Are WHO Findings Trustworthy? How Widespread Is Lab Animal Sale in China? Who is Patient Zero?

By Simone Gao
Simone Gao
Simone Gao
March 18, 2020 Updated: March 18, 2020

Narration: According to China’s official records, newly added cases in the country are in sharp decline. WHO endorsed the CCP numbers.

Bruce Aylward: they care about keeping these people alive and, and they do it successfully.

Narration: People trapped in Wuhan’s high rises however, didn’t seem to be on board as they shouted FAKE! FAKE! when the vice premiere of China paid a visit to the community.

Narration: Three months into the coronavirus epidemic, patient zero is nowhere to be found while skepticism towards the safety of China’s labs continues to mount.

Sean Lin: Some of the animal labs may be simply handling knockout mice, transgenic mice or even mice inoculated with low pathogenic viruses. So people may have the potential to sell them for profits.

Title: Epidemic Calming Down? Patient Zero? Are China’s Labs Safe?

Simone Gao: Since the coronavirus outbreak began, questions, speculation, and doubt have surrounded the Chinese Communist Party’s, or CCP’s, handling of the situation. Now the virus has spread to much of the planet. But what happened and is happening in China is still of paramount importance because unless we know the truth of the epidemic, the origin and real identity of this virus, we won’t be able to deal with it properly. And we won’t be able to prevent it from coming back. So in this episode of Zooming In, we ask the following questions: Can we trust the World Health Organization’s findings in China? Who is the real patient zero? And how safe are the laboratories in Wuhan? I am Simone Gao and you are watching Zooming In.

Part 1: Is the Epidemic Calming Down in China?

Narration: On Feb 26, the World Health Organization brought good news to the world. Dr. Bruce Aylward, the team lead of the WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19 held a press conference in Brussels to report their findings in China. He had this to say about their overall evaluation.

Mr. Aylward: You know, if I had COVID-19, I want to be treated in China. China knows how to keep people alive from coven. They’re super committed to it and they’re making a massive investment in it as well. That’s not going to be the case everywhere in the world.

And as you’ve seen, we’ve had tragically lost people in G-7 countries are dying of this disease. And so it is a serious disease. And I worry sometimes that (when) we look at the China numbers, people are going to get a false sense of security, but these people know and they care about keeping these people alive and, and they do it successfully. They’re really good at it, folks.

Narration: The WHO-China joint mission includes 25 experts from 8 countries. It was the first and only foreign expert team allowed in China to investigate the epidemic. U.S. requests to send its own experts to China were repeatedly turned down. Why did China only allow WHO experts? Dr. Aylward was open and direct about how this WHO mission came about.

Mr. Aylward: I think most of you know the genesis of the mission. It was a request or decision actually by the president of China in the meeting with Dr. Tedros with a joint feeling that China has done a huge amount of work and it could inform the global response and China’s own response to have an in-dependent mission coming to have a review and assessment of what have been done and lessons for the way forward.

Ms. Gao: If we paraphrase what Dr. Aylward said in Chinese context, it means this: Xi Jinping openly asked WHO to endorse his leadership in combating the COVID-19 epidemic. Communist regimes have a consistent pattern of organizing foreign visits, with the USSR setting the precedent. Historically, this kind of joint mission would operate like this: The Chinese government arranged the itinerary, and government personnel would accompany the experts for the entire mission. The government also dictated what the foreign specialists saw, where they went, and who they talked to, from top to bottom. Dr. Aylward also offered evidence that the team only went to the safest places.

Mr. Aylward: I never had any exposures. You know, are careful and we run careful. You know, we have no contact with patients. We have no direct close contacts. We have no contacts with contacts.

All the restaurants were closed, so we weren’t even interacting with our group.

Any of the hospitals we went to, we go into the clean section, and we’d go nowhere near, you know, there’s a dirty section and then there’s also a gray zone. We don’t go near those things.

Ms. Gao: The WHO team spent nine days total in China. They arrived on Saturday, February 16, and convened for the first time on Sunday night. Dr. Aylward said the team spent the last 3 days writing a report with its Chinese partners. They went to 4 provinces including Beijing, Wuhan, Guangdong and Sichuan. These provinces and cities span across much of China, which means it would take at least two days for the travel time alone. So the team really had at most 3 days to work on the mission. And one of the most important conclusions Dr. Aylward and others drew was that the world owes Wuhan.

Narration: Dr. Aylward presented a chart of the epidemic development in China over time. The inverted V shape curve, according to Aylward,  is evidence of the Chinese government’s achievement.

When asked whether we could trust China’s official numbers, Dr. Aylward said three of their own findings support the Chinese narrative.

Indicator No.1: There are empty beds everywhere.

Mr. Aylward: One thing you can do is you can talk to doctors who are seeing patients who are running these massive hospitals, and everywhere you were hearing the same thing that [they] have open beds. And in Wuhan, it was like, “We have open beds, we can get people out of isolation centers into a proper hospital bed.”

Indicator No.2: Testing clinics are freeing up.

Mr. Aylward: And when we went and talked to the people at the fever clinic, they were sitting there not scanning people or not testing people and they said, you know, this is change. [They] had lines and they aren’t there anymore. And that’s the second indicator that that is real.

Indicator No.3: Not enough patients to enroll in drug trials.

Mr. Aylward: So when I was talking to him, I said, so how’s enrollment going? And he said, it’s a challenge. It’s slowing down, it has slowed down because there are not enough new patients that [they] can actually recruit into the trial.

Ms. Gao: Again, if everything the team saw in China was arranged by the government, we are not entirely sure if the firsthand evidence the team collected is really firsthand. In fact, social media and China’s own media reports seem to contradict what the WHO team identified.

Narration: We obtained this video from a twitter feed. The tweet said: Vice Premiere of China Sun Chunlan was visiting a community in Wuhan. Residents were not allowed to leave their apartments. They shouted “Fake! Fake! All Fake” instead.

Ms. Gao: And it’s not just social media. China’s official media’s positive coverage of the coronavirus sometimes defeats its own purpose as well.

Narration: According to a Xinhua News Agency report, on February 21, the deputy mayor of Wuhan Hu Yabo said that 19 more temporary hospitals would be built in the city. There are 13 such temporary hospitals in Wuhan right now with over 13 thousand beds. Over 9 thousand of them are occupied according to Hu. If the development of the epidemic is showing an inverted V-shape, and the number of illnesses is on the decline, why should Wuhan continue to build so many temporary hospitals? Hu Yabo said that on February 25, there will be 30,000 beds, which is over double the current amount. If the existing beds are not fully occupied yet, why are so many more beds needed?

Meanwhile, Internal CCP documents received by the Epoch Times show that government departments and agencies are required to destroy documents and data related to the outbreak. The document was circulated in Liaoning Province, which is one-thousand miles away from the virus epicenter in Hubei.

Confidential internal documents from Shandong province also show that authorities were purposefully under-reporting the number of testing-kits that returned positive results. The actual number of new cases at that time was up to 52 times more than officially reported.

On top of that, change of testing methodology adds to the confusion of Chinese data. On February twenty-sixth, five senior officials in Hubei province reported negative 107 new cases. Later that day, 10 other cities also reported negative cases. The strange numbers came from shifting methodology inside China for giving confirmed diagnoses. Originally, only results from nucleic acid testing were considered valid. Then briefly, China shifted to accepting CT scan results, only to change back to nucleic acid testing shortly after. So when 112 patients tested positive on CT scans, only 5 of them tested positive with the nucleic acid test, the result was negative 107.

Ms. Gao: Despite all the doubts we have regarding official numbers coming out of China, we are not making a definitive conclusion that the epidemic in China is not calming down. We simply don’t know for sure.  Yes, WHO’s A+ grade on the Chinese government’s handling of the epidemic is a textbook definition of propaganda. Nevertheless, we are not sure either whether such propaganda doesn’t work at all. Here’s an interview clip of Vice President Pence on Fox News.

Mike Pence: There were some encouraging news that there were actually fewer new cases in China than in the balance of the world.

Maria Bartiromo: And we believe them?

Mike Pence: Well, we have CDC officials who were just in China a few short weeks ago. And they informed me that they were able to look at the raw data. And from their initial look, it did line up with much of the data we are receiving.

Ms. Gao: Who are these CDC experts Vice President Pence mentioned, and what raw data could they have? I asked Dr. Sean Lin these questions. He is a Chinese and American trained microbiologist, former lab director of the Viral Disease Branch of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and was involved in the outbreak response for MERS in the Middle East in 2014.

Dr. Lin: Yes, there are two medical doctors from the United States who attended this mission. One of them is Dr. Clifford Lane, who is the clinical director for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Another doctor is Dr. Wei Gongzhou in the Influenza Division from CDC. So the problem is that the medical experts in this joint mission from other countries have to be accompanied by other Chinese experts and Chinese security people in this joint mission. And throughout their whole trip in China, they only had one day of visit in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. So what can you find out in one day, right? And also, from their reports, you can clearly see that they acknowledge the knowledge gap regarding the animal origins, natural reservoir for the viruses, and also they clearly mentioned that there’s a problem in understanding the animal-human interface for the early outbreak, and that the early exposure of this virus could not be identified. That means they couldn’t identify the patient zero. So all these key questions actually point out a clear failure in early epidemiology study or in disease control in Wuhan. So I think this is the core question. But this mission couldn’t find out any information about the key questions. And of course, the Chinese medical doctors and scientists have put a lot of effort in treating the patients, studying the virus, and containing the outbreak. Of course, they had made huge sacrifices for this. But for this kind of joint mission, the key issue is you need to address the core problem. If the core problem is not answered, then I think the raw data still doesn’t give you much information. This is very likely to be just a cover-up under the banner of the WHO, similar to the Chinese government’s inviting journalists to visit labor camps and prisons after they moved out Falun Gong practitioners or Uighurs from these locations. So what you find is what the government wants you to see.

Ms. Gao: What is your assessment of the epidemic in China now?

Dr. Lin: I’m not optimistic at all about the epidemic situation in China. First, it would be a terrible mistake to trust the propaganda state-run media, telling people the outbreak has been contained and even blaming the United States as a potential origin of the viruses. Actually, from the reports from Chinese medical doctors, we know that even in January and February 83% of the infection were due to collective gathering, like family gatherings, social events, or maybe working units. And now the Chinese government is pushing people back to work, pushing the factory to resume production. But we know there are many reports about factory workers getting infected and (incidents where) the entire factory got quarantined down. So this is a very dangerous situation. The Chinese government is incubating a second round of big outbreak in China.

Bumper: Coming up, who is the real patient zero of the COVID-19 outbreak?

Part 2: Patient Zero

Narration: Generally in an outbreak, finding patient zero or index case can greatly assist doctors and the scientific community in combating the disease. When the person is identified, then the way the person got sick can likely be identified as well. However, China has so far given both limited and questionable data on who patient zero actually is.

Official statements from the Wuhan health authorities said that the first case of the COVID-19 appeared in Wuhan on December 8, 2019. The man was later cured and released from the hospital. He had no contact with the Huanan seafood market which the Chinese authorities claim is the source of the outbreak.

However, two other reports contradict this statement. Reports from both The Lancet on January 24, and the BBC on February 18, state that the first case appeared one week earlier on December first.  The patient was a bed-ridden man in his 70s. He had no contact with the seafood market either.

Nevertheless, the Chinese Health authorities insisted that the virus came from the Seafood market.

On Feb 17, BBC interviewed one of the Lancet article author, Dr. Wu Wenjuan who was also the  director of the intensive care unit at Jinyintan hospital that treated the bed-ridden man. Wu told the BBC that “because he was ill, he basically didn’t go outdoors.” The Lancet study said that none of the men’s family members developed any fever or respiratory symptoms. When asked by the BBC about the man having no connection to the market, and if there is another source of his infection, she responded that their research was now moving in that direction.

Ms. Gao: Yet, we have not heard from Dr. Wu Wenjuan about their research since. This should be pretty straight forward. A bed ridden man who had no contact with the seafood market was infected with the COVID-19 virus. How could he have caught it? The first guess would be from people who were around him. If his family members didn’t have symptoms, then what about people who visited the family? The list shouldn’t be too long. Yet, two months into the epidemic, the true patient zero has not yet been identified. Furthermore, Chinese health officials have made no changes to the claim that the seafood market was the source of the virus, despite multiple research indicating a large percentage of the early patients having no contact with the market. Not only that, Chinese researchers claimed that they have found the origin of the virus in absence of patient zero.

Narration: On January 20, one Chinese Doctor named Shi Zhengli, along with her team, submitted a paper study to Nature, naming bats as the source of the COVID-19. Dr. Shi also happens to be a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Before the institute opened, her research was already focused on other coronaviruses, like SARS from the 2002 outbreak.

Ms. Gao: What has Dr. Shi accomplished in her two decades of research and study? And what does her research mean? I asked Dr. Sean Lin this question.

Dr. Lin: So Dr. Shi Zhengli’s group has done a lot of research on coronavirus. For example, in 2010, her group identified a Chinese horseshoe bat having the receptor that can bind to the SARS-CoV S-protein. The mutation in the receptor binding domain can actually modulate the binding affinity.

In 2013, her team published another major discovery. This time, they actually identified two virus strains in the horseshoe bat. These two strains of virus showed 95% identity in nuclear tie with the SARS-CoV. These two viruses can also bind to the receptor in bats, civets, and humans. So this is the strongest evidence of the potential transmission route from bats to civets and (then) to humans. Her team continued to study what might be the potential emergence, maybe the potential epidemic strain for SARS.

In 2015, they published another article, and this time they created a chimeric virus using the S-protein from the bat coronavirus and putting it in the backbone of a mouse (that) adopted the SARS-CoV. To their surprise, this virus actually showed gain of function because it showed the infectivity in the human airways and epithelial cells, and it also showed lung pathogenesis in animal models with mice. So this is actually related to the medical acid issue about gain of function studies. Dr. Shi’s group had all the capacities. They had a Coronavirus-reverse genetic system. They are good at introducing mutations on S-proteins, and they had all the wild type bat coronavirus and the SARS-CoV strains. So it really depends on whether they continued this kind of function studies, as they are fully aware of the risks of such gain of function studies.

Ms. Gao: The new virus Dr. Shi and her team constructed in 2015 is not the same virus as this outbreak. However, the fact that Dr. Shi, as head of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has studied various SARS-Coronaviruses and has constructed high pathogenic coronaviruses in a lab, her lab is very close to the epicenter of this outbreak, and there are more microbiology labs in Wuhan begs a number of questions. One of them, of course, is how safe are Chinese laboratories?

Part 3: Are China’s Microbiology Labs Safe?

Narration: Chinese laboratories have a history of lax standards and leaked pathogens.During the SARS outbreak, the virus was leaked from the lab twice. In both cases, individuals who worked at the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing became infected. One of the individuals went on extensive railway trips before being hospitalized.

Another instance of lax security came from selling lab animals to local markets, according to Chinese state media reports. The man, named Li Ning, was a biologist at the China Engineering Academy. He was found to have sold experimental pigs, cows, and milk to local markets between 2008 and 2012. Li and his colleagues kept the money from the sales, close to 1.5 million dollars. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison on January second, 2020.

According to a 2016 report from the China Experimental Animal Information Network, Chinese researchers use tens of millions of laboratory animals every year. The Experimental Animal Research Center of Hubei Province alone handles about 300,000 animals a year, either for bioresearch experiments inside the center, or to be sold and distributed to other labs in Hubei Province.

Ms. Gao: How widespread is the practice of Chinese researchers selling lab animals? Could the virus have leaked from the labs because of this behavior? Here is Dr. Lin again.

Dr. Lin: Regarding the potential lab leak, this is really related to the lab management issues, because some of the animal labs may be simply handling knockout mice, transgenic mice or even mice inoculated with low pathogenic viruses. So people may have the potential to sell them for profits. But it is a management issue. Meanwhile, I want to bring your attention to one article published by two scientists in China. One of them is in Guangzhou, and the other is actually in Wuhan, in Huazhong University of Science and Technology. In this paper, they identified a lab that was run by Wuhan’s CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). This animal lab actually contains hundreds of bats collected in the wild in Hubei province and in Zhejiang province. The collector was reportedly attacked by bats multiple times, and he had to quarantine himself a couple of times too. Of course, the animal lab had to do surgeries on animals to study their tissue organs. So the tissue samples and contaminated trash are the sources of pathogens. You know, if these were not managed well, it could have contaminated the environment and people who (came into) contact with such trash as well. This lab is actually only 280 meters away from the Huanan seafood market. It is (also) adjacent to Union Hospital, where the first batch of Chinese doctors got infected during the epidemic. So this is alarming. Of course, this is only a potential lab leak. No solid proof has been identified and reviewed so far. But it is a potential.

Narration: On Feb 29, 2020, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), China expert Michael Pillsbury made this comment about the coronavirus.

Michael Pillsbury: One of the things President Xi and President Trump had talked about 3 times this year by phone is the coronavirus and what China needs to tell us that we need to know about this virus. They posted the analysis of the virus online. This is not the way the secretive Chinese usually do business. Then it was pointed out to them not publicly, but by people who are loyal to President Trump, this virus comes from one thing, either from a laboratory in Wuhan, which we’re not accusing you of, or eating wild animals that you buy in a huge market in Wuhan. Yesterday the Chinese passed a law. By the way, they usually say that their laws take two or three years to pass. In two weeks, they passed a law banning all Chinese from eating wild animals.

Narration: Pillsbury’s account of China’s reaction was not complete though. On Feb 15, 10 days prior to the legislation of banning consumption of wild animals, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology published a directive, titled: “Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus.”

Ms. Gao: What does this directive mean? Here’s what Dr. Lin told me:

Dr. Lin: So this new directive is clearly suggesting there were major biosecurity hazards related to these microbiology labs handling highly pathogenic viral pathogens. So of course, when the directive was issued, it kind of implies that the Chinese government accepted the potential of a lab leak.

Ms. Gao: No doubt Chinese doctors and nurses are working extremely hard to combat the epidemic. So are the average Chinese people. But unless the firewall comes down completely and the CCP allows foreign experts into China freely, the outside world won’t know what’s really happening in China, and neither will the Chinese people. In WHO’s press briefing, Dr. Aylsward did not mention how the CCP’s suppression of information in the first couple of months has taken many lives and allowed the disease to spread around the world. But these facts simply won’t go away. Thanks for watching Zooming In. I am Simone Gao and see you next time.

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