet point when you consider that the place where this pandemic emerged was a few kilometers away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Unlike the other origin scenarios that were considered, for which the WHO-China team proposed a range of further follow-up studies to explore the possibility further, the new report did not include any such study proposals for the “extremely unlikely” lab leak hypothesis, with the report saying only that what would be needed to increase future knowledge would be “regular administrative and internal review of high-level biosafety laboratories worldwide” and “follow-up of new evidence supplied around possible laboratory leaks.”
Despite the prominent role on the WHO-China team played by Peter Daszak, who has a history of collaboration with the Wuhan lab, the new report contended that there was no conflict of interest, saying that “all declared interests were assessed and found not to interfere with the independence and transparency of the work.”
Daszak, the leader of the EcoHealth Alliance, which steered at least $600,000 in National Institutes of Health funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for bat virus research, has defended China’s coronavirus response to Chinese state-run outlets and previously criticized the Biden administration for being skeptical of the WHO-China report. He dismissed the lab leak hypothesis during his own 60 Minutes appearance and admitted the WHO team had just taken the word of Chinese scientists when they denied a leak.
Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under former President Donald Trump, said COVID-19 likely originated through an accidental escape from the Wuhan lab and hinted this occurred following gain-of-function research there.
“I am of the point of view that I still think the most likely etiology of this pathology in Wuhan was from a laboratory. Escaped,” Redfield said, adding that “it’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect the laboratory worker.”
Redfield added: “That’s not implying any intentionality. … I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human, and at that moment in time, the virus came to the human, became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human-to-human transmission. … I just don’t think this makes biological sense.”
Author : Jerry Dunleavy
Source : Washington Examiner : WHO-China report on coronavirus’s origin conflicts with declassified US intelligence