Taiwanese Lab Leak Sharpens Debate on Pandemic Origin
On Dec. 9, Taiwan announced that a researcher working in a biosafety level-3 (BSL-3) laboratory in Taipei tested positive for the Delta variant of COVID-19 “while experimenting on the virus in the lab.”
Chen Shih-chung, the head of Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) confirmed that the female researcher had tested positive for COVID-19 after being “exposed to the pathogen” during research that was conducted in mid-November at the Academia Sinica’s Genomics Research Center in Taipei.
Notably, Taiwan hasn’t experienced any recent cases of COVID-19, a fact noted by Chen, who said, “We believe the possibility of infection from the workplace is higher because we have zero confirmed infections in the community.”
It was later reported that the researcher had been bitten by a mouse during two separate incidents. Taipei Deputy Mayor Huang Shan-shan, who described the woman as a “research assistant,” said she had been bitten by a laboratory mouse carrying the Gamma strain of the virus on Oct. 15, but subsequently tested negative for infection.
However, a little more than a month later on Nov. 19, she was again bitten by a mouse in the lab. This time, for reasons that remain unknown, the researcher didn’t undergo testing after the second bite until well after she had developed physical symptoms. According to Taiwan News, the woman developed a cough in late November, which intensified during the first week of December, but she didn’t seek out testing until Dec. 8.
James Liao, the president of Academia Sinica, cited six separate failures that contributed to the infection incident. These included the “failure to duly report a scientist being bitten by lab mice; not working with lab mice in a biosafety cabinet; not following protocols in removing hazmat suits; new personnel not receiving adequate training; lack of supervision and monitoring during experiments; and lax management in lab practices.”
Taiwan Leak Occurred Despite Use of High Security Lab
Taiwan’s lab leak of COVID-19 took place at a BSL-3 lab, which mandates the use of personal protective equipment, biosafety cabinets, sustained directional airflow without recirculation, as well as self-closing and interlocked doors. By contrast, the gain-of-function experiments being conducted on coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were done at much less secure BSL-2 labs.
As context, Rutgers University biologist Richard Ebright has stated: “BSL-2 is the biosafety level of a US dentist’s office (i.e., lockable door, screened windows, sterilizer, gown, and gloves).” Ebright told the Financial Times: “If [coronavirus] work was happening, it should definitely not have been happening at BSL-2, that is roughly equivalent to a standard dentist office.”
The use of BSL-2 labs for gain-of-function experiments by the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been heavily criticized by many scientists. Michael Lin, a bioengineer at Stanford University, told MIT Technology Review that allowing work on potentially dangerous bat viruses at BSL-2 is “an actual scandal.”
And a prominent and early supporter of the natural origins narrative, Columbia University virologist Ian Lipkin, changed his mind about the virus’s origin after the Wuhan Institute admitted it conducted its coronavirus experiments at a BSL-2 lab.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” Lipkin stated. “People should not be looking at bat viruses in BSL-2 labs.”
Lipkin said that he now considers a lab leak to be a viable theory, saying that his “view has changed.”
Taiwan Leak Response in Stark Contrast to CCP’s Wuhan Response
Additionally, the open and immediate manner in which the Taiwanese government handled its lab leak incident contrasts sharply with China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials refused to acknowledge the outbreak until Taiwan notified international authorities on Dec. 31, 2019. But despite the CCP’s refusal to acknowledge an outbreak, there were earlier warnings from those stationed in Wuhan.
According to the U.S. Consul General in Wuhan, the city was hit by an unusually vicious flu-like outbreak in October 2019. And a November 2019 intelligence report by the U.S. military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence reportedly warned of a contagion and stated that “it could be a cataclysmic event.” Chinese authorities have reportedly traced early cases of COVID-19 to mid-November.
Notably, at the same time the outbreak in Wuhan appeared to be reaching a critical juncture, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, which was conducting coronavirus research alongside the Wuhan Institute of Virology, suddenly moved its lab’s location on Dec. 2, 2019, to a spot just a few hundred yards from the Huanan Seafood market—which would initially be cited as the origin of the early COVID-19 cases. The CDC’s new location for its lab was also directly adjacent to another hotspot of later COVID-19 cases, the Union Hospital, where a group of doctors first became infected.
The genomic sequence of COVID-19 was discovered no later than Dec. 27, 2019. While Chinese and Western scientists obtained copies at that time, under pressure from the CCP, neither Chinese nor Western scientists shared the information publicly. When a Chinese scientist from Shanghai finally released the sequence on Jan. 11, 2020, the CCP shut down his lab.
The CCP’s coverup and the capitulation by scientists allowed the virus to continue to spread at a critical time. It also gave the CCP additional time to obfuscate the virus’s origins and create a natural origin narrative centered around the Huanan Seafood Market.
Additionally, although the World Health Organization’s (WHO) initial report on the origins of the outbreak stated that a lab leak was extremely unlikely, the lead investigator of that report, Peter Ben Embarek, told a Danish documentary team that the lab leak theory was probable, and suggested that a Chinese researcher could have been infected by a bat while taking samples in connection with research at a Wuhan lab.
Embarek also acknowledged that a deal had been struck between the WHO’s investigative team and their Chinese counterparts. The lab leak theory could be mentioned in the WHO’s final report, but only on the condition the report didn’t recommend any specific studies to further that hypothesis.
China’s censorship has taken many forms. Recently, Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth, the body through which Dr. Anthony Fauci funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology, told the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that he was unable to hand over requested genetic sequence data from his gain-of-function experiments to the NIH because the data was going through an approval process by CCP authorities.
This arrangement with the CCP is a breach of the terms and conditions of Daszak’s NIH grant, which specifically required that all genetic sequence data be made publicly available. CCP oversight and control weren’t part of Daszak’s agreement.
The fact that genetic sequence data that may relate directly to the origin of the pandemic remains under the control of the CCP also raises questions about the claims of both Daszak and NIH that their Wuhan experiments couldn’t have caused the pandemic.
Lab Leaks Common
The incident in Taiwan has renewed the debate over the origin of the pandemic. According to Yanzhong Huang, a Chinese public health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, “if the lab worker is confirmed to have been infected at her workplace, then this will add credibility to the lab leak theory.”
Although this case is raising new questions about the likelihood of a lab as the origin of the pandemic, lab leaks aren’t as rare as the media would have the public believe.
The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic marked the first appearance of the H1N1 virus. Although the initial outbreak was natural, the virus’s sudden reappearance in the late 1970s was actually due to a laboratory leak of a stored strain of the H1N1 virus. We know this because the genetic sequence of the virus in the 1970s outbreak was nearly identical to the sequences of decades-old strains. Put another way, the virus was not evolving during this time, it was sitting in a lab. Indeed, the NIH notes that a “biosafety lapse in a research laboratory is now most often cited as the cause of the 1977-1978 reemergence of the H1N1 influenza virus strain.”
In 1979, spores of anthrax leaked from a lab in the Soviet Union, killing scores of people. At the time, Soviet authorities covered up the origins of the outbreak, claiming that it came from contaminated meat. In a twist eerily reminiscent of the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 origins investigation, a molecular biologist from Harvard University, Matthew Meselson, was allowed to travel to the Soviet Union to investigate the outbreak.
Upon his return, he issued a report that backed the Soviet version of events, claiming that the outbreak started at a contaminated meat processing plant. Meselson stated that that explanation was “plausible and consistent with what is known from medical literature and recorded human experiences with anthrax.” In another parallel to the natural origins narrative for COVID-19, in which illegal wildlife markets were initially blamed for the pandemic, Meselson claimed that the outbreak was caused by “the illegal sale of meat.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was finally revealed in 1992 that the outbreak had, in fact, originated at a military research facility.
The original Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 made headlines across the world. However, a lesser-known fact is that the SARS virus has subsequently leaked out of various labs at least six times. The first incident occurred in Singapore—a country known for its meticulousness and attention to detail—shortly after the initial outbreak ended. There were subsequent SARS lab leaks in Beijing as well as in Taiwan in 2003 and 2004.
The years 2013 and 2014 were particularly bad for lab accidents. Notably, many of the accidents that happened during this period took place at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where lab mice escaped the university’s lab on at least eight occasions, including some infected with SARS and H1N1 viruses. In response, the NIH stated that “it appears the measures taken by the University of North Carolina to reduce the likelihood of these events have not been effective.”
Poor biosafety at UNC is all the more notable in light of the fact that the university houses Ralph Baric’s lab. In 2015, Baric, a pioneer of gain-of-function experiments, famously collaborated with the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shi Zhengli, to create a hybrid version of a bat coronavirus that had been adapted to grow in mice and to mimic human disease.
Rutgers’s Ebright, who warned in 2015 that the only impact of gain-of-function work was “the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk,” has stated that these prior leaks underscore the fact that it “is eminently plausible that a Wuhan laboratory worker handling SARS-related coronaviruses was infected and then transmitted the infection to the general public, sparking the pandemic.”
Notably, his 2015 warning was in response to the experiments carried out by Baric and Shi Zhengli.
Incidents of lab leaks in just the past 10 years have involved notably dangerous pathogens, including Dengue, Anthrax, H5N1, smallpox, Ebola and Zika.
Although there are far too many incidents of lab leaks to list here, one event is particularly relevant—the November 2019 lab accident in China when nearly 200 staff members at the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute became infected with brucellosis, also known as Mediterranean Fever. Subsequently, thousands of residents of Lanzhou reportedly also fell ill. CCP authorities have denied that the Veterinary Research Institute was responsible, blaming the outbreak on polluted waste gas from a pharmaceutical facility which was allegedly carried by wind to the research institute.
Ironically, even if the CCP’s version of events is accurate, it would still have been a lab accident.
Taiwan’s Leak Refocuses Debate on COVID-19 Origin
The Lanzhou outbreak, which happened at almost exactly the same time as the Wuhan outbreak, should have served as an immediate red flag for anyone looking into the origins of COVID-19. But the Lanzhou outbreak has been largely ignored by the media. The incident underscored not only that laboratory accidents happen with disturbing regularity but also that the CCP has a history of covering them up.
In 2019, Yuan Zhiming, the vice director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, wrote a review of the many safety deficiencies within China’s many laboratories. He noted that “several high-level BSLs have insufficient operational funds for routine yet vital processes,” noting that many of China’s BSL-3 laboratories “run on extremely minimal operational costs or in some cases none at all.”
Just a year earlier, in 2018, U.S. Embassy officials visited the Wuhan Institute and warned the State Department that there was “inadequate safety at the lab, which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats.” They also reported that there was a lack of trained staff at the Wuhan facility.
Former U.S. Food and Drug Administration head Scott Gottlieb has stated that “lab leaks happen all the time.” During a May 2021 interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Gottlieb noted, “In China, the last six known outbreaks of SARS-1 have been out of labs, including the last known outbreak, which was a pretty extensive outbreak that China initially wouldn’t disclose that it came out of a lab.” Gottlieb said that “It was only disclosed finally by some journalists who were able to trace that outbreak back to a laboratory.”
The transparency and responsiveness with which Taiwan handled its recent biosafety lapse contrasts sharply with China’s ongoing efforts to impede any investigation into the origin of the pandemic. China’s efforts to thwart any true investigation of the virus’s origin also raise questions as to why the United States was providing technology and funding for gain-of-function experiments to a communist regime that’s known for its lack of transparency.
Former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove recently summed up China’s approach to the pandemic, when he told the Australian, “I’m pretty sure that the Chinese after the outbreak in Wuhan, and they’re very good at doing this, sat down and developed their own information campaign and this was almost certainly driven by the Ministry of State Security and run out of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] leadership to make sure that there was suppression of any suggestion that their narrative was not the correct one.”
Dearlove echoed the concerns of many when he ominously noted that ”what concerns me and what worries me is the extent to which the West went along with this.”