Did covid-19 come out of a lab?
(originally published on 8 April 2020, updated in August 2021)
Let me say upfront that i don't believe any of the "lab leak theories". The scientific evidence points towards a zoonotic virus, a virus that jumped from an animal to humans. Where, when and how we don't yet know, and may never know. That's the conclusion reached by multiple studies on the origin of SARS-CoV-2, notably one of 7 July 2021 signed by more than 20 scientists of the world (paper).
The main reason to suspect that covid may have been created (deliberately or accidentaly) by humans in a lab is one that is rarely mentioned: to this day, nobody has been able to show the intermediary animal species (presumed to be a bat), whereas in the past it took only four months to find the intermediary host species of SARS and nine months to find the intermediary host species of MERS.
If covid was caused by scientists, it wouldn't be the first time.
We know of deadly epidemics that were caused by sloppy science.
Between September and May 2004 there were three lab leaks of SARS: one in Singapore in September, one in Taiwan in December, and nine cases of SARS were caused by leak from China's National Institute of Virology in Beijing in April 2004. They all led to person-to-person transmission of SARS outside those labs. The Beijing incidence caused one death and required quarantining about 200 people in two provinces.
In 2007 the "foot-and-mouth" disease that devastated livestock in Britain was due to a virus that escaped from a drainage pipe connecting two of Britain's biolabs specialized in "foot-and-mouth" disease (Merial Animal Health, a manufacturer of foot-and-mouth vaccines, and the Institute of Animal Health, in charge of detecting and monitoring outbreaks of the disease).
In 2012 the CDC of the USA reported that there had been 11 laboratory-acquired infections over six years.
According to microbiologist Peter Palese of Mount Sinai, the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1977-78, which killed an estimated 700,000 people around the world, was caused by reckless scientific research: it was admitted to Palese in private by Chi-Ming Chu/ Zhu Jiming, a Cambridge University-educated virologist who had moved to China. (Apparently, Chinese scientists infected several thousand military recruits with 1957 influenza viruses that had been kept frozen for 20 years, and these soldiers infected the general population).
If the virus escaped from a lab, i am not sure when this happened (it could be way before December 2019) and in which lab, and ironically it could turn out to be the result of a collaboration between the USA and China.
If you came here to read about the theory that it was made in a Wuhan lab, it's discussed further down. Sorry, but, to be fair and balanced, first you have to read the theory that it was made in the USA.
In May 2021 several US media criticized the fact that theories of "lab leak" were too easily dismissed for too long, but they were commit the same sin when they only consider the theory that the lab leak took place in China and easily dismiss the theory that the lab leak took place in the USA.
If one theory is possible, the other one is possible too.
This includes the scientists who wrote this open letter in April 2021 as well as Matthew Yglesias, Jonathan Chait, Nicholas Wade (analyzed further down in this page), etc. For example, Bernard Roizman, an emeritus virologist at the University of Chicago with four honorary professorships from Chinese universities, now leans towards the "lab leak" theory (quote: "I'm convinced that what happened is that the virus was brought to a lab, they started to work with it," and some sloppy individual brought it out").
See also this Politico article and this Boston Magazine article that reopened the theory of a genetically-engineered covid virus.
So to be fair and balanced, let's start with the theory that the virus leaked out of a US lab.
1. Was the virus created in a US lab?
There's a theory that a) the virus was accidentally engineered and leaked from a US laboratory (Fort Detrick) in August 2019, and b) accidentally spread in Wuhan during the World Military Games of October.
The theory has been dismissed in the USA as Chinese propaganda. It has actually been spread by Western conspiracy theorists. See for example Larry Romanoff (in Center for Research on Globalization) or Johan van Dongen or Ronnie Cummins or Peter Koenig or Kevin Barrett. These names don't sound Chinese to me. But the very first person to spread this conspiracy theory was probably a Russian, Igor Nikulin, first mentioned on the Russian Army's media outlet Zvezda on 20 January 2020 and then repeated on dozens of pro-Russian media. Nikulin argued that the USA not only deliberately created covid as a bioweapon but specifially to attack China. I find it bizarre that neofascist media like Fox News blame it on Chinese propaganda when in fact it seems to originate and spread in the West and in Russia. (My favorite clown is Greg Rubini, who tweeted that Anthony Fauci created covid for the purpose of reducing the world's population and to undermine Trump: Rubini too is not Chinese).
I think this theory is far fetched, but here are the facts, as i could verify them (the facts about the mirror theory that the virus was made in a Chinese lab are explained separately later):
None of this amounts to evidence. It is just what it is: a theory with no proof of anything that takes advantage of stupid and counterproductive bureaucratic secrets.
- October 2014: Obama, after that string of high-profile incidents, declares a moratorium on risky "gain-of-function" research
- December 2017: Trump lifts the moratorium on "gain-of-function" research which can then restart in several laboratories of the USA, notably at Fort Detrick
- Fort Detrick in Maryland was the original site of the USA's biological warfare program launched in 1943 and it is still the headquarters of the National Interagency Confederation for Biological Research that leads the National Biodefense Strategy launched by Trump in 2018. A story of the lab reads like a horror movie (see for example this article). The Fort Detrick lab is a BSL-4 facility. Biosafety level 4 laboratories conduct research on easily transmitted deadly pathogens such as the ebola virus. There are testimonies from former employees that Fort Detrick specifically works on weaponizing coronaviruses.
- July 2019: The CDC issues a "cease and desist order" to the top-secret laboratory of Fort Detrick, run by the US military, that is conducting research on lethal microbes such as the Ebola virus, because the lab does not show "sufficient systems in place to decontaminate wastewater", i.e. out of fear that pathogens could leak out
- August 2019: A wave of lung pneumonias is blamed in the USA on vaping from e-cigarettes
- August 5: The CDC closes the Fort Detrick biolaboratory
- September 2019: (Several websites mention Japanese tourists who got sick while in the USA in September but no website knows their names, which convinced me that this is fake)
- October 18, 2019: The World Military Games open in Wuhan with 300 people flying from the USA (and Article in Xinhua welcoming the athletes)
- October 18, 2019: The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, hosts "Event 201 - a Global Pandemic Exercise", which simulates a pandemic killing 65 million worldwide
- October 2019: It is alleged that 5 of the 300 US citizens visiting Wuhan for the World Military Games are hospitalized for a pneumonia-like infection, but this story is debunked by the Chinese themselves
- November 17, 2019: The first case of covid-19 is detected in Hubei province, according to an article in the March 13 South China Morning Post by Josephine Ma, citing an unpublished Chinese government report
- November 24, 2019: The CDC reveals that Fort Detrick reported two breaches of containment in 2019 (see for example Military.com)
- December 2019: The outbreak in Wuhan
- January 17, 2020: The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission states that "An analysis of the epidemiological data of new coronavirus-infected pneumonia cases released in the previous period found that some cases have no history of exposure to the South China Seafood Wholesale Market"
- January 21, 2020: China's CDC states that "Despite extensive searching, no animal from the market has thus far been identified as a possible source of the infection" (paper)
- January 22, 2020: ABC7 quotes documents from the CDC outlining safety violations at Fort Detrick during 2019
- January 25: Kristian Andersen at the Scripps Research Institute posts his analysis of 27 available genomes on Virological.org and concludes that they had "a most recent common ancestor" - meaning a common source - as early as 1 October 2019"
- January 29: Biosecurity expert Richard Ebright of Rutgers University debunks the theory that the virus was leaked by a bioweapon lab
- January 29: A paper by George Gao of the China CDC and others states that five of the initial six patients had no exposure to the seafood market and that human-to-human transmission was underway as early as "the middle of December 2019" ("Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus-Infected Pneumonia")
- January 31: Science Magazine quotes Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University, as asserting that "the virus was already circulating silently among humans before it contaminated the seafood market" (Science Magazine article)
- January 31: Indian scientists publish a sloppy study (later retracted) that claims similarities between the covid-19 virus and the HIV, the basis for several conspiracy theories blaming the US for making the covid-19 virus
- February 25: The National Center for Medical Intelligence, located at Fort Detrick, warns the US government that the coronavirus is likely to become a pandemic, despite the fact that there are very few cases and no deaths outside Asia (and 15 days before the World Health Organization will reach the same conclusion)
- February 27: Chinese respiratory specialist Zhong Nanshan states at a press conference that "though the COVID-19 was first discovered in China, it does not mean that it originated from China"
- March 5: Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations of the USA, debunks the theory that the virus was made in a lab
- March 10: A petition on the White House website demands details on the reason for closing the Fort Detrick biolab
- March 12: Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweets that "It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan"
- March 17: Kristian Andersen's team at the Scripps Research Institute publishes an analysis of the coronavirus' genome showing its likely genetic path as it jumped from animals to humans but also states that "no animal coronavirus has been identified that is sufficiently similar to have served as the direct progenitor of SARS-CoV-2" ("The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2", Nature Medicine paper). The paper is widely credited with debunking the conspiracy theory because it concludes with the sentence "We do not believe any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible" (the paper shows that the odds are astronomical against a lab release as opposed to an event in nature), but it contains that unnerving statement. See also Nicholas Wade's response, which is skeptic of the science logic the paper (paper).
- March 21: David Franz, former deputy commander of the lab, and Judith Miller, author of "Germs - Biological Weapons and America's Secret War," write an article for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, detailing Fort Detrick biolab's history of safety issues ( "A Biosecurity Failure")
- March 27: After 8 months, the CDC reopens Fort Detrick's laboratory. The previous commander, Barbara Holcomb, has retired and the institute has a new commander, Darrin Cox. No explanation is provided for why it took 8 months, what kind of disinfection and cleaning took 8 months. No employee of the lab is authorized to talk to the press. This mystery inflames conspiracy theories on what the USA may be trying to hide.
- March 31: Trump's supporter Victor Hanson (author of "The Case for Trump") writes an article claiming that the coronavirus started spreading in California since the fall of 2019. While the article is intended to mock the lockdown in California, it provides a valid argument to those who think that the virus was made in the USA and later exported to China.
- April 27: Daniel Lucey writes that new data "support an alternative hypothesis that the original human infections began before December, and not in this seafood market... We interpret these data to be most consistent with a naturally-occurring spillover infection from an animal species to humans at a different location in September-November... We have not found evidence to support any theory that the origins of SARS-CoV-2 among humans occurred in a laboratory either intentionally or by accident."
- May 14: Two residents of Snohomish County in Washington state (with no travel history) who fell ill with COVID-19-like symptoms in December, one month before the first reported case of COVID-19 in the USA, have now tested positive for antibodies against the new coronavirus (story)
- May 20: 31 scientific societies of the USA sign a letter of protest, and 77 Nobel laureates sign another letter, after Trump's National Institutes of Health cancels a grant to the New York-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance that was funding a joint US-Chinese research to trace the evolution of the virus (as if the USA was afraid of what they would discover)
The Chinese have a point, though, that the first country to report a virus is
not necessarily the country where the virus was born. They probably know the
story of the "Spanish flu" of 1918 better than most US citizens.
It was named "Spanish" because Spain was the first country to report it,
but even at the time it was known that the flu was already killing people
in Europe and the USA before it entered Spain.
At the time, most countries were
involved in WWI and didn't want to demoralize public and troops.
Spain was neutral and didn't have that concern, so it went public right
away, especially since its own king got sick. Hence the name:
"the Spanish flu". Today all historians agree that
the "Spanish" flu started in the USA in early 1918. US soldiers then
spread it to France in March 2018. From France it spread to Spain in November 1918.
Knowing that story, the Chinese are justified in warning that this virus was
first reported by China but it doesn't mean it was born in China.
The Chinese are also honestly puzzled that the death toll in Europe and Latin America (countries with many travelers to and from the USA) is so much higher than the death toll in the countries bordering China.
As of March 2021: not even 10,000 deaths in Japan but more than 125,000 in Britain (which has half the population); 35 deaths in Vietnam but more than 100,000 in Italy (half the population); 300,000 deaths in Brazil and 200,000 in Mexico... and of course 550,000 in the USA. These are staggering numbers compared with the small numbers of China's neighbors.
To this day, there is no credible rational explanation for this simple statistical fact (just wearing facemasks makes such a big difference? really?)
An alien coming to Earth from out of space, looking at the numbers, would probably conclude that the pandemic started somewhere between New York, London and Rio.
On May 4 French media reported that a man of Arabic descent (Amirouche Hammar) died with covid-19 on December 27, way before anyone died in Wuhan. He was a humble fishmonger living in Bobigny (Seine-Saint-Denis department, northeast of Paris), considered the poorest and most violent neighborhood of France, mostly famous for the 2017 riots, NOT for international travel. No Chinese community there, and no Chinese tourists. It is not clear how that virus reached a Muslim neighborhood of France so early, but it's a bit unlikely that it arrived from Wuhan.
On May 11 Brazilian scientists calculated that covid-19 was already spreading in Rio de Janeiro before the carnival, in January, just before the first death in Wuhan. How many people travel between Wuhan and Rio de Janeiro? I suspect that number is very small. How many people travel between Rio de Janeiro and the USA? Thousands.
This conspiracy theory gets some credibility from the fact that the USA has a record of such incidents. In July 2014 the CDC admitted that it found forgotten vials of of the variola virus that causes smallpox at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, near Washington. In May 2015 the Pentagon admitted that a Defence Department lab in Utah had accidentally shipped live anthrax samples to several labs in the USA and to a US military base in South Korea.
In 2015 USA Today published an investigation of US biological labs and found systematic safety failures (article).
In November 2015 Nature magazine published an article (click here) about the risks of conducting experiments on viruses, specifically in reference to an experiment conducted in the USA on horseshoe bats found in China (paper about the experiment).
And the US public seems to have forgotten the anthrax attacks of 2001, which were eventually revealed to be the work of an Fort Detrick biologist, Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide.
Old stuff? The most recent report from the Federal Select Agent Program, that keeps an eye on US biolabs, lists 193 cases of release of a select agent or toxin. What is a "select agent"? They are pathogens "that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety".
Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, founder of the Cambridge Working Group, has collected evidence that accidents involving deadly pathogens have occurred more than twice a week in US labs.
2. Was the virus created in a Chinese lab?
Now let's look at the theory that the virus was made in a Chinese lab.
In the USA the Trump supporters, trying to deflect attention from Trump's awful handling of the epidemic, have publicized a mirror conspiracy theory that the virus would be coming out of a Wuhan lab.
I couldn't pinpoint exactly who started it, but it was probably
Francis Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois, a man who in the past claimed that Israel was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and that the West Nile virus and Lyme disease were accidentally created in labs of the US government: Boyle wrote already on 24 January 2020 that covid is a genetically engineered bioweapon that escaped from a high-level lab in Wuhan.
- August 2012: Three miners die of a mysterious pulmonary infection in a mineshaft of Mojiang (Yunnan province) and later Wuhan scientists identify the cause as a SARS-like bat coronavirus called 4991 (later renamed RaTG13 by Shi's team at Wuhan) whose genome turns out to be more than 96% identical to the covid-19 coronavirus
- May 2013: a master thesis supervised by George Gao (the current director of China's CDC) hypothesizes that the miners' illness was caused by direct transmission of a SARS-like coronavirus from a horseshoe bat (paper) although Shi claims that fungus was the pathogen that had sickened the miners, not a coronavirus
- October 2013: A joint team of US and Chinese scientists (led by Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance and Zheng-li Shi of the Wuhan lab) isolates and cultures a live bat virus that binds to the human receptor ACE2 and can therefore be transmitted directly from bats to people, i.e. they prove that bat coronaviruses can directly infect human lung cells without needing an intermediary animal (paper and EcoHealth Alliance's press release)
- June 2014: Peter Daszak's EcoHealth Alliance in the USA receives a grant from the National Institute of Health to conduct research on the SARS virus and subcontracts the Wuhan Institute of Virology
- November 2015: Shi's team (Wuhan Institute of Virology) and Ralph Baric's team (University of North Carolina) announce that they have bioengineered (created) a novel coronavirus that can infect human cells. They modified a human SARS virus adapted for mice with a "spike" protein (SHC014-CoV) taken from a horseshoe bat virus. Peter Daszak's lab in the USA indirectly funded the experiment through a US grant received by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (paper)
- January 2018: Invited by China to visit the Wuhan biolab (specifically to advise on how to improve the safety of the lab), US scientists raise concerns about the safety of the lab and about the danger of the "gain-of-function" experiments carried out there, and the US embassy reports the concerns to Washington but the Trump administration ignores them
- 2018: Shi's team genetically sequences RaTG13 (source: Shi herself)
- December 2019: Daszak is so impressed by the Wuhan experiments that he gives an interview (video) in which he himself describes how the Chinese have successfully reprogrammed the spike protein of the SARS virus and created new coronaviruses (quote: "Some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanized mice")
- January 19, 2020: Li-Meng Yan, who works at the Hong Kong School of Public Health, appears on the "LuDe Show", owned by exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, and claims that China mishandled the epidemic (Note: there seems to be no record of what she actually said during that interview)
- January 23, 2020: A study by Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a woman who in November 2017 had published a paper showing that horseshoe bats from Yunnan province were the likely cause of the SARS coronavirus in 2003, and who has just published two comprehensive studies of coronaviruses in MDPI and in Nature magazine, shows that the new virus' genetic sequence is 96.2% identical to that of a bat coronavirus (found in horseshoe bats of Yunnan) and 79.5% identical to the SARS coronavirus (paper) but note that the human genome is 99% identicaly to the chimp genome so 96% is actually not a lot
- January 24: The first paper is published in a scientific magazine by George Gao and others of China's CDC challenges the theory that the epidemic began in the Wuhan seafood market because the earliest case, a patient who became ill on Dec 1, had no link to the seafood market (paper)
- February 14: China's president Xi in person calls for speedy approval of a biosecurity law to protect from biological accidents
- February 16: Chinese scientists Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao of Guangzhou's South China University of Technology publish a paper in which they hint at the possibility that the virus was leaked accidentally by Wuhan's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, located 280 meters away from the Hunan Seafood Market. Others note that Wuhan hosts an Institute of Virology (13 kms from the wet market), China's only biosafety level-4 lab. This is the origin of the mirror conspiracy theory: that the virus was leaked from a Chinese lab.
- February 16: The Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the Chinese government, publishes an article titled "Biosafety guideline issued to fix chronic management loopholes at virus labs" that admits problems in labs like the one in Wuhan
- March 11: Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, interviewed by Scientific American, is quoted as saying "If coronaviruses were the culprit... could they have come from our lab?" (article)
- Mar 13: The South China Morning Post reports that Chinese government records show that the first person infected with the new virus, i.e. "patient zero", may have been a a 55-year-old man from China's Hubei province, infected on November 17 (article)
- March 17: China expels 13 US journalists working for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, the first time since Mao's times that so many US journalists are expelled. While this is officially done in retaliation for the USA classifying five Chinese-owned media organizations as foreign missions, de facto it silences foreign investigations into the Chinese outbreak and inflames conspiracy theories on what China may be trying to hide.
- April 14: The Washington Post discovers that in 2018 the US embassy in China, after visiting the Wuhan Institute of Virology, sent two diplomatic cables to Washington warning that the lab's unsafe work on bat coronaviruses risks causing a new SARS-like pandemic (quote: "SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases").
- April 16: An anonymous paper titled titled "Evidence SARS-CoV-2 Emerged From a Biological Laboratory in Wuhan, China" appears on Github (See the P.S.)
- April 28: Li-Meng Yan, dismissed from the Hong Kong School of Public Health, flees to the USA and applies for exile
- April 29: A New York Times investigation reveals that Trump has pressured the CIA and NSA to "prove" that the virus came from a Chinese lab.
- April 30: Trump says he has evidence that the coronavirus came from a Chinese lab, but he can't reveal it, a few hours after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement that "The intelligence community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was NOT man-made or genetically modified."
- May 2: Alina Chan of the Broad Institute shows that the virus of covid does not behave like viruses normally behave and leaves open the option that it could have been engineered in a lab (paper)
- May 3: Trump and Mike Pompeo claim to have evidence that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, based on a report by the Multi-Agency Collaboration Environment (MACE). Quote from Mike Pompeo: "enormous evidence".
- May 16: Mike Pompeo in an interview with Breitbart backs away from the theory that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab (quote: "we know it began in Wuhan, but we don't know from where or from whom")
- May 17: The report produced by the Multi-Agency Collaboration Environment (MACE), that Trump and Mike Pompeo claimed as evidence that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, is proven false
- May 26: You-Chun Wang's team at the National Institutes for Food and Drug Control in Beijing announces that they have genetically engineered mice that can express the human ACE2 receptor, the cell receptor that allows coronaviruses to infect human lungs, and some suspects that this proves that China was conducting CRISPR experiments to engineer coronaviruses (their paper)
- May 26: Scientists of China's CDC declare on Chinese state media that they have ruled out the possibility that the Wuhan wildlife market was the origin of the virus Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese CDC, told Chinese state media "It now turns out that the market is one of the victims."
- July 10: Li-Meng Yan appears on Fox News but only accuses China of a cover-up, not of manufacturing or releasing the virus
- July 11: The Hong Kong School of Public Health issues a statement that Li-Meng Yan "never conducted any research on human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus at HKU during December 2019 and January 2020"
- July 2020: Shi states that nobody at the Wuhan biolab has ever tested positive for covid but that simply increases suspicions because it is virtually impossible that the lab had zero infection in a city where an estimated 4.4% of the population was infected
- September 14: Li-Meng Yan publishes an article titled "Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route" for the Rule of Law Society (the 3 coauthors of the papers are all members of the Rule of Law Society, and none of them is a scientist), which was founded by Trump's advisor Steve Bannon. Several virologists in the USA and Britain call it "entirely fictional" and no scientific website accepts to republish it.
- September 16: Li-Meng Yan appears on Fox News again and this time accuses the Chinese government of intentionally engineering and releasing the virus
In my opinion, the fact that truly justifies suspicion against China is that China expelled all the Western journalists who were investigating the epidemic
(and silenced its own Chinese journalists and scientists).
This makes us think that China is trying to hide something, just like
when it banned foreign journalists from Xinjiang (the province with the
massive "re-education camps" for Muslims).
Lesson learned for China: if you are not hiding anything, do not behave like you are hiding something, because people will conclude that you are hiding something.
International reporters were given access by China to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in August 2020 (notably a 5-hour visit by NBC News, one of the USA's main channels). It's not much, but compare with this: as of today, the USA has not allowed international reporters into the Fort Detrick biolab not even for a minute.
In my humble opinion, we know more about the Wuhan lab than we know about
the Fort Detrick lab. In fact, just about everything suspicious about the Wuhan
lab was revealed by Chinese scientists themselves, whereas the US scientists
of the Fort Detrick lab and the CDC have told us very little about what
went wrong at the Fort Detrick biolab. We know a lot about the Wuhan lab from
both scientific papers and interviews with its directors.
We heard nothing about the Fort Detrick biolab from its personnel.
If there is censorship at work, the US censorship has been as effective as the Chinese one.
There are several reasons why intelligent people believe this theory, but i personally find them weak. Here is a run-down:
- The "coincidence" that the virus emerged in a city, Wuhan, that also boasts a top biolaboratory tells me very little. It tells me that the virus was first identified in a city where there were experts capable of understanding what it was. It could well be that the virus was already spreading in other locations where there were no virologists/epidemiologists or even qualified family doctors. Wuhan's top biolab had the experts capable of understanding what it was and to sequence its RNA in a few days, a fact that also explains why biologists were able to build a vaccine in just one year. If the virus was already spreading in Alabama and Kentucky and poor regions of Europe and other regions of China before Wuhan (as several studies by the CDC and by European scientists seem to indicate), it wasn't detected because those places didn't have the right experts. Imagine if a meteor fell in a field of a remote agricultural region of Kentucky and one month later a similar meteor fell in the campus of Stanford University: Stanford would immediately produce dozens of studies and we would be talking about the "Stanford meteor", not the "Kentucky meteor".
- It is not true that the Chinese claimed that covid came from bats (that cannot be found in Wuhan). The Chinese never said this. The Chinese paper of January 2020 (paper) clearly states that "no bats were sold or found at the Huanan seafood market" and argues that it may have been transmitted by an intermediary animal. This seems logical since we know that masked palm civets caused the SARS outbreak in 2002: the SARS virus came from bats of Yunnan but spread to humans via the civets of Guangdong. Nature works that way.
- The intermediary animal may or may not be needed. The Chinese (and later everybody else) assumed that there was an intermediary animal between bats and humans because they believe (like everybody else) that civets were the intermediary of SARS but in reality we cannot be sure that civets infected us (rather than us infecting them). All we know is that civets had SARS and we concluded that they got it from bats and gave it to us. It could be that we got it directly from bats and gave it to civets.
- RaTG13 is more like a distant cousin of SARS-CoV-2, meaning it is unlikely to have produced SARS-CoV-2 as an offspring, either through recent evolution in the wild or manipulation in the lab.
- If the virus was accidentally created by Shi's lab, those scientists were complete idiots. The intention of a scientist is to prove something not to create a mess. From a biological point of view, the covid virus is a mess. If Shi's goal was to publish a groundbreaking paper and win a Nobel Prize, she would have tinkered with one thing not with so many odd parameters. If this virus is the creation of a lab, that lab's scientists behaved like children scrambling toys in a messy room.
- The idea that the virus leaked from a bioweapons lab makes little sense since bioweapons usually involve more lethal pathogens AND a known cure or vaccine, to protect the national population.
- It is much more likely (although still generally unlikely) that a Chinese or US researcher got infected by a virus while collecting bat samples in a Yunnan cave and then the virus evolved into covid as it infected other humans.
The Trump/FoxNews Propaganda
As i have written above, i don't believe that either of these conspiracy theories holds water because the science consistently points at a virus jumping from a bat to a human. But the Trump government and its supporters at Fox News engaged into a massive campaign to prove the theory of the Wuhan lab, a campaign eerily reminiscent of the 2003 campaign to prove that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
This has only made it harder to carry out a rational and objective discussion on the origins of covid.
The "scientific papers" and Fox News interviews that support this or that conspiracy theory are all garbage: a high-school student with elementary knowledge of biology could make them up (see the P.S.).
Among the many "studies" that have been circulating,
this one titled "Evidence SARS-CoV-2 Emerged From a Biological Laboratory in Wuhan, China" has been particularly effective. It is anonymous, which should
already raise all sorts of alarm bells, because there is no reason to remain
anonymous when you are saying precisely what your president (Trump) wants you to say.
I don't see anything interesting in it, but it is presented in a way to make
the conclusions credible even though the conclusions don't follow from the
It's a collection of well-known papers. It only proves that the Wuhan lab was conducting important and useful research. The most important papers were all written by Chinese scientists. These are all distinguished scientists, who published in English in international journals in order to share their knowledge with
other scientists. Shame on those who exploit scientific cooperation for
their political motives.
The document gets ridiculous when it spends pages and pages trying to "prove"
things that the Chinese said themselves.
So much discussion about the bats from Yunnan... Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Wuhan lab always said it, in multiple interviews.
Every coronavirus hunter went to Yunnan to hunt those bats.
Peter Daszak, formerly of Columbia University and now head of the
EcoHealth Alliance, did the same thing in 2013.
In fact, he collaborated with Shi on her coronavirus experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Linfa Wang at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore is another world expert in bat coronaviruses.
But it's an old trick: if you turn it into a long discussion
it feels like YOU, the great Sherlock Holmes, discovered something new,
and solved a great mystery.
They conclude "Wuhan Institute of Virology has..."
and then they list things that the institute itself has always said
it was doing. Where's the mystery?
Many labs around the world conducted similar research,
using similar tools and methods. And?
Some statements are ridiculously false but that's ok
("WIV and WHCDC are extremely close to Huanan Seafood Market": define "close" -
they are 13 kms away;
"There were likely no bats naturally living in Wuhan": sure?)
The document also twists some facts in comic ways.
Eg "In January 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing took the unusual step of repeatedly sending U.S. science diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology".
Yeah, right: the US embassy is free to send whoever it wants to a top-secret
Chinese lab, right? The truth is that China invited the US scientists to visit
the institute. Why? Scientific pride.
As far as biolab accidents go, the USA has had a lot more than the ones they
list, simply because it has more biolabs and much older ones.
Books have been written about the US biolab accidents.
It is written by someone who is clearly anti-Chinese because it omits some
details that politically speaking are important:
* January 11: an important meeting of the communist party takes place in Wuhan, as scheduled. They could have postponed it or changed the venue. They didn't. Were they suicidal?
* The document says "Wuhan officials censored local medical professionals" but it never adds that those officials were later fired by Beijing (a rare occurrence), including the very chief of the local Communist Party.
Documents like this one are certainly very useful to distract attention from
the colossal responsibilities of Donald Trump,
and to further sow discord between the USA and China.
Nicholas Wade's article of 2021
Nicholas Wade's article was cited a lot in May 2021. He defended the thesis that the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab in a lengthy and well-written article which counts as much more than a conspiracy theory.
However, Wade (and Bret Weinstein before him -
see this video interview of Bret Weinstein)
commits the same sin he accuses others in the media of having committed: he ignores the possibility that the virus came out of a US lab and then was spread to Wuhan by visiting US military personnel.
We may never be able to fully investigate the Wuhan lab, but we should at least be able to investigate Fort Detrick's lab.
The CDC itself admits that covid was already spreading around the USA in November 2019, before anyone found it in Wuhan.
Serum studies in both Italy and France found cases that seem to imply the virus was already there in November 2019.
Everything that Wade writes could apply as well to a "US lab leak" theory: in fact, the Wuhan theory doesn't explain the cases in the USA and Europe that predate the Wuhan cluster.
It's great that reputable writers like Wade compile such professional analyses of one hypotheses but regrettable that nobody here in the USA dares do the same to the hypothesis that the virus came from here.
Francis Boyle of University of Illinois found a paper trail of peer-reviewed papers linking "gain of function" research on bat coronaviruses conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and at Fort Detrick.
This is not mentioned in Wade's article that only mentions money coming from the USA to fund research in China, but the collaboration extended to performing the same kind of experiments on the same kind of viruses.
I personally don't think there is anything sinister about this collaboration, but, if Wade thinks that it is sinister, the question is why his article never mentions Fort Detrick at all.
Wade does not say anything about the most striking fact of the "China virus": it killed very few people in China, a lot in the USA.
Maybe it was just the difference between having Xi and Trump as presidents, or maybe there is another reason why the virus was deadlier in the USA than in China.
Even accounting for Trump's immense stupidity and right-wing sabotage, it is still striking that the virus wasn't so deadly in Wuhan (a densely populated 8-million people metropolis where, according to Wade, politicians did nothing for weeks to stop the virus) as it has been in the USA.
About the science mentioned by Wade:
- Steven Quay's statistical analysis starts with a Bayesian model based on subjective estimates
- Wade contradicts himself on gene splicing
- Wade contradicts himself on how well this virus binds with ACE2 receptors
- Geographically, Wade is right that the bat caves are very far from Wuhan but it's not clear why he dismisses the case that bats could be sold in Wuhan's wet market (we actually know for a fact that they were, as were many animals coming from even more remote regions)
- Wade is wrong about "There is no good explanation of how the virus acquired its furin cleavage site, which no other SARS-related beta-coronavirus possesses." (eg https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1873506120304165 )
- Wade is wrong about "in September temperatures in Hubei province are already cold enough to send bats into hibernation". This is comic. As anybody who has been there knows, temperatures can be very warm in September (he probably used a website that confused degrees Celsius and Farenheit)
- Wade didn't know this when he wrote his article, but in September 2021 Marc Eloit's team at the Pasteur Institute in France published the results of their study of horseshoe bat coronaviruses in Laos: they had found a closer relative of SARS-CoV-2 than the infamous RaTG13. Dubbed Banal-52, it is 96.8% genetically identical to SARS-CoV-2 (the covid virus), while RaTG13 is 96.1% identical (paper). Furthermore, Banal-52 has the same receptor binding of the covid virus, the one that had "never been found before in nature" (according to Wade and others). Alas, Banal-52 doesn't contain the furin cleavage site on the spike protein, so the conspiracy theory is still alive; but a little weaker every time virologists discover new evidence of naturally occurring kins of the covid virus.
Other studies on the origin of the virus
- In November 2020 a study by Italy's National Cancer Institute about people who were screened for cancer in Lombardy shows that several patients already had covid antibodies in early October 2019 (paper). Quote: "antibodies were detected in 111 of 959 (11.6%) individuals, starting from September 2019 (14%), with a cluster of positive cases (>30%) in the second week of February 2020 and the highest number (53.2%) in Lombardy". Unless there is another explanation for why covid antibodies would arise in people, covid was in Italy in September 2019, three months before the outbreak in Wuhan.
- Also in November 2020: A retrospective serological study by the CDC finds that covid antibodies were present in blood samples taken in mid December in several locations of the USA (paper)
- Also in November 2020: a study by Libing Shen (Chinese Academy of Sciences), Funan He (Fudan University) and Zhao Zhang (University of Texas at Houston) tried to pinpoint the least mutated genetic strain of the coronavirus, which should be its phylogenetic root. They observed that the Indian subcontinent has the highest strain diversity and estimated that the earliest transmission from an animal to a human host happened in July or August 2019 (paper). According to this study, covid was born somewhere in India in the summer of 2019.
- In December 2020 the CDC published a study that found covid in early December 2019 in Italy (paper).
- In January 2021 Italian scientists found traces of covid in skin biopsies conducted in Milan in November 2019 (paper).
The Real Threats
In general, i am more worried about the "mad scientist" scenario.
The Chinese scientist (Jiankui He) who genetically engineered twins was not
authorized by any lab. The anthrax letters of 2001
were sent by a disgruntled US scientist (Bruce Ivins).
North Korea didn't get the nuclear bomb from China or Russia but from
Pakistan's mad scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
For example, i would suspect molecular biologist
Judy Mikovits before i suspect either the Wuhan lab or the Fort Detrick lab.
She seems to fit the "mad scientist" category,
she seemed to know a lot about this virus before
the top scientists of the world did (amazing, given that she has no access
to any major equipment),
she advises people NOT to wear a face mask,
and she's been trying so hard to stop the people
who are fighting the epidemic, as if they were ruining her masterplan.
That's my conspiracy theory: a mad scientist engineered the virus in
her basement and now she's spinning disinformation to help her virus kill
as many people as possible. Smile.
Watch out for the Christian fundamentalists, for the Q cult, for Q Anon (#QAnon), for people like Tracy Diaz (aka TracyBeanz), and for David Hayes (PrayingMedic) who just before the covid-19 pandemic published a book eerily titled "Calm Before the Storm" as if he knew that something was about to happen, for Jim Watkins, the owner of 8chan, the online platform preferred by the white suprematists who killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso and 51 Muslims at two New Zealand mosques, and for Falun Gong whose newspaper "Epoch Times" publicizes all of these folks.
Al Qaeda tried to obtain biological weapons and failed. These people may succeed.
A Timeline of Covid-19.
Covid-19: An introduction and summary,
The Clown & the Virus
Sinophobia & Covid-19 .
Sinophobia & Covid-19 in US Media .
TM, ®, Copyright © 2020-21 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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