Top science writer: Evidence points to Wuhan lab leak

Lab worker at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China (Video screenshot)

Amid calls by Republicans to investigate the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, a prominent science journalist who worked for the journal Nature and the New York Times has published an in-depth report concluding the evidence points to a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.

Nicholas Wade – in “Origin of Covid — Following the Clues: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?” – explained his intent was to “sort through the available scientific facts, which hold many clues as to what happened, and provide readers with the evidence to make their own judgments.”

Nicholas Wade

In his nearly 11,000-word analysis, he acknowledged that the origin of the pandemic remains uncertain.

But that is, in part, because “the political agendas of governments and scientists have generated thick clouds of obfuscation, which the mainstream press seems helpless to dispel.”

Toward the end of his piece, he addressed the ideological and political divide over the issue, observing that many in establishment media and politics reflexively took a contrarian view to President Trump’s open conjecture that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab.

Eventually, Wade wrote, the “common sense perception that a pandemic breaking out in Wuhan might have something to do with a Wuhan lab cooking up novel viruses of maximal danger in unsafe conditions could eventually displace the ideological insistence that whatever Trump said can’t be true.”

Along with the media’s failure, he explored the conflict of interest of key virologists and the funding of the Wuhan lab by Anthony Fauci’s National Insititute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases to conduct dangerous “gain-of-function” research after it had been banned by the Obama administration. The risky research deliberately makes a virus more transmissible and virulent to help prepare better responses to outbreaks that might occur naturally.

In March, former CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield, declaring he is now free to express his opinion, said he believes the novel coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan.

Asked to respond, Fauci, emphasizing that Redfield mentioned he was expressing his personal opinion, said “most public health officials” think the novel coronavirus didn’t come from a lab.

Under the Trump administration in mid-January, the State Department issued a fact sheet contending Wuhan lab researchers conducted experiments involving the bat coronavirus identified by the lab in January 2020 “as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2,” the virus that causes COVID-19

This week, congressional Republicans launched investigations into the origins of the pandemic, including the possibility of leak from a Wuhan lab. They are requesting that Secretary of State Antony Blinken release “unclassified documents and declassify other documents for public release, as appropriate, related to the assertion in the Department’s January 15, 2021 Fact Sheet that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in Wuhan, China, collaborated with the Chinese military in conducting classified research, including laboratory animal experiments.”

The Australian reported Friday documents obtained by the U.S. State Department in May 2020 reveal Chinese military scientists discussed weaponizing SARS coronaviruses five years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday at the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki staved off a series of questions from Newsmax reporter Emerald Robinson about the U.S. funding under Fauci of “gain-of-function” research at the Wuhan lab and the origin of the pandemic, referring her to the National Institutes of Health.

‘Clues point in a specific direction’

Wade, born in England, was educated at Eton College and earned a BA  in natural sciences from the University of Cambridge in 1964.  He emigrated to the United States in 1970, where he became a science writer and editor for the journal Nature, from 1967 to 1971, and the journal Science, from 1972 to 1982.  He was the staff writer for the Science Times section of the New York Times from 1982 to 2012.

In his lengthy piece, he began with the caveat that there is no direct evidence for either the natural or the lab theory, and he offers only “clues, not conclusions.”

“But those clues point in a specific direction. And having inferred that direction, I’m going to delineate some of the strands in this tangled skein of disaster,” he said.

Regarding the theory that the virus originated in a wet market selling meat from exotic animals, he pointed out that that the decoding of the virus’s genome showed it belonged to a viral family known as beta-coronaviruses, to which the previous SARS1 and MERS viruses also belong.

But Chinese researchers found earlier COVID-19 cases in Wuhan with no link to the wet market.

Scientist condemning lab-leak theory had conflict of interest

Nevertheless, early in the pandemic, when it was far too soon to make a judgment, a group of virologists and others signed a letter published in the eminent British science journal The Lancet insisting on a natural origin.

“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” they wrote.

Scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,” they said, calling on readers to stand with Chinese colleagues on the frontline of fighting the disease.

Peter Daszak delivering remarks at a National Academy of Sciences event (Video screenshot)

But Wade found that “the signatories of the Lancet letter were behaving as poor scientists: they were assuring the public of facts they could not know for sure were true.”

It later turned out that the letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York.

Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But this “acute conflict of interest” was not disclosed to The Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”

Wade pointed out that virologists like Daszak had much at stake in the assigning of blame for the pandemic.

For 20 years, mostly beneath the radar, Daszak and others had been engaged in dangerous “gain-of-function” research.

“If SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China,” Wade wrote.

MIT Technology Review editor Antonio Regalado said in March 2020 it “would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom.”

‘Political, not scientific statements’

Wade addresses another major influence on the public’s view of the pandemic’s origin: an opinion piece published in March 2020 in the journal Nature Medicine by a group of virologists led by Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute.

“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the five virologists declared.

But Wade argued that while older methods of cutting and pasting viral genomes could be detected, newer “seamless” approaches “leave no defining marks.”

So Andersen and his colleagues “were assuring their readers of something they could not know.”

While science is supposed to be a “self-correcting community of experts who constantly check each other’s work,” Wade said, no other virologist pointed out that Andersen’s argument was “full of absurdly large holes.”

The silence, he said, is largely because “in today’s universities speech can be very costly.”

“Careers can be destroyed for stepping out of line. Any virologist who challenges the community’s declared view risks having his next grant application turned down by the panel of fellow virologists that advises the government grant distribution agency,” he explained.

“The Daszak and Andersen letters were really political, not scientific statements, yet were amazingly effective,”  wrote Wade. “Articles in the mainstream press repeatedly stated that a consensus of experts had ruled lab escape out of the question or extremely unlikely.”

Natural emergence of COVID-19 was the media’s preferred theory until February 2021, with the visit by a World Health Organization commission to China. Chinese communist authorities controlled the membership of the commission, which was led by Daszak.

Daszak, both before and after the visit, declared the lab-leak theory was was extremely unlikely.

“But this was not quite the propaganda victory the Chinese authorities may have been hoping for,” Wade wrote. “What became clear was that the Chinese had no evidence to offer the commission in support of the natural emergence theory.”

‘Bat lady’

Wade explained that the “gain of function” research, to try to get ahead of a potential pandemic, explored how close a given animal virus might be to making the jump to humans.

Virologist contended that that objective justified lab experiments enhancing the ability of dangerous animal viruses to infect people.

Dr. Shi Zhengli (World Society for Virology)

At the Wuhan Institute of Virology, researchers wanted to understand what changes needed to occur in a bat virus’s spike proteins before it could infect people.

China’s leading expert on bat viruses, Dr. Shi Zheng-li — known as the “bat lady” — frequently led expeditions to the bat-infested caves of Yunnan in southern China and collected about 100 different bat coronaviruses.

Dr. Shi teamed up with Ralph S. Baric, a leading coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina, to enhancethe ability of bat viruses to attack humans. They eventually manufactured a virus that was able to infect the cells of the human airway, at least when tested against a lab culture of such cells.

Wade identified the virus they created as SHC014-CoV/SARS1.

“If the SARS2 virus were to have been cooked up in Dr. Shi’s lab, then its direct prototype would have been the SHC014-CoV/SARS1 chimera, the potential danger of which concerned many observers and prompted intense discussion,” Wade wrote.

Fauci funding

In a “strange twist in the story,” he said, Dr. Shi’s work was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, led by Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The grants, which are a matter of public record, were assigned to the prime contractor, Dr. Peter Daszak, who subcontracted them to Dr. Shi.

In short, the objective of Shi’s work was to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells.

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony S. Fauci addresses his remarks and urges citizens to continue to follow the president’s coronavirus guidelines during a coronavirus (COVID-19) briefing Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in the James S. Brady White House Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and leading expert on biosafety, said it’s “clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was systematically constructing novel chimeric coronaviruses and was assessing their ability to infect human cells and human-ACE2-expressing mice.”

“It is also clear,” Ebright said, “that, depending on the constant genomic contexts chosen for analysis, this work could have produced SARS-CoV-2 or a proximal progenitor of SARS-CoV-2.”

“Genomic context” refers to the particular viral backbone used as the testbed for the spike protein.

Wade wrote: “The lab escape scenario for the origin of the SARS2 virus, as should by now be evident, is not mere hand-waving in the direction of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It is a detailed proposal, based on the specific project being funded there by the NIAID.”

But was the work actually carried out? It was, according to Daszak, who, Wade noted, “has been much protesting for the last 15 months that lab escape was a ludicrous conspiracy theory invented by China-bashers.”

Daszak gave an interview in December 2019, before the outbreak of the pandemic became generally known, in which he boasted of researchers at the Wuhan lab reprogramming the spike protein and generating chimeric coronaviruses capable of infecting humanized mice.

“And we have now found, you know, after six or seven years of doing this, over 100 new SARS-related coronaviruses, very close to SARS,” Daszak said.

“Some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanized mice models and are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals and you can’t vaccinate against them with a vaccine. So, these are a clear and present danger.”

Wade wrote: “One can only imagine Dr. Daszak’s reaction when he heard of the outbreak of the epidemic in Wuhan a few days later. He would have known better than anyone the Wuhan Institute’s goal of making bat coronaviruses infectious to humans, as well as the weaknesses in the institute’s defense against their own researchers becoming infected.

“But instead of providing public health authorities with the plentiful information at his disposal, he immediately launched a public relations campaign to persuade the world that the epidemic couldn’t possibly have been caused by one of the institute’s souped-up viruses.”

In an April 2020 interview, Daszak declared: “The idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true.”

Wade cited a fact sheet issued by the State Department on Jan. 21, 2021: “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.”

David Asher, a fellow of the Hudson Institute and former consultant to the State Department, said knowledge of the outbreak came from a mix of public information and “some high end information collected by our intelligence community.”

Three people working at the Wuhan lab got sick within a week of each other with severe symptoms that required hospitalization.

Asher said it was “the first known cluster that we’re aware of, of victims of what we believe to be COVID-19.”

Wade concluded: “The evidence above adds up to a serious case that the SARS2 virus could have been created in a lab, from which it then escaped.”

Testing the two theories

But Wade nevertheless acknowledged that hard “proof” is lacking.

“Proof would consist of evidence from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or related labs in Wuhan, that SARS2 or a predecessor virus was under development there.”

Clearly, the communist Chinese government has blocked all access. So, lacking access to such records, he offered a way to test the two rival origin theories, natural emergence and lab escape.

  • The place of origin: He pointed out that the two closest known relatives of the SARS2 virus were collected from bats living in caves in Yunnan, a province of southern China. “If the SARS2 virus had first infected people living around the Yunnan caves, that would strongly support the idea that the virus had spilled over to people naturally. But this isn’t what happened. The pandemic broke out 1,500 kilometers away, in Wuhan.”
  • Natural history and evolution: Dr. Baric writes that “early strains identified in Wuhan, China, showed limited genetic diversity, which suggests that the virus may have been introduced from a single source.” A single source would be compatible with lab escape.
  • The furin cleavage site: The furin cleavage is in the middle of the SARS2 spike protein.  Wade explained that the invasion of the cell cannot begin until the S1 and S2 subunits of the protein have been cut apart. “And there, right at the S1/S2 junction, is the furin cleavage site that ensures the spike protein will be cleaved in exactly the right place.” He pointed out that of all known SARS-related beta-coronaviruses, only SARS2 possesses a furin cleavage site. All the other viruses have their S2 unit cleaved at a different site and by a different mechanism. “For those who think SARS2 may have escaped from a lab, explaining the furin cleavage site is no problem at all,” he wrote.

‘Strange common interest’

Wade noted that the U.S. government “shares a strange common interest with the Chinese authorities” in that neither wants to draw attention to the fact that Dr. Shi’s coronavirus work was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

“To these serried walls of silence must be added that of the mainstream media,” he wrote.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (CNN screenshot)

“To my knowledge, no major newspaper or television network has yet provided readers with an in-depth news story of the lab escape scenario, such as the one you have just read, although some have run brief editorials or opinion pieces,” he said.

He suggested that a virus purported to have killed 3 million people might merit a serious investigation.

“Or that the wisdom of continuing gain-of-function research, regardless of the virus’s origin, would be worth some probing,” Wade wrote. “Or that the funding of gain-of-function research by the NIH and NIAID during a moratorium on such research would bear investigation.”

So what accounts for the media’s apparent lack of curiosity?

“The virologists’ omertà is one reason,” he said. “Science reporters, unlike political reporters, have little innate skepticism of their sources’ motives; most see their role largely as purveying the wisdom of scientists to the unwashed masses. So when their sources won’t help, these journalists are at a loss.”

But such excuses don’t sit well with the public, Wade said.

“People round the world who have been pretty much confined to their homes for the last year might like a better answer than their media are giving them.”

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