Secret weapon? Incompetent lab leak? Or natural evolution? The source of the Covid-19 pandemic is a tangle of speculation, lies and cover-up. So what do we actually know?
This week, the President of the United States publicly ordered his intelligence agencies to “redouble” their efforts to find the origins of the pandemic.
He went so far as to highlight what had previously been dismissed as a baseless conspiracy theory – that it came from a Chinese lab.
“The United States will keep working with like-minded partners around the world to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence,” President Biden announced.
Australia was an early advocate for such an international investigation.
Beijing’s backlash was brutal. Its wolf-warrior diplomats were unleashed, and trade sanctions imposed.
Now, the US is taking up the baton.
White House officials accuse China of not being “completely transparent” during a World Health Organisation investigation earlier this year.
Similar outbreaks must be avoided, they argue. For that to happen, the virus that’s killed almost 3.5 million and infected 165 million people must be understood.
Did it come from nature? Or did it come out of a lab?
“We don’t know 100 per cent the answer to that,” White House chief medical advisor Dr Anthony Fauci conceded this week.
“It is imperative that we do an investigation.”
Given China’s reluctance, can spies solve the problem?
“It is not clear to me exactly what sort of ‘evidence’ the US intelligence community believes its agencies are looking for, let alone what they believe they will have access to,” says Flinders University international relations expert Dr Michael Sullivan.
“If there is secret intelligence proving beyond reasonable doubt that the virus leaked from the lab, it would have been collected in 2019, undergone the analytics, and leaked and officially reported to the public long ago”.
Chinese officials are once again outraged at the suggestion they are responsible for the Covid-19 virus. They’re also angered at accusations of cover-up and incompetence.
Beijing responded to President Biden by accusing him of politicising the pandemic. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian insisted that the WHO had “repeatedly praised China’s open and transparent attitude” and “ruled out” the probability of a lab leak.
But the WHO had already moved to deflect such spin.
“Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“I want to clarify that all hypotheses remain open and require further study.”
But Beijing had more ammunition up its sleeve.
It took aim at the involvement of US spies.
“The world is familiar with the dark past of the US intelligence agencies,” Zhao said, highlighting the roles they have played in past wars.
He has a point.
Australia’s former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard and Britain’s former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair say US intelligence convinced them that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But after a short, brutal war, extensive searches found nothing.
It was later revealed the “secret source” was an Iraqi opposition lobbyist.
Little wonder global intelligence agencies suffer credibility problems.
What we know
One of the problems when it comes to Covid-19 is a lack of proof.
The pandemic was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. By January, it had already spread around the world.
The first confirmed outbreak was in a “wet” market. The cold facility filled with fish and animal carcasses seemed the ideal breeding ground for a human-compatible virus.
This conjecture was quickly eliminated. Many of the earliest cases had no links to that place or anyone who had worked or visited there.
Then came an enticing coincidence.
Wuhan is the home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It’s a world-leading research centre into coronaviruses. Its work was suddenly shrouded in secrecy.
So far, there’s no direct evidence for either the natural origins or lab escape idea.
All arguments rely upon plausible conjecture.
Neither can yet offer any proof.
Genetic codes aren’t set in concrete. DNA is constantly mutating. These almost always fail. But – sometimes – successful changes stick.
This is how natural variations happen. Like a roll of a dice, you will sometimes get two headed snakes, children with six toes on each foot. Or a virus that is suddenly able to live in both bats and humans.
“An estimated 60 per cent of known infectious diseases and 75 per cent of all new, emerging, or re-emerging diseases in humans have animal origins,” University of Westminster microbiologist Polly Hays details.
“SARS-CoV-2 is the newest of seven coronaviruses found in humans, all of which came from animals, either from bats, mice or domestic animals.”
HIV came from contact between humans and chimpanzees. Ebola from “bush meat”. Intensive pig and chicken farming also have repeatedly produced new swine and bird influenzas.
Covid-19 is most similar to bat coronaviruses. But the differences are also significant.
And no trace of a jump from bat to human – even via another animal – has yet been found.
This is odd given the abundance of early evidence available for the recent SARS1 and MERS viruses.
Despite this, the theory of the natural origins for Covid-19 is the generally accepted pattern.
It’s probable. But not proven.
It’s not all that uncommon. The now eradicated smallpox virus escaped British labs in the 1960s and 70s. The SARS1 virus of the 2000s also broke out of research facilities in Singapore and Taiwan – and Beijing.
Now The Wall Street Journal has added fuel to the fire by quoting a “secret intelligence document” leaked by an anonymous Trump administration official. It asserts researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were treated for “symptoms consistent with Covid-19 and common seasonal illness” in 2019.
It’s not the first time that allegation has been aired.
A US State Department public fact sheet issued on January 15, 2021, reads: “The US government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
What is known is that the institute made frequent visits to the bat caves of Yunnan province in southern China. About 100 different virus strains were collected.
It is possible staff may have become infected during such a sampling expedition, or on the job back at the lab.
“What we need to know is whether any of the early Covid cases had ties to the institute,” Dr Sullivan says. “And that depends on getting Beijing’s co-operation”.
The institute’s director told the recent WHO investigation there had been no “reports of unusual diseases” at the facility. And Covid-19 antibody tests had come back negative.
But those tests were done shortly before the WHO visit – more than a year after the alleged infections happened. Any antibodies may have long since disappeared.
Therefore they cannot be construed as evidence, for or against.
A manipulated virus breaking containment – it’s a popular theme seized upon by many pandemic and zombie apocalypse movies, games and books.
It’s possible. But is it probable?
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin,” a group of virologists wrote in the medical journal Lancet on February 19, 2020.
But journalist Nicolas Wade, writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (the organisation behind the famous Doomsday Clock) argues that there may be some substance behind this idea.
He points out that University of North Carolina coronavirus researcher Ralph Baric began to work with the Wuhan Institute in 2015 to test inter-species transmission.
Dr Zhengli Shi, the chief scientist for emerging disease at the Wuhan Institute, worked on the “creation” of new coronaviruses through genetic engineering.
This material is publicly available. It’s in grant applications and scientific journal reports. It’s what virologists do.
“The hypothesis of a lab leaking is just based on the expertise of a lab which has long been working on bat coronaviruses which are phylogenetically related to SARS-CoV-2,” Dr Zhengli told the MIT Technology Review in defence of her work.
“Such research isn’t unusual,” Dr Sullivan says. “Scientists around the world are experimenting to find new ways to treat disease. It’s a small community. And they often compare notes and share funding.”
But it remains an immensely complex field. And risky. And science has barely scratched the surface of its mechanics.
That makes the manufactured pandemic hypothesis possible. But not yet probable. It needs proof.
On May 14, a group of researchers published a letter in the journal Science arguing that the idea of a lab leak must be explored more deeply.
“We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” the scientists write. “A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimise the impact of conflicts of interest.
“Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn.”
But the Wuhan lab’s records remain sealed, under orders from Beijing. Whether or not such evidence exists remains unknown.
And the subject of speculation.
Journalist Nicholas Wade argues the Lancet article critical of the lab leak idea was “organised and drafted” by President of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York Peter Daszak. His organisation publicly funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute. He did not disclose this fact.
And Daszak was among the WHO virologists sent to Wuhan earlier this year.
“If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Daszak would be potentially culpable,” Wade states.
And Daszak confirmed in a December 2019 interview that Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers had reprogrammed coronavirus spike proteins to make them capable of infecting humanised mice.
It’s an enticing set of circumstances. But, as yet, there is no evidence indicating this means anything.
Is a verdict reachable?
President Biden conceded a lack of certainty when pushing for fresh investigations.
He said the majority of the 18 independent US intelligence agencies “do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”
But he added two had thrown their weight behind the animal link idea, and “one leans more toward” the lab theory. He qualified by adding, “each with low or moderate confidence.”
So he’s ordered his spies to look harder.
“Under Trump in 2020, the intelligence agencies were tasked to find the evidence to prove the Wuhan lab theory,” says Dr Sullivan. “They couldn’t and didn’t”.
Making matters worse is Beijing’s extreme political sensitivity.
Its management of the initial stages of the outbreak has been criticised. Its early attempts to suppress reporting and investigations have set expectations.
It’s all been about deflecting blame.
“The Chinese government has greatly restrained any attempts to investigate the origins of Covid-19 — both internally and by foreign experts — while at the same time advocating alternate theories that the pandemic originated elsewhere,” says John Garrick of Charles Darwin University.
“The top leadership sees control over this narrative as vital to its hold over the Chinese population and the boosting of its international reputation.”
It’s about pointing the finger for global economic chaos, social disruption – and millions of deaths.
It easy to accuse a handful of incompetent – or evil – “mad scientists”.
And politicians are well-practised at sacrificing national interests to protect careers.
Dr Sullivan says the lab theory cannot be ruled out conclusively. But he adds the World Health Organisation investigation remains the only viable method through which co-operation with the Chinese may be achieved.
“Rather than being a pawn of the commies, the WHO is critical of aspects of access to Chinese data,” he says.
“But that does not prove a cover-up, let alone the lab theory. “
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel