A Sovereign.com EXCLUSIVE
A survey of Covid-19 implications from an international perspective
by Adolfo Quizon Paglinawan
Wuhan secret revealed, leak unlikely
In Chapter 13, we viewed the political football surrounding lab theories. Here we will look at what science says.
The Wuhan lab became the center of scrutiny for possibly releasing the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and causing the global Covid-19 pandemic.
The United States was up in arms to hold China accountable for the global coronavirus pandemic.
In succeeding chapters, we will discuss lawsuits that have been filed within the US and the International Criminal Court alleging that China used the virus as a bioweapon and other suits are under way at the International Court of Justice, ostensibly aimed at building a coalition with international allies.
We will also weigh legislation introduced by Republican lawmakers such as Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Dan Crenshaw that would allow Americans to sue China in federal court over the deaths and economic damage wrought by the virus.
US spy agencies were launched to investigate whether the virus originated in the Wuhan lab, in the hope that a case build-up can harvest evidence that is needed to support the bio-WMD theory promoted by Republican congressmen and senators.
If evidence is found that Covid-19 is a biological weapon, some pundits such as Fox News host Lou Dobbs have called for the US to declare war on China.
US outsourced virus research to Wuhan
Nonetheless the truth slowly unraveled.
It became unclear what the ramifications would be if the virus was indeed leaked from a Chinese lab, but as a result of a research project that was outsourced and funded by the US government.
Now we found out that the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded bat-corona virus research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China to the tune of US$3.7 million, a recent article in the British newspaper Daily Mail revealed.
According to Christina Lin of Asia Times Financial, this grant was approved by Trump’s Covid-19 guru Dr Anthony Fauci in 2015.
We also found out that the group of virologists at the Wuhan lab has received since 2014 nearly $600,000 from a multi-million dollar, five-year grant funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to research the spillover of bat corona viruses. The grant, which is managed by EcoHealth Alliance, was renewed for another five years in 2019.
What are the federal compliance and ethical issues surrounding the fact that the NIH still gave federal funding instead of private funding to the Wuhan lab to continue the experiments?
The second complication was that a government ban now surfaces to have been issued federal funding being used for GOF research.
Back in October 2014, the US government had placed a federal moratorium on gain-of-function (GOF) research – altering natural pathogens to make them more deadly and infectious – as a result of rising fears about a possible pandemic caused by an accidental or deliberate release of these genetically engineered “monster” germs.
As such in October 2014, because of public health concerns, the US government banned all federal funding on efforts to weaponize three viruses – influenza, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Reasons for the moratorium
This moratorium was in part due to lab accidents at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in July 2014 that raised questions about biosafety at US high-containment labs.
At that time, the CDC had closed two labs and halted some biological shipments in the wake of several incidents in which highly pathogenic microbes were mishandled by US government laboratories: an accidental shipment of live anthrax, the discovery of forgotten live smallpox samples and a newly revealed incident in which a dangerous influenza strain was accidentally shipped from the CDC to another lab.
A CDC internal report described how scientists failed to follow proper procedures to ensure samples were inactivated before they left the lab, and also found “multiple other problems” with operating procedures in the anthrax lab.
Moreover, another compelling question was: Could some strains of the corona virus have originated in US labs, given the fact the US government lifted the ban in December 2017 on GOF research without resolving lab-safety issues?
In the face of a moratorium within the US, Dr. Fauci – the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and currently the leading doctor in the US Coronavirus Task Force – outsourced in 2015 the GOF research to China’s Wuhan lab and licensed the lab to continue receiving US government funding.
For now, President Donald Trump’s administration is investigating the $3.7 million in taxpayer money that went to the Wuhan lab, while Republican Representative Matt Gaetz called for an immediate end to NIH funding of Chinese research.
After being questioned about that funding at a White House briefing on April 17, President Trump said his administration would “end that grant very quickly.”
A week later, the National Institutes of Health canceled it.
The New York Times also reported that the Central Intelligence Agency operatives and Matthew Pottinger, Trump’s deputy national security adviser, asked in January 2020 to look into the allegation of a Wuhan lab leak but did not find any evidence.
Yuan Zhiming, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology biosafety laboratory, told Reuters that “malicious” claims about the lab had been “pulled out of thin air.”
Debunking the fringe theory
In a story by Aylin Woodward for Business Insider, Jonna Mazet, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis who worked at the Wuhan virology lab gives four reasons why a corona virus leak would be extremely unlikely debunking a fringe theory that has no evidence.
Reason 1: The lab’s samples don’t match the new corona virus
The WIV houses China’s only Biosafety-level-4 laboratory. Scientists study the most dangerous and infectious microbes known to humankind in these types of facilities.
Some of the institute’s researchers, including virologist Shi Zhengli, have collected, sampled, and studied coronaviruses that circulate Chinese bats. In 2013, Shi and her collaborators pinpointed the bat population most likely responsible for spreading SARS, in the Shitou Cave near Kunming.
After her team sequenced the Covid-19 virus, Shi told Scientific American that she quickly checked her laboratory’s record from the past few years to check for accidents, especially during disposal. Then she cross-referenced the new corona virus’ genome with the genetic information of other bat corona viruses her team had collected.
They didn’t match.
“That really took a load off my mind,” Shi said, “I had not slept a wink for days.”
Reason 2: The lab implements rigorous safety protocols
In 2018, US officials raised concerns about safety issues at WIV, according to diplomatic cables obtained by The Washington Post. But Mazet said Shi’s work in the lab and in the field was above reproach.
“In the field, they wear extreme personal protective equipment, including multiple layers of gloves, eye protection, full body suits, and masks,” she said. (She noted, however, that she has not personally visited the WIV and couldn’t speak to all the research done there.) Samples collected from bats, Mazet added, get immediately split between some vials that contain chemicals that deactivate the virus, and other containers that leave the virus alive.
All samples are then dunked into liquid nitrogen on the spot, which freezes them, then the vials are disinfected and transported to the lab. There, scientists wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) unload them into a freezer set to minus 80 degrees Celsius.
When the samples are studied later, researchers only use the deactivated, non-infectious ones, Mazet said, adding that the vials with viable virus are locked down in a special area.
Reason 3: The corona virus is the latest in a long line of zoonotic disease outbreaks
Rather than a leak, the corona virus is more likely the latest disease to have jumped from an animal host to humans, experts say.
This type of cross-species hop, called a spillover event, also led to outbreaks of Ebola and SARS. Both of those viruses originated in bats, and genetic research has all but confirmed the same for the new corona virus — a study published in February found that it shares 96% of its genetic code with corona viruses circulating in Chinese bat populations.
Three out of every four emerging infectious diseases come to us from other species; these pathogens are known as zoonotic diseases. The coronavirus is the seventh zoonotic virus to have spilled over into people in the last century.
The 2009-2010 H1N1 pandemic – swine flu – started in pigs then killed nearly 300,000 people. People have caught bird flus via direct contact with infected poultry. Other pandemic influenza strains, including the 1957 “Asian flu” and the 1968 Hong Kong pandemic, likely started in birds, too.
And in the last 45 years, at least four epidemics have been traced back to bats.
Reason 4: Everyday people are more likely to get infected than researchers who wear protection
The caves and wild habitats in which samples get collected from bats are dangerous places for people, since humans can be exposed to the live viruses circulating in the animals, Mazet said.
Shi’s researchers navigate those caves in full PPE; but tourists, hunters, poachers, and other people who rely on animals in some capacity for food or trade wander into such places less protected.
Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance (which managed PREDICT’s relationship with the WIV), told NPR last week that his colleagues are “finding 1 to 7 million people exposed” to zoonotic viruses in Southeast Asia each year.
“That’s the pathway. It’s just so obvious to all of us working in the field,” he said.
Spillovers will keep happening
The possibility and frequency of spillover events will increase as humans encroach further into wild habitats that house disease-carrying species we haven’t interacted with before, Mazet said. Researching how past spillovers happened and which habitats present the greatest risk for such events helps scientists make predictions about the next pandemic.
But the persistent but unfounded circulation of the lab-leak theory could impact future scientific cooperation and information sharing between the US and China, according to Jonna Mazet.
“What’s happening sociologically right now is our biggest risk —who is going to want to work on this if they’re the ones put under a microscope?” Mazet said.
“I think the real danger of what’s going on now is that experts like Shi and myself may not be able to keep collaborating to identify these viruses because of government pressures.”
That would make it harder to discover where the Covid-19 virus came from, as well as to forecast and prepare for the next spillover.
Mazet said that a blame game could even put lives at risk in the short term.
She said “Collaboration is key right now, otherwise you have countries developing things in parallel, and you can’t assume the US is the best at everything.
“If we point fingers at other nations that have best opportunity to develop a vaccine, why would we expect them to freely share that with us?”
In short, at the end of the day, humanity gets the short end of the stick.
Ado Paglinawan is a daily commentator at Radyo Pilipinas1, and a regular columnist at the country’s newest daily news website SovereignPH.com and its partner magazine The Sovereign. He is a former Philippine diplomat, serving in the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York as press attaché, spokesman and special assistant to Ambassador Emmanuel N. Pelaez. He has served a strategic consultant to Agriculture Secretary Luisito Lorenzo, Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon and Finance Secretary Roberto de Ocampo. He studied for 15 years at San Beda College from grade 1 to 4th year college majoring in English and Philosophy, minor in political science and history. He is a veteran of the First Quarter Storm, participating as president of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines. Ado has taken continuing studies in world politics and diplomacy, international public relations, information technology and remote sensing, and Eastern Christianity and Islamic studies, from various universities in Washington DC.