Red Flags: Chinese Laboratory in Wuhan Cited Two Years Ago For Dangerous Research On Bats and Coronavirus

1600px-Coronaviruses_004_loresWhen the coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, China, many people immediately raised the concern that it might have been the result of a lab release from a controversial Chinese Lab: the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The lab was working on coronavirus and had raised concerns over its containment protocols.  Then there was the fact that China hid the outbreak, arrested top doctors, and buried research on its origins.  However, a narrative quickly emerged in countering President Donald Trump’s references to the “China virus.”  People, including members of Congress, who referred to the lab were ridiculed on CNN and other outlets as conspiracy theorists.  For some of us, the overwhelming media narrative seemed odd and artificial. It would seem obvious that a lab working on viruses in this area would be an obvious possible source.  Now, after weeks of chastising those who mentioned the lab theory, another cache of documents and information shows that there are ample reasons to be suspicious and that concerns were raised two years ago within the State Department.

The Washington Post reported  that embassy officials in January 2018 alerted U.S. officials of serious problems in the lab which was conducting risky research on bats, the very source of COVIT-19. The United Kingdom has issued a statement  that they are seriously considering the lab as a possible source.

The first cable on Jan.19, 2018 flagged serious problems at a lab dealing with the world’s most dangerous viruses:  “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”

The cables discuss Shi Zhengli, the head of the research project, who in November 2017 published a paper on horseshoe bats collected from a case in Yunnan province. That is the same bat population behind the first SARS coronavirus in 2003.  The cable stated

“the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”

Sound familiar?
The point is not that this proves that the virus originated in the lab. Rather, my interest is the overwhelming media narrative that emerged to deny that this was a credible potential source.  That narrative emerged around the time that the media was hammering Trump for his use of “China virus” and “Wuhan virus.”  That criticism was enhanced by the argument that the virus developed naturally.  That could still be the case but it never seemed rational to me to discount the lab theory.
What is most amazing is that, if the Chinese allowed this virus to escape and then arrested doctors raising the alarm over the spread, it would be one of the greatest stories of our lifetime: a world pandemic caused by human error.  Millions have been infected and thousands have died. If the cause was negligence by a totalitarian nation (that ignored warnings and punished doctors), this would be a story of the century. Suddenly magazines care saying that they are now thinking about the “unthinkable.”  Yet, it was never truly unthinkable was it?
Yesterday, CNN aired stories on the cables without acknowledging that its prior coverage dismissing the theory.  CNN was not alone.  This is why the public has lost such faith in the media.  It is not because the media has confronted Trump, who often makes reckless and false statements.  It is the sense of the coverage is being shaped constantly shaped an agenda separate from the merits of these stories.  Many commentators and journalists worked too hard to dismiss the lab as a potential source.  When members of Congress raised the theory, they were mocked as “still” talking about a theory that groups declared as wholly invalid.

There is a story here. Not just on whether the lab was the source of the outbreak but whether the media blinded itself to that possibility.

229 thoughts on “Red Flags: Chinese Laboratory in Wuhan Cited Two Years Ago For Dangerous Research On Bats and Coronavirus”

  1. Estovir — In science we eschew teleological explanation.

    I, unpopularly, hold that viruses are alive by virtue of a minimal ability to sense the environment and to reproduce.

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