No one knows for certain the source of the Covid-19 pandemic. So why is it that a maximum security Chinese lab complex, whose explicit mission is modifying viral materials for “gain of function” purposes (the “gains” being increasing lethality and infectiousness), and located very near Wuhan, was disregarded as a possible culprit for so long? Following early pandemic appraisals, one a World Health Organization (WHO) document and a collective statement in The Lancet, the media blamed a bat disease for pouncing all by itself on humanity like Dracula on a waif’s neck.
Any hint of a laboratory leak of a modified microorganism drew withering official contempt (and was initially banned by Facebook) and all the more so because former President Trump notoriously backed the leak allegation.
The official narrative is that wild bats transmitted the disease ‘zoonotically” to intervening animals and then in a lethally altered and vastly more transmissible state to people via a so-called “wet market” in Wuhan..
A zoonosis is “an infectious disease that has jumped from a non-human animal to humans,” according to the WHO.
“Zoonotic pathogens may be bacterial, viral or parasitic, or may involve unconventional agents and can spread to humans through direct contact or through food, water or the environment.”
Nothing else to see here. Move along.
Yet even Trump randomly can hit it right. Critics in the molecular genetics profession point out that the initial WHO report relied on Chinese-approved evidence and that authors of several dismissive documents regarding lab origins included agents who steered U.S. National Institute of Health funds into Wuhan biological research.
How’s that for a conflict of interest? In any case, given added US funding, Covid-19 afterward hardly could be labelled a pure “Chinese virus,” even if it is proven to have emerged from Wuhan labs.
Chinese authorities obviously oppose the revisiting of the origins of Covid, belatedly urged by President Biden, the G7 and the WHO itself.
It is not as if laboratory accidents are rarities.
In the US during 2008-2012 more than a thousand unintended releases of bacteria, viruses and toxins were reported to regulatory agencies, some resulting in localised outbreaks.
The University of North Carolina, which has collaborated with Wuhan, reported six US accidents involving lab-created coronaviruses between 2015 and 2020.
In military labs at Fort Detrick in Maryland researchers have been harmed or even died from lab infections. Some scientists long had worried that dangerous viral enhancement activities at high security labs, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, would spill into a widening catastrophe.
The US, by the way, itself hosts at least 11 such experimental labs. Upon recent reassessment there were no bats in the Wuhan wet market and the nearest live critters nested hundreds of miles away.
Tracing origins is even more even vexing given that Dr. Robert Baric, a coronavirus expert involved in Wuhan, observed that the sophistication of bioengineering today is such that enhanced viruses would carry no sign of human crafting.
Biological weaponry is banned but research is not.
One instructive project revolved around recreating the 1918 Spanish Flu. Why exactly? Well, because they can. Authorities have insisted on creating these hyper-lethal diseases on the grounds that they need to anticipate new diseases, meaning that bioweapons labs are weirdly tasked to protect us from devilish microorganisms that they themselves are inventing or intensifying.
That scientific personnel benefit from the money devoted to these bizarre purposes means that the scientific community isn’t the most reliable ethical guardian either. One alternative explanation is that hapless Chinese miners contracted a bat-borne disease which then was captured and genetically engineered into immensely infectious form, and escaped.
In 2014 these blandly termed “gain of function” experiments were halted by the US government until strict guidelines could be devised, but in December 2017, under Trump’s watch, the ban was lifted, which hardly makes Trump look good.
The government ban halted funds for any research that was “reasonably anticipated” to have enhanced “pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route,” which was a huge loophole. Critics point out this ambiguity about what one could reasonably anticipate allowed for related research that resulted in gain of function, while not directly aiming at it.
Authorities usually can be counted on to exploit such ambiguities for their own ends.
An aspect worthy of inquiry is whether during the three-year pause US agencies diverted money to Wuhan so that this highly risky research could continue without impediments.
Weaponising bio-research likely proved too tempting.
The sainted Dr Anthony Fauci happened to be director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a subdivision of the National Institute of Health, at the time exemptions were made for Wuhan research, though he denied the funds were for “gain-offunction” goals.
The overall story looks less like one of good versus bad guys, or careful versus reckless ones, or Chinese versus Americans, than of the combined thrust of avid actors in state posts and in science to devise prized weaponry, and not let anything get in the way.
The investigative report Biden ordered is due out by end of the Summer. The stakes are extremely high given the question of responsibility for millions of deaths world-wide, which potent institutions would much prefer to blame on wildlife. Keep in mind that, even if it were somehow proven that the pandemic had a nonlaboratory origin, all the preceding research projects undeniably exist and continue, for the most part, unchecked.
The writers are well-known commentators and the authors of No Clean Hands, Parables of Permanent War and many other books.