Donald Trump says he believes the coronavirus was accidentally leaked from a Wuhan laboratory but has provided no proof. Intelligence agencies in the United States and Australia say they have no hard evidence. The Australian government says it’s most likely that the virus was transferred from an animal to humans at Wuhan’s wet market. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems to be walking back from his previous strong statements.
Some are treating Trump’s claim as without basis and we wait to see if he can back it up. In the meantime, it’s unwise to dismiss the accidental lab leak hypothesis. Here’s why.
Note first that it’s not a conspiracy theory; it’s an accident hypothesis. And we should not mix up the claim of an accidental leak of a naturally occurring virus with the claim that the virus was constructed or manipulated in a laboratory to become more potent. Genetic analysis has disproved the latter.
The main evidence pointing to a lab leak, all of it circumstantial, comes from research published by Chinese scientists before Beijing shut them down. On Jan. 29, an article written by Chinese researchers was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It concluded from an analysis of 425 coronavirus patients that 55 percent of cases diagnosed before Jan. 1 were linked to the South China Seafood Market, leaving 45 percent who had no apparent contact with the market.
On Feb. 6, a short paper by two scientists from Wuhan universities and titled “The possible origins of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus” appeared. Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao noted that the habitat of the bats carrying the suspected virus is 900 kilometers from the seafood market, that the bats are not eaten by Wuhan residents, and that “no bat was traded in the market.”
Nor is there any evidence of an intermediate host (speculation has centered on pangolins). They point out that there are two research centers that experiment on bat viruses in Wuhan, one less than 300 meters from the seafood market and the other, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, around 12 kilometers. They concluded that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.” The article was quickly removed. Botao Xiao later told the Wall Street Journal he had withdrawn the paper because it lacked “direct proofs.”
Wuhan’s Institute of Virology is 12 kilometers from the wet market linked to the first large cluster of COVID-19 cases.
A more thorough study by 27 Chinese scientists published in The Lancet on Feb. 15 found that 27 patients from a sample of 41 admitted to hospital in the early stages of the outbreak had been exposed to the market, leaving 14 who weren’t. The first person diagnosed with COVID-19 (on Dec. 1) had no contact with the market and lived a long way from it.
Richard Lucey, an infectious diseases expert at Georgetown University who had studied the early data, told Science magazine that the virus must have been circulating silently in Wuhan well before the cluster of infections broke out at the markets. The authorities, he said, “must have realized the epidemic did not originate in that Wuhan Huanan seafood market” even as they were putting this story around.
On Feb. 14, Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a speech to party leaders declaring China must “close the loopholes exposed by the epidemic.” He announced the fast-tracking of a new law for “biosecurity at laboratories” specifically targeting the use of biological agents that “may harm national security.” The law had been in the pipeline for some months and some experts say tightening security measures at laboratories is to be expected after an outbreak like this one.
The next day, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology published a new directive “strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus.” Again, overseas experts who have worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology said this is normal after an outbreak.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology is the “only facility in China permitted to handle the most dangerous known pathogens, including the Ebola and Lassa viruses.” It has been studying new SARS-related coronaviruses in bats for several years. The work has included manipulating coronaviruses to make them more potent. Researchers have to take stringent measures to prevent themselves from catching viruses. Around the world, leaks from labs have been known to occur.
In November, the Wuhan Institute of Virology posted a notice inviting applications for post-doctoral fellows to join a team led by Dr. Peng Zhou using bats to research Ebola and SARS-associated coronaviruses. Peng Zhou has been studying how bats can carry highly pathogenic viruses without becoming sick.
In mid-January, Major General Chen Wei, the Chinese military’s top epidemiologist and virologist, arrived in Wuhan with a team of military scientists. They based themselves at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. At this time, messages had been circulating on social media platforms WeChat and Weibo claiming that “patient zero,” the first to be infected, was a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It was suggested she was a graduate of the Institute, worked on coronaviruses, and never visited the South China Seafood Market. The Institute released a statement saying that the person in question left Wuhan in 2015 and was quite healthy.
In early February, as the epidemic spread to other countries, Beijing became deeply worried about the damage to China’s international reputation and began a campaign to deny the fact that the virus had its origins in Wuhan and spread disinformation such as the outlandish claim that the U.S. military took the virus to Wuhan.
Beijing also moved quickly to shut down scientific research. Last month China’s State Council ordered universities and research institutions to implement strict management of all scientific papers concerning the coronavirus, especially those dealing with its origin. Political vetting is now required before publication is permitted. The director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology emailed staff on April 9 instructing them not to disclose any information about the disease, not even to China’s official media or partner institutions.
Beijing does not want the truth to be known, going so far as to delete from a European Union opinion piece words noting that the outbreak originated in China. But the truth matters because prevention of a similar catastrophe depends on it. If the pandemic was due to a lab accident, then the answer is tighter lab controls. (And those in charge will have a lot of explaining to do.) If the virus arose from animal transfer in the wet market, then the answer is to shut down the trade in live animals. Or the truth may lie elsewhere.
So, will the world know the truth about the origin of the new coronavirus? Chinese scientists are some of the world’s leaders in virology, genetics, and epidemiology and they have much to teach us. However, Beijing, paranoid about being blamed for the pandemic, has seen fit to silence them.
If the virus did escape from a lab it now seems the world will only know if some brave souls leak documents or otherwise blow the whistle.
Clive Hamilton is a professor at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and co-author with Mareike Ohlberg of “Hidden Hand: Exposing how the Chinese Communist Party is reshaping the world,” due out June 16, 2020.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.