Workers in protective suits examine specimens inside a laboratory following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, February 6, 2020. (China Daily/Reuters)
On the menu today: Two huge stories — Vanity Fair finds evidence that some figures within the U.S. State Department did not want a complete investigation into the virus’s origins in early 2020; and what you need to know about that other new virus discovered in China.
U.S. State Department: Don’t ‘Open a Can of Worms’ on the COVID-19 Origin
Credit where it’s due: Vanity Fair magazine appears to have found one of the smoking guns of this entire abominable story of the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that in early 2020, some corners of the federal government explicitly discouraged a full investigation into how the pandemic started:
A months long Vanity Fair investigation, interviews with more than 40 people, and a review of hundreds of pages of U.S. government documents, including internal memos, meeting minutes, and email correspondence, found that conflicts of interest, stemming in part from large government grants supporting controversial virology research, hampered the U.S. investigation into COVID-19’s origin at every step. In one State Department meeting, officials seeking to demand transparency from the Chinese government say they were explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. government funding of it.
In an internal memo obtained by Vanity Fair, Thomas DiNanno, former acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, wrote that staff from two bureaus, his own and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, “warned” leaders within his bureau “not to pursue an investigation into the origin of COVID-19” because it would “‘open a can of worms’ if it continued.”
Are you kidding me? Whose side are they on?
As officials at the meeting discussed what they could share with the public, they were advised by Christopher Park, the director of the State Department’s Biological Policy Staff in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, not to say anything that would point to the U.S. government’s own role in gain-of-function research, according to documentation of the meeting obtained by Vanity Fair.
Some of the attendees were “absolutely floored,” said an official familiar with the proceedings. That someone in the U.S. government could “make an argument that is so nakedly against transparency, in light of the unfolding catastrophe, was…shocking and disturbing.”
Park, who in 2017 had been involved in lifting a U.S. government moratorium on funding for gain-of-function research, was not the only official to warn the State Department investigators against digging in sensitive places. As the group probed the lab-leak scenario, among other possibilities, its members were repeatedly advised not to open a “Pandora’s box,” said four former State Department officials interviewed by Vanity Fair. The admonitions “smelled like a cover-up,” said Thomas DiNanno, “and I wasn’t going to be part of it.”
This . . . is evidence that the seemingly hyperbolic conspiracy theories are true. High-level U.S. government officials recognized that gain-of-function research — which was controversial even among virologists — that they had indirectly funded, may well have been the cause of the worst global pandemic since 1918, killing millions. U.S. government laboratories hadn’t been doing the research of going into caves and mines in remote corners of China, collecting virus samples from bats, and figuring out how to make those viruses more dangerous and contagious, but the U.S. government had partially paid for it. And they feared the consequences of that disclosure so immensely, they concluded the public could not be informed about this.
The story gets even more shocking:
For most of the past year, the lab-leak scenario was treated not simply as unlikely or even inaccurate but as morally out-of-bounds. In late March, former Centers for Disease Control director Robert Redfield received death threats from fellow scientists after telling CNN that he believed COVID-19 had originated in a lab. “I was threatened and ostracized because I proposed another hypothesis,” Redfield told Vanity Fair. “I expected it from politicians. I didn’t expect it from science.”
Hypothesis: If someone is so upset about a theory you’ve offered that they threaten to kill you over it, your theory is probably right. Nobody makes death threats over contentions that the moon is made of green cheese.
Then there’s this simple, clear, illuminating point from a professor who’s been ahead of the curve on this from the start:
Dr. Richard Ebright, board of governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, said that from the very first reports of a novel bat-related coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, it took him “a nanosecond or a picosecond” to consider a link to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Only two other labs in the world, in Galveston, Texas, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, were doing similar research. “It’s not a dozen cities,” he said. “It’s three places.”
Three places in the world are doing this kind of research on coronaviruses in bats, and a novel coronavirus most similar to those found in bats causes a global pandemic that started in one of those three places. What are the odds?
What to Know about That Other Scary New Virus Found in China
When this news first appeared, it sounded almost like a grim parody: Chinese medical authorities have discovered another new virus jumping from an animal to a human being, separate from the SARS-CoV-2 that set off the COVID-19 pandemic, but “the risk of large-scale spread is low, the government said.”
You can be forgiven for feeling like you’ve seen this movie before. Nobody ever listens to the scientist played by Jeff Goldblum until it’s too late.
This new virus, called H10N3, is a new form of bird flu, or “avian influenza” as the professionals call it, and most of the time bird-flu viruses do not infect human beings. The CDC summarizes, “The spread of avian influenza A viruses from one ill person to another has been reported very rarely, and when it has been reported it has been limited, inefficient and not sustained. However, because of the possibility that avian influenza A viruses could change and gain the ability to spread easily between people, monitoring for human infection and person-to-person spread is extremely important for public health.” The world has had several outbreaks of bird flu in recent years, and the reason you don’t remember much about them is because they were not particularly severe and barely touched North America.
Jiangsu Province, for all close contacts were under medical observation, carried out at the local emergency monitoring, have found no abnormalities. . . . Experts assessed that the whole gene analysis of the virus showed that the H10N3 virus was of avian origin and did not have the ability to effectively infect humans. No human cases of H10N3 have been reported globally, and the H10N3 virus among poultry is low pathogenic to poultry. The once occasional outbreak of avian to human spread across species, large-scale spread of epidemic risk extremely low.
Then again, many of us can remember similarly worded assurances from the Chinese CDC that “the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission is low,” after the hospitals in Wuhan had filled to capacity and started turning away patients.
Here’s the tentative good news: If Chinese health authorities are telling the truth, the infected man has been in the hospital since late April and hasn’t died yet, and in fact, he may be discharged soon. It means he’s had the virus for more than a month, and there’s not yet any sign he spread it to anyone else, so maybe this virus really is unlikely to be spread from one person to another.
The Chinese government may lie a lot, but we can get a more accurate sense of what it’s dealing with by watching its actions, not its words. Jiangsu Province is on the Chinese coast, just north of Shanghai, home to roughly 24 million people. The patient lives in Zhenjiang, which is home to about 3 million people.
If Jiangsu Province was going into a quarantine or lockdown, it would be difficult to hide that from the eyes of the world. If the hospitals in Shanghai were filling up with feverish patients, that would be difficult to completely cover up, too. And compared to SARS-CoV-2, poultry-producer health inspectors and doctors are pretty familiar with bird-flu viruses and how to spot them. We’re still not entirely sure when the COVID-19 “Patient Zero” was infected in Wuhan, but by early-to-mid January, it was clear the city was dealing with something deadly serious and considerably contagious. About a month after the H10N3 “Patient Zero” got sick, we haven’t seen anything like that in Jiangsu.
Thankfully, not every new virus discovered in China turns into a worldwide crisis. In July of last year, U.S. officials started tracking a newly discovered strain of swine flu in China that they warned “has the characteristics of viruses with potential to cause a human pandemic.” The CDC issued a statement noting that the World Health Organization and Chinese CDC had developed a vaccine candidate for the “closely related EA avian-like H1N1 G5 swine flu virus” and that “if needed, CDC will work to create a new vaccine candidate virus made specifically against G4 viruses.” As of November, there were still no reports of that particular swine-flu virus spreading from person to person.
You probably remember that back in 2009, the world was hit by a pandemic of H1N1, which seemed serious and somewhat scary at the time but that now looks like child’s play.
With all of that said, just because the circumstantial evidence of a lab leak is piling up, and the scenario of the COVID-19 pandemic starting at a wet market seems less likely, it doesn’t mean that wet markets are safe, or that the original suspicion was unrealistic. Back in November 2017, Smithsonian magazine prophetically asked: “Is China Ground Zero for a Future Pandemic?”
At least two flu pandemics in the past century — in 1957 and 1968 — originated in the Middle Kingdom and were triggered by avian viruses that evolved to become easily transmissible between humans. Although health authorities have increasingly tried to ban the practice, millions of live birds are still kept, sold, and slaughtered in crowded markets each year. In a study published in January, researchers in China concluded that these markets were a “main source of H7N9 transmission by way of human-poultry contact and avian-related environmental exposures.”
Yesterday, Charlie declared, tongue-in-cheek, that, “it will be important for us to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that COVID-19 was not unleashed by something as intrinsically Sinocentric as a scientific accident involving poor protective-clothing management, but as the result of a more culturally neutral tradition such as the human consumption of wet-market bats.” And many have asked why the lab-leak theory is allegedly racist, but somehow there isn’t an uncomfortable cultural stereotype in the contention that the virus started in an unregulated, unsanitary, crowded street market where merchants are chopping up live exotic animals.
But it’s worth noting that the Chinese government isn’t all that eager to embrace the wet-market theory, either. Chinese authorities continue to contend that the COVID-19 pandemic likely started from seafood that was imported from some other country, a scenario virologists find particularly implausible. The World Health Organization states that, “There is currently no evidence that people can catch COVID-19 from food. . . . Coronaviruses need a live animal or human host to multiply and survive and cannot multiply on the surface of food packages. It is not necessary to disinfect food packaging materials.”
Alina Chan, who has done as much to uncover the truth about this pandemic as anyone on earth, recently observed that, “More and more journalists have asked me whether I think it’s plausible that China is covering up a natural origin just like it could be covering up a lab origin. My answer is yes. Any origin that starts inside of China is not an origin that China wants to provide evidence for.”
ADDENDUM: This week’s pledge drive is going well, but because my name is all over it, your generosity is particularly appreciated this time.
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