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LAB LEAK: Did SARS2, the virus that causes COVID, escape from the Wuhan lab?

by Francisco Gil-White

(An earlier, Spanish version of this article was first published by the newspaper El Heraldo de México)

At some point in the recent past, a coronavirus that attacks bats became SARS-COV-2 (also called SARS2) which is good at attacking humans: it produces COVID-19. It appeared first in Wuhan, China.

By curious coincidence, just a few miles from the place where the first COVID cases were documented, sits the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

There—new coincidence—researchers investigate bat coronaviruses.

To cap these coincidences, in that lab, as is now famous, they do ‘gain of function’ (GOF) research, the point of which is to make bat viruses more contagious and lethal to humans. (The official justification for this work is to get ahead of the possible evolution of the virus and thus be prepared to respond better in case of a future pandemic).

On the basis of these coincidences, some (e.g., Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying) speculated from the beginning that the SARS2 virus might have escaped from the Wuhan lab: the lab leak hypothesis, as it came to be known.

How reasonable is this hypothesis?

To evaluate that, we must first ask: How hard is it for a virus to escape form a ‘biosecure’ lab?

Not too hard, explains Nicholas Wade (the importance of whom I explain below). Smallpox escaped from British labs three times in the 1970s and 1980s; “Dangerous viruses have leaked out of labs almost every year since.” One example mentioned by Zeynep Tufekci (whose importance I will also explain) is foot-and-mouth disease, which devastated British livestock after escaping from a British maximum security lab.

More to the point of our topic, says Tufekci, we have that “nearly every SARS case since the original [SARS1] epidemic [in 2003] has been due to lab leaks—six incidents in three countries.” Even more relevant: that includes two SARS escapes “in a single month from a lab in Beijing.”

In this historical context, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology should have the maximum biosafety level, BSL-4, is not too reassuring. Especially considering that, as was documented, its daily security practices were alarmingly bad.

In that lab, the main researcher in charge of giving bat coronaviruses gain of function to infect humans better was Zhengli-Li Shi: the ‘Batwoman,’ as she has been long nicknamed (already famous in media circles well before COVID). ¿Could one of her viruses have escaped?

Zhengli-Li Shi, it was reported in April 2020, “has furiously denied that the novel coronavirus could have leaked from her lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology” and she defends an alternative theory of its origin, “saying that its spread was ‘nature punishing the human race for keeping uncivilized living habits.’ ” With some vehemence, she has written: “I, Shi Zhengli, swear on my life that it has nothing to do with our laboratory.” And “[she] tells those who question whether her lab could be connected to the release of the coronavirus to “shut their stinking mouths.”

In the first few months of the pandemic, however, Zhengli-Li Shi did not seem so confident: “she previously said she lost sleep worrying about the possibility that her lab in Wuhan could have been responsible for the virus’s release.” Now she sleeps better, she says, after an investigation showed that none of the viral sequences recovered from the first patients infected in Wuhan corresponds to the bat viruses that she and her colleagues had collected. But two things leave room for doubt. The first is that this investigation consisted of Zhengli-Li Shi going through the records that Zhengli-Li Shi keeps. The second is that, as Nicholas Wade points out, those records  “have been sealed” by the Chinese government: nobody knows what they contain.

In light of all that, the view that SARS2 might have been created with human engineering in the Wuhan lab and escaped due to bad security is an obvious hypothesis that, from the beginning, should have been on the front page of the major mainstream Western media. Was it? Absolutely not. To the contrary, Big Media sallied forth—with emotion to spare—to ridicule and attack this hypothesis.

For that to change we had to wait for May 2021, when Nicholas Wade published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that evaluated both hypothesis—natural origin vs. lab leak—against the evidence. Only post-Wade has it become politically correct—or perhaps I should say almost obligatory—to consider in the major media the lab leak hypothesis.

Nicholas Wade, and his impact in favor of the lab leak hypothesis

To get a sense for the media sea-change wrought by Nicholas Wade, the relevant and sufficient example is the New York Times, whose prestige sets the agenda for the rest of the Big Media.

Before Wade, in september 2020, the most famous newspaper in the world reported to its readers that the social-media networks Facebook and Instagram had tagged as “false information” what Chinese virologist Li-Meng Yan had told FOX NEWS’s Tucker Carlson. According to the Chinese virologist, SARS2 just had to be a lab product. But this, the New York Times insisted, repeated information that “multiple independent fact checkers say is false.”

Furthermore, the newspaper asserted, “intelligence agencies” and “Scientists who have studied the genetics of the virus” considered Dr. Li-Meng Yan’s theory utter nonsense.

To cap it all, as the New York Times observed in closing, the Chinese scientist had published his opinions, according to the Daily Beast, through organizations that were “linked to Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Trump who was recently charged with fraud.”

The message was clear: only fraudulent Trump operators, or his fans at FOX NEWS, would ever spew such nonsense as this—nonsense that had been examined and found false by respectable scientists and by the highest authorities on Truth: Facebook, Instagram, and the CIA.

And thus matters stood for a good long while, with almost all Big Media, lapdogs of the New York Times, ridiculing the lab-leak hypothesis. But then came Nicholas Wade in May 2021 and, a month later, a 180-degree head-spinning turn at the New York Times, which now felt obligated to publish an article by Zeynep Tufekci with the title: “Where Did the Coronavirus Come From? What We Already Know Is Troubling.”

It now turned out that, in international academic circles, Zhengli-Li Shi’s work had for years been making lots of people nervous. And interesting connections exist, Tufekci tells us, between COVID-19 and the work of the ‘Batwoman.’

A Wuhan Institute of Virology team had been collecting samples from a cave in Yunnan where, in 2012, bat guano miners had contracted some quite mysterious pneumonias. The virus responsible, 4991, was identical—as independent investigators showed—to a virus called RaTG13 that Zhengli-Li Shi had said, back in February 2020, was one of her own.

That demonstration forced ‘Batwoman,’ in July of the same year, to confess that, yes, RaTG13 and 4991 were the same virus—she had changed the name. Why did she change the name? Who knows. But, as it turns out, RaTG13 is almost identical to SARS2, which causes COVID-19 (it’s a 96.2% match).

Hm…

Let us not forget, either, the political background, which Zeynep Tufekci also comments on: the Chinese government worked overtime to hide information and stick a wrench in the efforts to investigate the origin of the virus.

All of which makes it curious that Tufekci should write as though we don’t have sufficient reason to prefer the lab leak to the natural origin hypothesis. But at least Tufekci does consider quite seriously the lab leak possibility, and this—for the New York Times—represents a radical transformation.

The change is owed in part to Nicholas Wade’s prestige—“a science writer, editor, and author who has worked on the staff of Nature, Science, and, for many years [in the past], the New York Times.” It is owed, also, to his strong presentation: in favor of the lab leak hypothesis, as Wade makes clear, there is a veritable tsunami of evidence in favor of the lab leak; in favor of a natural origin there is almost nothing.

To a political anthropologist such as myself, interested as I am in the behavior of our most important Western institutions, the question is: Why was it that, before Wade, for a whole year and a half, the initial and lasting reaction of the media, government officials, and Western academics was so hostile to any expression of the lab-leak hypothesis?

Why such extraordinary vehemence of Big Media against the lab leak hypothesis?

This hypothesis, it was said, was racist (against the Chinese, or even against Asians). That promotes self-censorship, for everybody seeks refuge from this adjective (a phenomenon I have analyzed elsewhere). But it is hardly racist to ponder the Chinese government’s possible responsibility in this; to hinder the effort to find out who infected ordinary Chinese, on the other hand, that might conceivably be racist, and that’s what these accusations achieved.

Partisans of the lab-leak hypothesis were also accused of doing ‘conspiracy theory,’ which for many is synonymous with ‘paranoid nonsense.’ But to say that our pandemic virus might have escaped from the Wuhan Lab is to propose the hypothesis of a mishap. It does not speak of conspiracy.

The ‘conspiracy theory’ accusation, I believe, was just a weapon to preemptively intimidate whoever might feel tempted to take the next step: to attribute a bad intention to the Chinese government. But it is not obvious—even within the dominant grammar—that taking that step should cause indignation or ridicule, for not all conspiracy theories are politically incorrect.

To give you one example, in the United States, from 1947 and into the 1950s, it was officially claimed (that is, from the highest levels of the US government) that the Soviet Union had launched a great program to infiltrate all of US society and government. A great witch hunt—entirely official—was loosed against ordinary Americans to find the supposed Soviet agents that, according to lore, were hiding behind every cupboard.

What does this example teach us? That all ‘conspiracy theories’ are not equally fated to be scorned: there is an asymmetry. This asymmetric principle obeys the following grammar: Big Media will roast any claim that the US government is doing dirty things in secret; but if the accused is an enemy of the United States, conspiracy theories are entirely acceptable and accepted.

We have, therefore, a grammatical anomaly. Because, notwithstanding the fact that the Chinese totalitarian dictatorship is publicly identified, already, as the great new rival and enemy of the West, we saw the most important media, top government officials, and leading academics in the West sally forth to vilify—rather than consider—the hypothesis according to which SARS2 originated in the Wuhan lab.

Why?

What might explain that furious reflex of our Western institutions to accuse ‘conspiracy theory’—read: paranoid nonsense—and defend the presumed virtues of the Chinese scientists and government? And why so much passion to censor, seeking even to accuse lab-leak defenders of ‘racism’?

In his widely discussed article, Nicholas Wade explained the conduct of the most influential journalists thus: they were simply, as an obedient herd, getting behind two manifestos published by important virologists and infectious-disease specialists.

One had been published in Nature Medicine, a spinoff of Nature, the most prestigious scientific journal in the entire world. Its five authors—led by Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute, asserted in a letter to the editor (not, therefore, in a scientific paper) that the origin of SARS2 just had to be natural. Their arguments were weak and Wade has wiped the floor with them.

Two weeks later, in support of that manifesto, Nature—which had been publishing ‘Batwoman’ Zhengli-Li Shi’s GOF investigations—added an “Editor’s note” to a scientific paper where she and colleagues report their success giving a bat coronavirus extraordinary new powers to infect and destroy human beings.

30 March 2020 Editors’ note, March 2020: We are aware that this article is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.”

The other manifesto, signed by 27 experts, had been published in The Lancet, the medical journal that—along with the New England Journal of Medicine—is the most prestigious on the planet. The title reads: “Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19.” The text denounces “the rumours and misinformation around [the] origins [of SARS2].”

The authors declared—crashing their cymbals—that the natural origin of SARS2 was a demonstrated fact: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” The World Health Organization (WHO), they asserted confidently, was on their side. In closing, they solicited signatures from their readers for a petition in favor of the manifesto (they’ve managed to get a little over 20,000 signatures) and protested: “We declare no competing interests.”

The lady doth protest too much: there were indeed competing interests.

Cosigner Peter Daszak, responsible for organizing and preparing that manifesto, no less, is president of EcoHealth Alliance (New York), an organ that finances ‘gain of function’ (GOF) work on bat coronaviruses in—are we paying attention?—the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The funds go directly to ‘Batwoman’ Zhengli-Li Shi.

Peter Daszak—the very same—was included in the team that the WHO sent to Wuhan with the supposed mission of investigating the origin of SARS2, explains Wade. The composition of that team, and its access to the evidence, were both jealously controlled by the Chinese government.

To the public, Peter Daszak and his teammates “kept asserting before, during, and after their visit that lab escape was extremely unlikely”—even though, as Wade points out, “the Chinese had no evidence to offer the [WHO] commission in support of the natural emergence theory.” And on the lab leak hypothesis, which the WHO report once again called “extremely unlikely,” they said only this:

“We 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 (3).”

Footnote (3), which is supposed to support the assertion, contains only a reference to the manifesto in the letter to the editor that Kristian Andersen et al. sent to Nature.

Now, those funds that—by way of EcoHealth Alliance—Peter Daszak has been redirecting to Zhengli-Li Shi in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Wade explains, come from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). They were authorized despite an official ‘pause’: a temporal prohibition against these investigations. And they were authorized by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the same NIH.

Anthony Fauci is also the official responsible for the US response to the COVID-19 crisis.

And I must add one detail here that escaped Wade’s attention: “The Wuhan lab … has strong ties to the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch.” This Galveston lab, Wikipedia explains, has biosecurity level BSL-4 (the highest) and was created by the federal government’s NIH—according to the official story—“to provide research to help defend against bioterrorism attacks.” (In light of the recent pandemic, the US Department of Education has initiated an investigation that forces that University of Texas to explain the intimate relations between Galveston and Wuhan.)

Supposing, therefore, as the bulk of the evidence suggests, that the origin of SARS2 does indeed lie in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the preceding would seem to indicate—and Wade says it—that any responsibility of the Chinese government for the COVID-19 pandemic would likewise be the responsibility of the US government.

And for its complicity in the cover-up, it would also be the responsibility of the World Health Organization (WHO).

As was to be expected, we have seen some tough post-Wade challenges to Anthony Fauci in the Congress of the United States. But we have not seen the actors responsible in this complex of interests show any remorse after the pandemic started, nor have we seen them implementing administrative reforms or controls to moderate, balance, or revise the highly problematic institutional articulations I have reviewed above.

To the contrary, Kristian G. Andersen (leader of the first manifesto against the lab-leak hypothesis) and Peter Daszak (leader of the second manifesto and responsible for financing GOF studies in Wuhan) appear at the top of a list of beneficiaries for a large research grant (US $82 million) that Anthony Fauci’s NIAID approved in August 2020 (well into the pandemic).

This complicity of US high officials with the Wuhan Institute of Virology establishes a clear motivation for them to ridicule the lab leak hypothesis as ‘conspiracy theory’ (read: paranoid nonsense).

And the major journalists? In the most generous interpretation, as we said, they are incompetent, content to chorus—instead of investigate—the claims made by those scientists whom Andersen and Daszak led, and who, supported by the authority of the most important medical and scientific journals in the world, accused ‘conspiracy theory.’

But what explains the behavior of the scientists who co-signed those manifestos? According to Wade, they have to keep themselves in good relations with the functionaries who approve their multi-million-dollar grants, and they didn’t want to be investigated and/or punished for their work doing ‘gain of function’ on dangerous viruses. According to Tufekci’s reporting, however, several of them have now considered prudent to do a 180-degree turn and are saying the Wuhan lab should be investigated.

And even WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has considered prudent a 180-degree turn, NPR reports. Before,

“Tedros … repeatedly praised China for its speed and transparency despite senior WHO officials internally griping about obfuscation from their Chinese counterparts.”

But now, Tedros

“said there had been a ‘premature push’ to rule out the theory that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan … ‘I was a lab technician myself, I’m an immunologist, and I have worked in the lab, and lab accidents happen,’ Tedros said. ‘It’s common.’ ”

How about that?

Questions remain, however. One is:

Why should anybody be doing ‘gain of function’ (GOF) research?

Put another way: Why is work being done, funded with taxpayer money, to make viruses more contagious and lethal against human beings? The official explanation: to investigate the possible future evolution of the viruses and so be prepared in case of a pandemic.

But Nicholas Wade points out that, to date, GOF research has not yielded one benefit—not a single one—for pandemic prevention or control; by sharp contrast, this research does seem to have caused us a global pandemic that has already cost—to mention just one of its costs—4 million lives and counting (according to official figures).

One is entitled to ask: Could it be that GOF research has been conducted as part of a biowarfare program?

There seems to be some resistance to ask this question. And resistance is so strong that some authors end up saying the most absurd things. For example, Zeynep Tufekci writes in the New York Times:

“The secrecy and the cover-ups [by the Chinese government and by Zhengli-Li Shi] have led to some frantic theories—for example, that the virus [SARS2] leaked from a bioweapons lab, which makes little sense …”

Little sense? Frantic theories? Why? Have we erased from memory already the entire 20th century?

The Chinese Communist Party has oppressed and purged the Chinese with unbelievable terror (consult the casualties in the tens of millions suffered during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, not to mention sundry other crimes committed by Mao Zedong and narrated in detail by Chang & Halliday). At the present moment, China is constructing nuclear silos at top speed and the Chinese Communist Party recently threatened to destroy Japan with a nuclear attack. It is not so hard to imagine that the Chinese communists might take an interest in biological weapons.

But this apparently may not be said. Even Nicholas Wade, thanks to whom the words ‘lab leak’ may now be pronounced, writes:

China’s central authorities did not generate SARS2, but they sure did their utmost to conceal the nature of the tragedy and China’s responsibility for it.” (my emphasis)

What justifies the first phrase (which received my emphasis)? It is incoherent, for in a BSL-4 lab, such as the Wuhan lab, nothing can possibly be undertaken without the supervision of the totalitarian Chinese government.

In sharp contrast to Wade and Tufekci, an official document published online by the US Department of State, dated 15 January 2021, asserts the obvious: that the Chinese military was supervising the Wuhan-lab research, and that this may well be biowarfare research.

  • “Secrecy and non-disclosure are standard practice for Beijing. For many years the United States has publicly raised concerns about China’s past biological weapons work, which Beijing has neither documented nor demonstrably eliminated, despite its clear obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention.”
  • “Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
  • “The United States and other donors who funded or collaborated on civilian research at the WIV have a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.”

But there is something very strange about this State Department document. Because one hardly needed the best intelligence services on the planet—which the US has, to boot, including of course the Department of State—to suspect that the Chinese government has been developing biowarfare weapons at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Why then would the US power elite be sending financing and scientific collaboration to that Institute in order to give bat coronaviruses ‘gain of function’—that is, make them more lethal against humans?

Could it be that the Department of State—with its offended posturing—takes us for fools? Let us not allow that. Let us ask the following questions:

  • Is the US government also developing biological weapons?
  • Has it been for this purpose that the US government has been collaborating with the Chinese government in the Wuhan lab?

I shall consider these questions in my next article.

Francisco Gil-White has a Masters in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a PhD in biological and cultural anthropology from UCLA. Until June 2006, he was Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Today he teaches at ITAM, in Mexico City. His research is broadly concerned with the evolution of the proximate mechanisms responsible for social learning and social perception and cognition. His main interests are the evolution of ethnic processes, with a special focus on racism, and particularly anti-Semitism; prestige processes; the evolution of language; the structure of narrative memory; the structure and interaction of media and political processes; the laws of history; Western geopolitics; and the political history of the West. 

To visit his website, click here:  Historical and Investigative Research