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China Brief: Update on COVID-19 Origins

More evidence points to China's attempted suppression of human error as the origin of COVID-19

In January a team from the World Health Organization traveled to Wuhan, Hubei in China to investigate the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus) outbreak. Team lead Dr. Peter Ben Embarek said in the press conference that a lab accident was “extremely unlikely” as the cause of the Covid-19 outbreak. He stuck to the Party line that the virus likely jumped from animals to humans or that it could have been imported from frozen food deliveries. Embarek has since changed his position. In a documentary aired on Danish television on August 12, Embarek said that the pandemic was likely due to a lab accident and he admitted that the team was pressured by Chinese authorities to not mention the lab leak theory.

There were many reasons to believe the WHO investigation would be little more than a political show. Up to that point, the WHO had been pandering to the Chinese Communist Party’s desired dissemination of information, namely waiting to declare a global pandemic, claiming the coronavirus was not human-to-human transmissible, and allowing Chinese authorities to approve the members of the team, which included Peter Daszak, who had ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and authored a paper in The Lancet calling the lab leak a conspiracy theory.

The lab leak hypothesis has since been vindicated as a possible scenario. Another group of scientists – that included Ralph Baric of UNC Chapel Hill who worked with Shi Zheng-Li at the Wuhan Institute of Virology – signed a letter in Science saying that the Wuhan Institute of Virology should be investigated.

In March, after the WHO team had returned and some reported on their time in China, I wrote about the problems with the investigation in Mind Matters News entitled, “Was the WHO Investigation of COVID-19’s Origin Thwarted by China?” The answer is, apparently, YES.

The Wuhan Center for Disease Control’s Lab Moved in December 2019

On Dutch state-owned TV 2, Embarek called attention to the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The Wuhan CDC has not received the same attention as the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) mainly because the Wuhan CDC’s biosafety lab studies bat parasites rather than bat viruses, and multiple lines of evidence seem to point to the WIV. Additionally, the Wuhan CDC lab is a BSL-2 lab, which means they do not deal with airborne pathogens (at least they shouldn’t). 

However, Embarek notes that the Wuhan CDC lab relocated on December 2, 2019, which falls within the timeframe that the Covid-19 outbreak began. (There are reasons to believe the outbreak in Wuhan started in October or November 2019.)

As Embarek pointed out:

We know that when you move a lab, it disturbs everything. You also have to move the virus collection, sample collection, and other collections from one place to another. The whole procedure is always a disruptive element in a laboratory’s daily workflow, so at some point it will also be interesting to look at that period and this laboratory.

As quoted in “Virus ‘Likely’ Originated in a Wuhan Laboratory, WHO Top Expert Admits” by Massimo Introvigne at Bitter Winter

Transporting samples, especially those that require specific environmental conditions, such as biological samples, can be time consuming and arduous. Transporting animals adds to the difficulties. Embarek says that he now believes “Patient Zero” was likely a laboratory employee who worked with bats and was accidentally exposed. From Bitter Winter and the WSJ’s translation of his interview, it sounds like Embarek thinks this could have happened during the move.

“It’s probably because it means that there is a human error”

The Wuhan CDC is less than half of a mile (approx. 500 m) from the Huannan Seafood Market where a cluster of cases were reported in December 2019. Additionally, SARS-CoV-2 likely came from a horseshoe bat because of its resemblance to other coronaviruses from horseshoe bats. The WHO team visited both the Wuhan CDC labs and the WIV. Both have worked with horseshoe bats, and according to Embarek, the only people known to be exposed to horseshoe bats in Wuhan would be the laboratory employees since horseshoe bats are not found in the wild in Wuhan. 

As Bitter Winter points out, while the coronavirus was not necessarily deliberately produced and released by the CCP, “What was and remains deliberate is the extraordinary effort made by the CCP to hide the truth.”

The WHO team was not allowed to look at any data from either of the laboratories, and authorities did not want the WHO team to write anything about a lab leak. After negotiations with Chinese authorities, the team was allowed to mention the lab leak theory so long as they said it was “extremely unlikely.”

Embarek said they were in negotiations for several hours:

It’s probably because it means that there is a human error behind such an incident, and they are not very happy to admit it. There is partly the traditional Asian feeling that you should not lose face, and then the whole system also focuses a lot on the fact that China is infallible and that everything must be perfect. It could also be that someone wants to hide something. Who knows?

As quoted in “Virus ‘Likely’ Originated in a Wuhan Laboratory, WHO Top Expert Admits” by Massimo Introvigne at Bitter Winter

Every laboratory keeps lab notebooks, digital documents, and data files as a record of their experiments. Any laboratory undergoing an investigation would be expected make their data available, particularly laboratories that are known to be working on pathogens related to a virus that has caused a worldwide pandemic.

You may also wish to read:

Was the WHO Investigation of COVID-19’s Origin Thwarted by China? The World Health Organization team was not really allowed to conduct a proper investigation in China. The WHO team’s statements to media go against all that scientists have learned about SARS-CoV-2 and the behavior of respiratory viruses, in general.(Heather Zeiger)

COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory Upgraded from Conspiracy to Plausible. Many scientists were discouraged from openly discussing the possibility of a lab leak, which hindered serious investigation. Ironically, with COVID-19, the same groups that decry the spread of misinformation conspiracy theories, judged by their own standards, have been found wanting. (Heather Zeiger)

Lab Leak Theory Vindicated: What That Means for Fighting Covid-19. What was the U.S. government’s role in downplaying the lab leak theory? Several articles have been published showing why a lab leak is a possible explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (Heather Zeiger)

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

China Brief: Update on COVID-19 Origins