Yet enough already is known about the WIV to suggest this lacks credibility. In 2018 U.S. officials warned in diplomatic cables about safety and management issues at the WIV that could lead to a pandemic. This is especially troubling because the WIV conducted “gain of function” research on coronaviruses that theoretically can enable them to infect a new species.
The U.S. State Department warned in a January fact sheet that WIV researchers had developed “symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses” in autumn 2019. The WHO report nonetheless takes the Chinese government at its word when it says there was “no reporting of COVID-19 compatible respiratory illness during the weeks/months prior to December 2019.”
Shi Zhengli of the WIV said last week that the lab has no ties to the Chinese military. But the State Department said in January that “the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military” for years. The U.S. claims were based on extensive intelligence, and the Biden Administration hasn’t disputed the findings. Did the WHO team even examine U.S. evidence?
The WHO’s tissue-thin analysis isn’t surprising. Chinese government scientists provided most of the data and worked with the international team to craft the report. Beijing has limited independent access to information on Covid-19’s origin, much as it silenced scientists and journalists who raised doubts about the official story last year. The report’s publication was repeatedly delayed, as both sides negotiated a report that is more political than scientific.
The WHO team is also compromised by conflicts of interest. Zoologist Peter Daszak, the American on the team, has collaborated with the WIV for years and supported gain-of-function research. As early as February 2020 he helped coordinate a statement in the Lancet condemning “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” Another team member, virologist Marion Koopmans, oversees an outfit in the Netherlands that has conducted gain-of-function research and could face serious repercussions if the pandemic started in a lab.
The Biden Administration hasn’t taken a definitive position on the lab-leak theory, but Covid-19 spokesman Anthony Fauci played down the idea last week. Dr. Fauci’s institute financed work at the WIV and has backed gain-of-function research. He’s the wrong man to reassure the public about lab research on coronaviruses.
Dr. Fauci was trying to rebut Robert Redfield, the former chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who said last week that “I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory.” Dr. Redfield added that virus transfer to a lab worker is not unusual in such research.
According to an advance copy of the open letter, the group of 26 scientists and other experts in areas including virology, zoology and microbiology said that it was “all but impossible” for the WHO team to conduct a full investigation, and that any report was likely to involve political compromises as it had to be approved by the Chinese side.
A credible investigation required, among other things, confidential interviews and fuller access to hospital records of confirmed and potential Chinese coronavirus cases in late 2019, when the outbreak was first identified in Wuhan, said the letter signed by experts from France, the U.S., India, Australia and other countries.
Investigators should also be allowed to view records including maintenance, personnel, animal breeding and experiment logs from all laboratories working with coronaviruses, the letter said.
“We cannot afford an investigation into the origins of the pandemic that is anything less than absolutely thorough and credible,” the letter said. “Efforts to date do not constitute a thorough, credible, and transparent investigation.”
The appeal is unlikely to gain traction, as any future probes would require Beijing’s cooperation. Moreover, many leading infectious-disease experts are skeptical that a lab accident could plausibly explain the origins of the pandemic.
Still, it expresses what has become a more widely shared dissatisfaction, voiced by the U.S. and U.K. governments and many scientists world-wide, that China has provided too little information and data to the WHO to guide researchers trying to determine where the virus originated and how it jumped to humans.
Beijing has a moral and legal obligation to take biosafety seriously, especially given the kind of research going on at WIV. In 2015, WIV’s Dr. Shi Zhengli co-wrote an article titled “A SARS-like Cluster of Circulating Bat Coronaviruses Shows Potential for Human Emergence” in which she admitted that her team had engineered “chimeric” and “hybrid” viruses from horseshoe bats. In a 2019 article titled “Bat Coronavirus in China,” Ms. Shi and her co-authors warned, “It is highly likely that future SARS- or MERS-like coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats, and there is an increased probability that this will occur in China.” At the time, WIV housed tens of thousands of bat virus samples and experiment animals.
China resisted international monitoring at WIV. The lab was built with French assistance, but China abrogated its promise to allow French scientists to participate in essential research there. China then accredited WIV through its own agency as its only level 4 facility, and the country’s National Health Commission quickly approved it to handle some of the world’s most dangerous viruses. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology completed a comprehensive safety and management survey of China’s 75 bioresearch labs in 2016, finding that WIV didn’t even make the top 20 in terms of quality.
The People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, has admitted to developing bioweapons. In 2011 China informed the International Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference that its military experts were working on the “creation of man-made pathogens,” “genomics laying the foundation for pathogen transformation,” “population-specific genetic markers,” and “targeted drug-delivery technology making it easier to spread pathogens.” A 2015 PLA study treated the 2003 SARS coronavirus outbreak as a “contemporary genetic weapon” launched by foreign forces. And in January 2021, the State Department confirmed that people had fallen mysteriously ill at WIV in fall 2019, and that WIV conducts secret bioweapons research with the PLA.
The negligence at China’s biolabs, especially WIV, was so dangerous that the PLA dispatched a general to take over the facility soon after the outbreak in Wuhan. Xi Jinping’s first speech on the outbreak highlighted “lessons learned” about “shortcomings” and “leaking holes” in China’s management of biological material and biological-security system. He demanded that “a new biological-security law” be made part of the “national-security system.”