I try to avoid being duped by conspiracies theories. When I read about a cabal of paedophiles in the basement of a Washington pizzeria, I switch off. When Donald J Trump is too quick to say that Coivd19 was made in China, I know better. I always try to keep objectively to the facts convinced I can spot the lunatic fringe at their zany work from a mile off. But sometimes, somehow, a weird story cannot be easily dismissed. Things just don’t seem right; facts don’t add up, are hidden or get spun. The origins of the Covid19 pandemic and the real role of China, is proving one of these irritating conspiracy theories that just won’t go away.
The official position sternly supported and promoted by Chinese Authorities is that the SARs- CoV-2 virus originated in bats which then infected another mammal, possibly a pangolin, and that animal then infected humans. The initial Chinese investigation, after much hesitancy in accepting that a virulent virus was on the loose, focused on a “wet” food market in Wuhan as the likely origin; ground zero. We are led to believe that this novel virus just simply mutated out of the flesh of a piece of exotic meat and jumped into humans. But then this is how new viruses appear. Just as with John Snow’s Broad Street Pump, the “wet” market was identified as the likely reservoir, so, and just as Snow did with the handle of the Broad Street pump, the market was removed; closed down and a ban placed on sale of exotic species. But Covid19 is no water-borne disease this is airborne, the virus was transmitted person to person; it was out of its box and moving fast through a naïve population with airport connections to a waiting world and the rest, as they say, is history.
This official narrative has precedence. In 2002 the SARs epidemic emerged out of a similar wet market to infect, worldwide, over 8,000 and killed 774. Then there was MERs that appeared in the Middle East. Neither SARs, which originated in bats before moving to masked palm civets, nor MERs, which originated bats then moving into camels, were airborne viruses which was a delightful blessing given that they had a pretty impressive mortality rate. They were however ancestors of the current Sars-CoV-2 virus which is why it was given its awkward name. But SARs originated in South West China, far away from Wuhan.
In the opening section of their book Failures of State, Sunday Times journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, speculate about the involvement of Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). They identify a number of important facts that don’t neatly fit the Chinese narrative. The WIV is housed in a building that is a mere 278 meters from the entrance to the Wuhan Wet market.
The Institute had been involved in the study of coronaviruses since 2004. The team set up in Wuhan in the wake of the 2002 SARs outbreak travelled far and wide to collect bat dung samples in old mines and isolated caves. This team, working hundreds of miles from their Wuhan home identified SARs antibodies in the bats which was the breakthrough in determining where this disease originated. While doing this work they were called in 2012 to investigate a disease outbreak in copper miners. Three people had died in the outbreak, a mysterious pneumonia-type illness with links to bats. Those who died were tasked with clearing piles of faeces from mine resident bats. This incident was not reported so the world was unaware but research undertaken by the team at WIV was published linking this illness as the closest known relative of Sar-CoV-2.
Before the pandemic, there were international concerns about the biosecurity at the WIV facility focused on the ability of management to assure compliance in a hierarchical structure such as China. This of course was not the only concerns; training of staff and the type of work the WIV was involved with were also concerns.
Gain of Function experimentation (GOFEs) is controversial and Michael Osterholm gives a good overview of the concerns about these types of experiments in his pre-covid19 book Deadliest Enemy; Out war against killer Germs. GOFEs seek to alter the genes of viruses and other bugs to rapidly speed up natural mutations. It is controversial since it has the potential to produce virulent and highly infectious bugs that might accidentally or deliberately spill out into the wider population.
There is no direct evidence that the WIV was involved in GOFEs and certainly the WHO tried to establish this in its recent report into the origins of Covid19. The WHO team visited Wuhan in January 2021 and completed its report in March. What is telling is a statement on the lack of transparency by Chinese authorities. The WHO team could not investigate many aspects of the work at the WIV and they also found that the wet market, identified as the source of the virus, was not the only place where a sample of the virus was found. Indeed the first patient to die of the disease had no direct connection to the market.
China did not create Sars-CoV-2 and it may well be that it just appeared as viruses do. What remains unanswered is whether a leak at the WIV allowed a genetically modified virus they were working on to escape into the wider population. This still remains a distinct possibility and where it is not said explicitly in the WHO report the caveats on the lack of detail and the obstruction by Chinese authorities means that we may have to wait some time to get the true answer and in the meantime, the keyboard warriors are free to spew out their juicy conspiracy theories.
I am a pharmacist in Belfast.