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Coronavirus escaped from the laboratory: how substantiated is this theory and whether it has a future

In 2020, claiming that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is of laboratory origin was akin to saying that the Earth is flat. Edition Vanity Fair told about people who all this time were trying to prove: the coronavirus escaped from the laboratory and what came of it.

Photo: Shutterstock

A group called DRASTIC

Gilles Demaneuf is a data analyst at a bank in Auckland. A decade ago, he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and believes that this gives him a professional advantage. “I’m very good at finding patterns in data when other people don’t see anything,” he says.

In early spring last year, as cities around the world were shutting down to stem the spread of COVID-19, Demaneuf, 52, began researching the origins of SARS-CoV-2. The prevailing theory was that he jumped from bats to some other species before moving on to humans in the marketplace in China, where some of the very first cases were discovered at the end of 2019. The Huanan Wholesale Market in Wuhan is a large market complex of seafood, meat, fruit and vegetable markets. Several vendors were selling live wild animals there, a possible source of the virus.

However, this was not the only theory. Wuhan is also home to China's largest coronavirus research laboratory, where there is one of the world's largest collections of bat samples and strains of their viruses. Shi Zhengli, lead coronavirus researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was one of the first to identify horseshoe bats as natural vectors for SARS-CoV, the virus that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002, killing 774 people and causing more than 8000 people worldwide. the world.

After SARS, bats became the main focus of virology research around the world, and Shi became known in China as the "woman bat" for her fearless exploration of their caves to collect samples. More recently, Shea and her WIV colleagues have conducted high-profile experiments that have made pathogens more infectious. This study, known as "enhancement of function," has sparked heated debate among virologists.

It seemed natural to some people to ask if the virus that caused the global pandemic had leaked from one of the WIV laboratories - a theory that Shea stubbornly denies.

The Lancet, one of the most respected and influential medical journals in the world, issued a statement on February 19, 2020, strongly rejecting the laboratory leak hypothesis, effectively portraying it as the xenophobic cousin of climate change denial and anti-vaccination. The statement, signed by 27 scientists, expresses "solidarity with all scientists and medical professionals in China" and states, "Together we strongly condemn conspiracy theories that suggest that COVID-19 is not of natural origin."

The Lancet statement effectively ended the debate about the origin of COVID-19 before it even started. For Gilles Demaneuf, who watched him from the outside, it was as if he was "nailed to the door of the church" claiming the theory of natural origin as orthodoxy. “Everyone had to follow him. Everyone was scared. It set the tone. "

This statement struck Demaneuf as "completely unscientific." It seemed to him that it did not contain any evidence or information. And so he decided to start his own investigation in the "right" way with no idea what he might find.

Demaneuf began to look for patterns in the available data, and he soon discovered one of them. It was stated that China's laboratories are sealed, and the safety regulations are similar to those applied in the United States and other developed countries. But Demanef soon discovered that there had been four laboratory safety violations related to SARS since 2004, two of which occurred in a leading laboratory in Beijing. Due to overcrowding, the improperly deactivated live SARS virus was placed in a refrigerator in the hallway. The graduate student then examined it in the office with an electron microscope and triggered a flash.

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Demaneuf published his findings in a Medium post titled "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Review of SARS Lab Escapes." By then, he had started working with another cabinet investigator, Rodolphe de Maistre. The director of a laboratory project from Paris, who had previously studied and worked in China, de Maistre was busy debunking the notion that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a "laboratory" at all. In fact, the WIV housed many laboratories that worked with coronaviruses. Only one of them has the highest biosecurity protocol: BSL-4, in which researchers must wear sealed suits with autonomous oxygen. Others are designated BSL-3 and even BSL-2, about as safe as an American dentist's office.

Demaneuf and de Maistre began compiling an exhaustive list of research laboratories in China. When they posted their findings on Twitter, they were soon joined by other people from all over the world. Some of them were cutting edge scientists from prestigious research institutes. Others were science enthusiasts. Together they formed a group called DRASTIC, short for Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19. Their stated goal was to solve the riddle of the origin of COVID-19.

At times, it seemed that the only people supporting the laboratory leak theory were psychos or political hackers who hoped to use COVID-19 as a weapon against China. Steve Bannon, a former political adviser to President Donald Trump, for example, has teamed up with a Chinese billionaire named Guo Wengi to bolster claims that China has developed the disease as a biological weapon and has purposefully spread it around the world.

With an infamous reputation on the one hand and contemptuous experts on the other, DRASTIC researchers often felt like they were alone in the desert, working on the world's greatest mystery. They weren't alone. But US government investigators who asked similar questions operated in an environment that was politicized and hostile to open investigations. When Trump himself hypothesized a laboratory leak last April, his disagreement with the official record and lack of trust made things more, not less difficult, for those seeking the truth.

“DRASTIC is doing better research than the US government,” says David Asher, a former senior investigator under a contract with the State Department.

The question arises: why?

"Bank of worms"

Since December 1, 2019, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, has infected over 170 million people worldwide and killed over 3,5 million. To this day, we do not know how or why this new coronavirus suddenly appeared in the human population. The answer to this question is more than an academic goal: Without knowing where it came from, we cannot be sure that we are taking the right steps to prevent repetition.

And yet, following the Lancet's announcement and the alarming wave of anti-Asian violence in the US, one possible answer to this extremely important question remained largely closed until spring 2021.

However, behind closed doors, national security and public health experts and officials from various departments of the executive branch have been engaged in a serious battle over what can and cannot be investigated and made public.

A month-long Vanity Fair investigation, interviews with over 40 people, and reviewing hundreds of pages of US government documents, including internal memoranda, meeting minutes, and emails, revealed that a conflict of interest, in part related to large government grants to support controversial virological research, hampered investigations into origins. COVID-19 in the US at every stage.

In an internal memo received by Vanity Fair, Thomas DiNanno, former Acting Assistant Secretary of the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, wrote that officials from two bureaus, his own and the Bureau of International Security and Non-Proliferation, “warned his bureau not to investigate the origin of COVID-19 - it will open a can of worms if you continue. "

There is reason to doubt the laboratory leak hypothesis. There is a long, well-documented history of natural secondary effects leading to outbreaks, even when the original and intermediate host animals remained a mystery for months and years.

But for most of the past year, the laboratory leak scenario was viewed not just as unlikely or even inaccurate, but morally unacceptable. In late March, former director of the Centers for Disease Control Robert Redfield received death threats from fellow scientists after he said he believed COVID-19 originated in a laboratory. “I was threatened because I had a different hypothesis,” Redfield said. "I expected this from politicians, but did not expect this from science."

Dr. Richard Ebright, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, said that from the earliest reports of a new bats-related coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, it took him “a nanosecond or picosecond” to consider the link to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Only two other laboratories in the world, Galveston, Texas, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, have conducted similar studies. “These are not a dozen cities,” he said. "These are three places."

Then it became known that the Lancet statement was not only signed, but also organized by a zoologist named Peter Dashak, who repackaged US government grants and distributed them to institutions conducting research to increase the functionality of viruses, including WIV itself. David Asher, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, led the Department of State's daily investigation into the origins of COVID-19. It soon became clear, he said, that "there is a huge bureaucracy in the federal government."

And given how aggressively China has blocked efforts to transparently investigate, and in light of its government's own history of lying, obfuscating and suppressing dissent, it is fair to ask if Shi Zhengli, the lead coronavirus researcher at the Wuhan Institute, could report a laboratory leak, even if she wanted.

According to David Feith, former deputy assistant secretary of state in the East Asia Bureau, "The story of why parts of the US government weren't as curious as many of us think they should have been is extremely important."

"Smells like cover"

About a dozen State Department employees from four different bureaus gathered in a conference room at Foggy Bottom on December 9, 2020 to discuss an upcoming fact-finding mission, in part hosted by the World Health Organization. The group agreed on the need to pressure China to allow a thorough, credible and transparent investigation with unrestricted access to markets, hospitals and government laboratories. Then the conversation turned to a more delicate question: What should the US government say publicly about the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

A small group at the Bureau of Arms Control studied the institute for several months. The group recently received classified data indicating that three WIV researchers who were conducting experiments to increase functionality on coronavirus samples fell ill in the fall of 2019 before the COVID-19 outbreak was known.

While officials at the meeting discussed what they could share with the public, Christopher Park, director of the State Department's Biological Policy Division at the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, advised them not to say anything that would indicate US government action, according to meeting documentation obtained by Vanity. Fair.

Some of the participants were "absolutely amazed," said an official familiar with the course of events. That someone in the US government was able to "make an argument that so blatantly contradicts transparency in light of the impending disaster was shocking and unsettling."

Pak, who helped lift the U.S. government's moratorium on funding research to increase the functionality of viruses in 2017, was not the only official who warned State Department investigators against digging into vulnerable locations. While the group investigated the lab leak scenario, members were repeatedly advised not to open the Pandora's Box, according to four former State Department officials interviewed by Vanity Fair.

"Antitelny answer"

There were two main groups within the US government working to uncover the origins of COVID-19, one at the State Department and the other under the direction of the National Security Council. At the start of the pandemic, no one at the State Department showed much interest in the laboratories in Wuhan, but they were seriously concerned about China's apparent cover-up over the severity of the outbreak. The government closed the Huanan market, ordered the destruction of laboratory samples, declared its right to review any scientific research on COVID-19 before publication, and expelled a group of Wall Street Journal reporters from the country.

In January 2020, an ophthalmologist from Wuhan named Li Wenliang, who was trying to warn his colleagues that pneumonia could be a form of SARS, was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct, and forced to write a recantation. He died of COVID-19 in February and is hailed by the Chinese public as a hero and whistleblower.

“We have faced coercion and repression from the Chinese government,” said David Feith of the State Department's East Asia Bureau. "We were very concerned that they were hiding it and if the information coming to the World Health Organization was accurate."

As questions arose, Miles Yu, the State Department's chief strategist for China, noted that the WIV was largely silent. Yu, who is fluent in Chinese, began compiling research questions. In April, he turned over his dossier to Secretary of State Pompeo, who, in turn, publicly demanded access to the laboratory.

It's unclear if Yu's dossier made it to President Trump. But on April 30, 2020, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued an ambiguous statement, the apparent goal of which was to quell the growing furor surrounding the laboratory leak theory. It says the intelligence community “agrees with the broad scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not human-made or genetically modified,” but will continue to assess whether “the outbreak began as a result of contact with infected animals or as a result of an accident. a case in a laboratory in Wuhan. "

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“It was pure panic,” said former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger. “They were inundated with questions. Someone made the unfortunate decision to say, "We know practically nothing, so let's make a statement."

Then, at a press briefing just hours later, Trump contradicted his intelligence officials and said he had seen classified information indicating the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. When asked what the evidence was, he said, “I can't tell you that. I'm not allowed to say that. "

Trump's premature announcement has shaken the waters for anyone looking for an honest answer to the question of the origins of COVID-19. According to Pottinger, there was an "antibody response" in government in which any discussion of possible laboratory origins was linked to destructive nativist posing.

Disgust spread to the international scientific community, whose "maddening silence" disappointed Miles Y. He recalled, "Anyone who dares to speak up will be ostracized."

"It's too risky to investigate"

The idea for the lab leak first came to NSC officials from Chinese social media users, who began sharing their suspicions back in January 2020. Then, in February, a research paper co-authored by two Chinese scientists from different countries was published. Wuhan universities appeared on the web in the form of preprints. It resolved a fundamental question: How did the new bat coronavirus get into a major city of 11 million in central China during the height of winter, when most bats were hibernating, and turned a market where no bats were sold into the epicenter of the outbreak?

The document answered: "We surveyed the area around the seafood market and identified two laboratories conducting research on the coronavirus in bats." The first was the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which was just 280 meters from Huanan Market and is known to have collected hundreds of bat samples. The second, the researchers wrote, was the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The newspaper came to a staggeringly straightforward conclusion about COVID-19: “The killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan. Rules may be adopted to move these laboratories away from the city center and other densely populated areas. " Almost immediately after the newspaper appeared on the Internet, it disappeared, but not before it was noticed by US government officials.

By that time, Matthew Pottinger had approved a COVID-19 origin group, led by the NSS Directorate, which oversaw issues related to weapons of mass destruction. A longtime Asia expert and former journalist, Pottinger deliberately limited the team because there were so many people in the government "completely ignoring the possibility of a laboratory leak, and predisposed to it being impossible," Pottinger said. In addition, many leading experts have either received or approved funding for research to increase functionality. Their "conflict" status, Pottinger said, "played a huge role in obfuscating the waters and spoiling an impartial investigation."

Studying open sources, as well as classified information, the team members soon stumbled upon a research paper by Shi Zhengli and 2015 University of North Carolina epidemiologist Ralph Barik, which proved that the spike protein of the new coronavirus can infect human cells. Using mice as test subjects, they have inserted a Chinese red mouse protein into the molecular structure of the SARS virus since 2002, creating a new infectious pathogen.

This experiment to increase functionality was so fraught that the authors themselves noted the danger, writing: "Peer review teams may find such studies ... too risky to conduct." In fact, the study was aimed at raising the alarm and warning the world of "the potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence due to viruses that are currently circulating in bat populations." Acknowledgments in the document mentions funding from the US National Institutes of Health and EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit organization that provided grants from the US Agency for International Development. The EcoHealth Alliance is run by Peter Dashak, a zoologist who helped organize the Lancet application.

That a genetically engineered virus could have escaped the WIV was one of the worrying scenarios. But it was also possible that a research trip to collect bat samples could lead to infection in the field or in the laboratory.

NSC investigators have found clear evidence that Chinese labs are not as safe as they say. Shi Zhengli herself has publicly admitted that before the pandemic, all research by her coronavirus team, including those involving live viruses like SARS, was conducted in the less secure BSL-3 and even BSL-2 laboratories.

In 2018, a delegation of American diplomats visited the WIV to open the BSL-4 laboratory, which was an important event. In an unclassified telegram, the Washington Post columnist said they wrote that a shortage of highly trained technicians and clear protocols threatened the safe operation of the facility. These problems did not prevent the WIV leadership from declaring the laboratory "ready for research on pathogens of the fourth class (P4), among which the most virulent viruses pose a high risk of transmission from person to person in the form of aerosols."

On February 14, 2020, to the surprise of National Security Council officials, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a plan to expedite the adoption of a new biosafety law to tighten security procedures in all laboratories in the country.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, it didn't seem crazy to ask if this thing came from the lab, Pottinger mused.

It seems that Shi Zhengli did not seem insane either. An article in Scientific American, first published in March 2020, in which she was interviewed, described how her lab was the first to sequence the virus in those dire early weeks. She reported that she was frantically reviewing her own laboratory records over the past few years to check for any mishandling of experimental materials, especially during disposal. Shi breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: none of the sequences matched the viruses her team had taken from the bat caves. “It really took the strain off me,” she said. "I haven't slept in days."

When the NSC tracked down this scattered piece of evidence, virologists from the US government noted one study, first presented in April 2020.

Eleven of its 23 coauthors were from the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, a medical research institute in the Chinese army. Using a gene editing technology known as CRISPR, the researchers engineered mice with humanized lungs and then studied their susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2. As NSC officials have been working backwards since the publication date to set a timeline for the study, it became clear that the mice were created sometime in the summer of 2019, even before the pandemic even started. NSC officials were left wondering if the Chinese military viruses were using humanized mouse models to figure out which ones might be infectious to humans.

Believing they had found important evidence to support the laboratory leak hypothesis, NSC investigators began to turn to other agencies. That's when the hammer fell. “We got fired,” said Anthony Ruggiero, KNB's senior director of anti-proliferation and biosecurity.

Accuracy stickers

By the summer of 2020, Gilles Demaneuf was spending up to four hours a day researching the origins of COVID-19, joining Zoom meetings with European colleagues until dawn, and sleeping little. He began receiving anonymous calls and noticing strange activity on his computer, which he attributed to surveillance by the Chinese government. “We are definitely being watched,” he said. He ported his work to the encrypted Signal and ProtonMail platforms.

By publishing the results of their research, DRASTIC attracted new allies. Among the most famous was Jamie Metzl - on April 16, he launched a blog that became a site for government researchers and journalists studying the laboratory leak hypothesis.

Former executive vice president of the Asian Society, Metzl serves on the World Health Organization's advisory committee on human genome editing and served as the National Security Council director for multilateralism during the Clinton administration. In his first post on the topic, he made it clear that he had no definitive proof and believed that the Chinese researchers at the WIV had "the very best of intentions." Metzl also noted: "I do not in any way seek to support or join any activity that may be considered unfair, dishonest, nationalist, racist, fanatical or biased."

Demaneuf, an adherent of accuracy, turned to Metzl on December 11, 2020, to warn him of an error in his blog. Demanef noted that the escape from the SARS laboratory in Beijing resulted in 11 infections, not four. Demaneuf was "impressed" by Metzl's immediate readiness to correct the information. "From that time on, we started working together."

Metzl, in turn, was in contact with the Paris Group, a collective of more than 30 skeptical scientific experts who met with Zoom once a month for hours of meetings to discuss new clues. Before joining the Paris Group, Dr. Philippe Lenzos, a biosafety expert at King's College London, spoke out against wild internet conspiracies. But the more she researched, the more worried she became that not all possibilities were explored. On May 1, 2020, Lenzos published a thorough assessment in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists describing how the pathogen could have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. She noted that a September 2019 scientific journal article published by BSL-4 WIV Laboratory Director Yuan Zhiming described security flaws in Chinese laboratories. “Maintenance costs are usually neglected,” he wrote. "Some BSL-3 laboratories operate with minimal operating costs, and in some cases, no cost at all."

Alina Chan, a young molecular biologist and research fellow at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard University, found that the early sequences of the virus show very little evidence of mutation. If the virus passed from animals to humans, numerous adaptations could be expected, as was the case during the 2002 SARS outbreak. Chan felt that SARS-CoV-2 had already been "pre-adapted for human transmission of the virus," she wrote in a May 2020 preprint.

But perhaps the most striking find came from the anonymous researcher DRASTIC, known on Twitter as @ TheSeeker268. It turned out to be a young former science teacher from East India. He began adding keywords to the China National Knowledge Infrastructure, a website hosting articles from 2000 Chinese magazines, and processing the results using Google Translate.

One day in May last year, he fished out a 2013 dissertation written by a graduate student from Kunming, China. This thesis described an unusual mine filled with bats in Yunnan province. The work raised sharp questions about why Shi Zhengli did not mention this during her statements.

Mojian miners

In 2012, six miners in the lush mountains of Mojiang County in southern Yunnan were given the unenviable task of ripping a thick carpet of bat feces from the bottom of a mine. After several weeks of harvesting bat feces, the miners became seriously ill and were sent to the First Hospital at Kunming Medical University in the capital Yunnan. Their symptoms of coughing, fever and shortness of breath raised alarm in a country that had experienced an outbreak of viral SARS a decade earlier.

The hospital called in the pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan, who played an important role in the treatment of patients with SARS, and he led the team of experts of the Chinese National Health Commission on COVID-19. Zhong, according to his 2013 Ph.D. thesis, immediately suspected a viral infection. He recommended a throat culture and an antibody test, but also asked which bat produced feces. Answer: The red horseshoe bat is the same species that was involved in the first outbreak of SARS.

A few months later, three of the six miners were killed. The eldest, who was 63, died first. “The disease was acute and severe,” the dissertation noted. The blood samples were sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which found they were positive for antibodies against SARS, which was documented in a later Chinese dissertation.

But the diagnosis was based on a mystery. Bat coronaviruses do not harm humans. What's so special about the strains inside the cave? To find out, teams of researchers from all over China and beyond went to an abandoned mine to collect samples of the virus from bats, musk shrews and rats.

In an October 2013 Nature Survey, Shi Zhengli reported one key finding: Some bat viruses could potentially infect humans without jumping to an intermediate animal. By isolating a live bat coronavirus similar to SARS, her team discovered for the first time that it could enter human cells through a protein called the ACE2 receptor.

In subsequent studies in 2014 and 2016, Shi and her colleagues continued to examine samples of bat viruses collected from the mine, hoping to find out which one had infected the miners. Bats have had many coronaviruses. But there was only one whose genome closely resembled SARS. The researchers named it RaBtCoV / 4991.

When the COVID-19 outbreak had already spread outside China, Shi Zhengli and several colleagues published a document on February 3, 2020, which noted that the genetic code of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was almost 80% identical to the genetic code of SARS-CoV, which caused the outbreak. 2002. But they also reported that it is 96,2% identical to their own coronavirus sequence called RaTG13, which was previously discovered in Yunnan province. They concluded that RaTG13 was the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2.

In the months that followed, as researchers around the world searched for any known bat virus that could be the progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, Shi Zhengli offered inconsistent and sometimes conflicting reports of where RaTG13 came from and when it was fully sequenced. When searching the public library of genetic sequences, several teams, including the DRASTIC research team, soon discovered that RaTG13 looked identical to RaBtCoV / 4991, a virus from a cave where miners contracted something similar to COVID-2012 in 19.

In July, as the number of questions grew, Shi Zhengli told Science magazine that her lab had renamed the sample for clarity. But to skeptics, the renaming looked like an attempt to hide the link between the sample and the Mojian mine.

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The following month, the number of questions increased when Shi, Dashak and their colleagues released a report on 630 new coronaviruses they had taken between 2010 and 2015. Looking through additional data, DRASTIC researchers were stunned to find eight more viruses from the Mojiang mine that were closely related to RaTG13 but not flagged. Alina Chan called it "mind-boggling" that such important pieces of the puzzle were buried without comment.

In October 2020, with increasing questions about the Mojiang mine, a group of BBC journalists tried to access it. Plainclothes police followed, and reporters found that a broken truck had conveniently blocked the road.

Shi, currently receiving increasing attention from the international press, said, “I just downloaded the master's thesis of a student at Kunming Hospital University and read it. The conclusion is not based on evidence or logic. But conspiracy theorists use it to doubt. If you were in my place, what would you do? "

Debate on increasing functionality

Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, received a call from his colleague Dr. George Fu Gao, head of the China Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on January 3, 2020. Gao described the appearance of a mysterious new pneumonia, apparently in people found in the Wuhan market. Redfield immediately offered to send a team of specialists to investigate.

Photo: Shutterstock

But when Redfield saw the breakdown of early cases, the market explanation made less sense. Could several family members get sick as a result of contact with the same animal? Gao assured him that there was no person-to-person transmission, Redfield says, but nonetheless urged him to conduct wider testing in the community. This effort prompted a crying callback. Gao admitted that many of the cases had nothing to do with the market. It turned out that the virus spreads from person to person, which has become a much more frightening scenario.

Redfield immediately thought of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The team could rule it out as the source of the outbreak in just a few weeks by testing researchers for antibodies. Redfield officially reiterated his offer to send specialists, but Chinese officials did not respond to his offer.

Redfield, a virologist by training, was suspicious of WIV in part because he was immersed in a multi-year battle to increase functionality. Debate swept the virology community in 2011 after Ron Fouchier, a researcher at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, announced that he had genetically altered the H5N1 avian influenza strain so that it could be transmitted among ferrets that are genetically closer to humans than mice. Fouchier calmly stated that he had produced "probably one of the most dangerous viruses that can be created."

In the ensuing outrage, scientists debated the risks and benefits of such research. Proponents argued that it could help prevent pandemics by identifying potential risks and accelerating vaccine development. Critics argued that the creation of pathogens that do not exist in nature is fraught with their release.

In October 2014, the Obama administration imposed a moratorium on new funding for research projects aimed at improving functionality that could make influenza, MERS or SARS viruses more dangerous or transmissible. But the footnote to the statement announcing the moratorium made an exception for cases that were deemed "urgently needed to protect public health or national security."

In the first year of Trump's rule, the moratorium was lifted and replaced by a review system called the HHS P3CO Framework (for the treatment and surveillance of potential pandemic pathogens). This places the responsibility for ensuring the safety of any such research with the federal department or agency that finances it. This left the verification process a secret. "The names of the reviewers have not been released, and the details of the experiments in question are largely classified," said Harvard epidemiologist Dr. Mark Lipsich.

At the National Institutes of Health, which funded such research, it was mostly greeted with shrugs and rolls of eyes, said a longtime agency employee, "If you ban research to increase functionality, you ban all virology." He then clarified, "Since the moratorium was introduced, everyone has just been doing research to increase functionality."

British-born Peter Dashak is President of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based non-profit organization with a laudable goal of preventing new disease outbreaks by protecting ecosystems. In May 2014, five months prior to the announcement of the moratorium on functionality research, EcoHealth received an approximately $ 3,7 million NIAID grant, which it gave in part to various organizations involved in bat sample collection, model building, profit making, functional experiments to see which animal viruses were able to pass to humans. The grant was not suspended due to the moratorium.

By 2018, EcoHealth Alliance was receiving up to $ 15 million a year in grants from a number of federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, under 990 tax exemptions. Shi Zhengli herself indicated in her biography a US government grant worth more than $ 1,2 million: $ 665 from the National Institutes of Health between 000 and 2014; and $ 2019 for the same period from USAID. Some of these funds were channeled through the EcoHealth Alliance.

The EcoHealth Alliance's practice of dividing large government grants into smaller sub-grants for individual laboratories and institutions has given it a tremendous impact in the field of virology. According to Richard Ebright, the amounts at stake allowed “a lot of omerts to be purchased” from supported laboratories.

When the pandemic broke, the collaboration between the EcoHealth Alliance and the WIV came under the gun of the Trump administration. At a White House press briefing on COVID-19 on April 17, 2020, a reporter asked Trump a virtually imprecise question about the $ 3,7 million NIH grant for a Level XNUMX lab in China: "Why did the US give China such a grant?"

Trump replied, "We will cancel this grant very quickly," and then added, "I wonder who was president then."

A week later, an official from the National Institutes of Health notified Dashak in writing of the termination of his grant. The order came from the White House, as Dr. Anthony Fauci later testified before a congressional committee. The decision sparked a storm, with 81 Nobel Prize winners in science denouncing the decision in an open letter to health officials, and a segment in 60 Minutes on the Trump administration's short-sighted politicization of science.

In July, the NIH tried to retreat. He reinstated the grant, but suspended his research activities until the EcoHealth Alliance met seven conditions, some of which were beyond the purview of the non-profit organization. These included: providing information on the "apparent disappearance" of a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who was rumored on social media as patient zero, and an explanation for the decline in cell phone traffic and obstacles to WIV in October 2019.

But conservatives, inclined to conspiracy, were not the only ones who looked askance at Dashak. Ebright likened Dashak's research model - moving samples from a remote area to an urban area, then sequencing and growing viruses and trying to genetically modify them to make them more dangerous - to "finding a gas leak with a lit match." Moreover, Ebright believed that Dashak's research had fallen short of its stated goal of predicting and preventing pandemics through global collaboration.

Soon, based on emails received by a freedom of information group called US Right to Know, it was revealed that Dashak not only signed, but also orchestrated an influential Lancet statement with the intention of obscuring his role and creating an impression of scientific consensus.

Dueling correspondence

By the summer of 2020, the Department of State's investigation into the origin of COVID-19 had ended. Officials of the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance have returned to their normal work: monitoring the world for biological threats. That fall, the State Department team received a tip from a foreign source: key information was most likely stored in the own files of the US intelligence community and was not analyzed. In November, the story uncovered classified information that a former State Department official said was "absolutely shocking." Three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, all of whom are associated with research into increasing the functionality of coronaviruses, became ill in November 2019 and likely visited a hospital with symptoms similar to COVID-19.

“They were active researchers. The dates were some of the most exciting parts of the picture because they were where they would be if that was the source, ”said the informant. As one former senior official recalled, the reaction within the State Department was incredible. The investigation came to life.

An intelligence analyst working with David Asher looked through classified channels and found a report that explained why the laboratory leak hypothesis was plausible. It was written in May by specialists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which conducts national security research for the Department of Energy. But it looks like he was buried in the secret collection system.

Now officials began to suspect that someone was actually hiding material supporting an explanation for the laboratory leak. Their suspicions were heightened when Department of Energy officials overseeing Lawrence Livermore's lab tried unsuccessfully to prevent State Department investigators from speaking with the authors of the report.

Their frustration intensified in December when they finally briefed Chris Ford, acting deputy head of the Department of Arms Control and International Security. He seemed so hostile to their investigation that they viewed him as a narrow-minded functionary seeking to whitewash China's criminal activities. Ford said he sees his job as protecting the integrity of any COVID-19 origin investigation that falls within his purview. He believed that using “things that make us look like a crazy gang” would backfire.

There was another reason for his dislike. He had already heard about the investigation from colleagues in the interdepartmental department, and not from the team itself, and because of the secrecy, he had a "spider feeling" that this process was a farce. He wondered if there was someone who initiated an inexplicable investigation in order to achieve the desired result?

He wasn't the only one worried. As one senior government official familiar with the State Department investigation said, “They were writing this for certain clients in the Trump administration. We asked for a report on the statements made. It took forever. "

After hearing the findings of the investigators, a technical expert in one of the State Department's biological weapons divisions "thought they were crazy," Ford recalled.

The State Department team, for its part, believed that Ford was the one trying to impose the biased conclusion that COVID-19 was of natural origin. A week later, one of them attended a meeting at which Christopher Park, working under Ford's direction, advised those present not to draw attention to US funding for research to increase functionality.

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With growing deep distrust, the Department of State team convened a panel of experts for the confidential "red team" of the laboratory leak hypothesis. The idea was to refute the theory and see how relevant it is. The meeting took place on the evening of January 7, a day after the uprising in the Capitol. By then, Ford had announced his plan to step down.

According to the minutes of the meeting received by Vanity Fair, 29 people connected to the State Department's secure video call, which lasted three hours. Scientific experts included Ralph Barick, Alina Chan, and Stanford microbiologist David Relman.

Asher invited Dr. Stephen Quay, a breast cancer specialist who founded a biopharmaceutical company, to present a statistical analysis that compares the likelihood of laboratory versus natural origin. In his analysis of Scissoring Quay, Barik noted that his calculations do not take into account the millions of bat sequences that exist in nature but remain unknown. When a State Department adviser asked Quay if he had ever conducted such an analysis, he replied that, according to the minutes of the meeting, "everything happens for the first time."

While they questioned Quay's findings, scientists saw other reasons to suspect laboratory origins. Part of the WIV's mission was to explore the natural world and provide early warning of "human-transmissible viruses," Relman said. The infection of six miners in 2012 was "headline worthy at the time." However, these cases have never been reported to WHO.

Barik added that if SARS-CoV-2 originated from a "strong animal reservoir", one would expect "multiple introductions" rather than one outbreak, although he warned that this does not prove it "was an escape from the laboratory. " This prompted Asher to ask, "Couldn't this have been partially bioengineered?"

Ford was so worried about what he saw as weak evidence from the commission and the secret investigations that preceded them that he stayed up all night summarizing his concerns in a four-page note. After saving it as a PDF so that it could not be changed, the next morning he emailed the note to several State Department officials.

In the memo, Ford criticized the commission's “lack of data” and added: “I would like to caution you against speculating that there is something inherently suspicious (and suggestive of biological warfare) or the involvement of the People's Liberation Army ( NOA) to WIV ".

The next day, January 9th, Thomas DiNanno sent back a five-page rebuttal to the Ford memo (although it was erroneously dated "21/9/21"). He accused Ford of misrepresenting the commission's efforts and listed the obstacles his team faced: "fear and disrespect" from the technical staff; warnings not to investigate the origin of COVID-19 for fear of opening a "can of worms"; and “no response at all to briefings and presentations”.

Years of mutual suspicion finally spilled over into dueling correspondence.

State Department investigators insisted on their own, deciding to publicly declare their concerns. They continued their week-long job of declassifying information verified by the intelligence community. On January 15, five days before President Joe Biden was sworn in, the Department of State released a fact sheet on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which revealed key information: In the fall of 2019, several researchers developed symptoms similar to COVID-19 before the first case of an outbreak was identified. ; and that the researchers had collaborated on secret projects with the Chinese military and "participated in secret research, including experiments on laboratory animals, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017."

Wuhan fact-finding mission

In early July, the World Health Organization invited the US government to recommend experts for a fact-finding mission to Wuhan, a sign of progress in a long-delayed investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Questions about WHO's independence from China, the country's secrecy and the raging pandemic have turned the anticipated mission into a minefield of international discontent and suspicion.

Within weeks, the US government submitted three names to WHO: an FDA veterinarian, a CDC epidemiologist, and an NIAID virologist. Nobody was chosen. Instead, only one representative from the United States entered the list: Peter Dashak.

It was clear from the start that China would control who could come and what they could see. In July, when WHO circulated the draft terms of reference for the mission to member countries, the PDF was titled “CHN and WHO agreed on final version,” indicating that China had tentatively approved the content.

Part of the blame lies with the Trump administration, which has failed to resist China's control of the mission's scope when it was carried out two months earlier. The resolution passed by the World Health Assembly called not for a full investigation into the causes of the pandemic, but instead for a mission to "identify the zoonotic source of the virus." The natural hypothesis was built in. “It was a huge difference that only the Chinese understood,” said Jamie Metzl.

On January 14, 2021, Dashak and 12 other international experts arrived in Wuhan to join 17 Chinese experts and a circle of government officials. They spent two weeks of the month-long mission in quarantine in their hotel rooms. The remaining two-week investigation was more propaganda than investigation, coupled with a visit to an exhibition praising President Xi's leadership. The team saw virtually no raw data, only analysis by the Chinese government.

They paid one visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where they met with Shi Zhengli, as stated in the appendix to the mission report. One of the obvious requirements was access to the WIV database containing about 22 virus samples and sequences. At an event hosted by the London-based organization on March 000, Dashak was asked if the group had made such a request. He said there was no need for this: Shi Zhengli stated that WIV shut down the database due to hacking attempts during the pandemic.

“Perfectly reasonable,” said Dashak. “And we didn’t ask for data. As you know, most of this work has been done with EcoHealth Alliancе. We really know what is in these databases. There is no evidence in these databases that there is any virus closer to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13. ”

In fact, the database was shut down on September 12, 2019, three months before the official start of the pandemic, details uncovered by Gilles Demaneuf and two of his DRASTIC colleagues.

After two weeks of fact-finding, the Chinese and international experts completed their mission with a show of hands to select the most likely origin scenario. Direct bat-to-human transmission: possible or likely. Transmission through an intermediate animal: likely, very likely. Transmission via frozen food: Possible. Transmission via laboratory incident: highly unlikely.

Media around the world on March 30, 2021 announced the release of a 120-page mission report. The discussion on the lab leak was less than two pages long. Calling the report "fatally flawed," Jamie Metzl wrote, "They set out to prove one hypothesis, not investigate all of them."

The report also describes how Shea denied conspiracy theories and told the panel that "there were no reports of unusual diseases, no diagnosis, and all staff tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies." Her statement directly contradicted the findings of the January 15 State Department newsletter. “It was a deliberate lie on the part of people who know it’s not true,” said a former national security official.

An internal analysis of the mission report by the US government, obtained by Vanity Fair, found it to be inaccurate and even contradictory, with some sections undermining other sources' conclusions, while others relying on withdrawn background documents. With regard to the four possible sources of origin, the analysis says the report "does not include a description of how these hypotheses were created, whether they will be tested, or how they will decide to determine that one is more likely than the other." ... He added that the possible laboratory incident received only a "superficial" look, and "the evidence presented seems insufficient to make the hypothesis highly unlikely."

The most unexpected critic of the report was WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus from Ethiopia himself. Threatened with the credibility of the World Health Organization, he appears to have acknowledged the report's flaws at a press event on the day it was published. “As far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain valid,” he said.

By then, an international coalition of about two dozen scientists, including DRASTIC researcher Gilles Demaneuf and EcoHealth critic Richard Ebright, had found a way around what Metzl called the "wall of rejection" in scientific journals. Under Metzl's leadership, they began publishing open letters in early March. A second letter, dated April 7, condemned the mission report and called for a full investigation into the origins of COVID-19. It was widely taken up by the national newspapers.

Metzl was able to directly interrogate Shi a week before the mission report was published. At Shea's online lecture on March 23, hosted by the Rutgers School of Medicine, Metzl asked if she knew all the research being done at the WIV and all the viruses it contained. She replied: “Our research is open and we have a lot of international cooperation. And as far as I know, all our research work is open and transparent. That is, at the beginning of COVID-19, rumors reached us. But this is wrong, because I am the director of the laboratory and I am responsible for research activities. I am not aware of any research work carried out in this laboratory. This is incorrect information. "

The main argument against the laboratory leak theory was based on the assumption that Shi was telling the truth when she said that WIV did not hide any virus samples, which are more closely related to SARS-CoV-2.

Inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology

In January 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology issued a press release welcoming the "outstanding and pioneering achievement of Shi Zhengli in the discovery and description of important viruses carried by bats." The reason was her election as a member of the prestigious American Academy of Microbiology, which was the last milestone in a brilliant scientific career. In China, the famous "bat woman" was easily recognizable from photographs in which she was captured in a full overpressure suit in the BSL-4 WIV laboratory.

According to James Leduc, longtime director of the BSL-4 National Laboratory in Galveston, Texas, Shea has been a regular contributor to international virology conferences for her “modern” work. At the international meetings he organized, Shea was a regular participant along with Ralph Barick of UNC. “She is a charming person, fluent in English and French,” LeDuc said.

Shi's journey to the pinnacle of virology began with treks to remote bat caves in the very south of China. In 2006, she was an intern. Shi was appointed director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases of the WIV, and in 2013 - director of the BSL-3 laboratory.

It's hard to imagine anyone, anywhere, better equipped to deal with COVID-19. On December 30, 2019, around 19:00 pm, Shih received a call from her boss, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to a report she provided to Scientific American. He wanted her to investigate several cases of hospitalization of patients with mysterious pneumonia: "Quit what you are doing and do it now."

The next day, after analyzing seven patient samples, her team became one of the first to sequence and identify the disease as a novel SARS-related coronavirus. By January 21, she was appointed as the head of the Hubei Province COVID-19 Emergency Research Panel. In a terrible moment in a country that extolled its scientists, she reached the pinnacle.

But she had to pay for the ascent. There is reason to believe that she was hardly able to freely express her opinion or follow a scientific path that did not correspond to the line of the Chinese Party. Although Shea had planned to share isolated samples of the virus with her friend James Leduc in Galveston, Beijing officials forbade her from doing so. And by mid-January, a group of military scientists led by the leading virologist and biochemist of China, Major General Chen Wei, deployed operations inside the WIV.

Under the scrutiny of governments, including her own, with bizarre conspiracy theories and legitimate doubts floating around, she began to lash out at critics. “The 2019 new coronavirus is nature's punishment for humanity's uncivilized habits,” she wrote on February 2 on WeChat, a popular social media app in China. - I, Shi Zhengli, guarantee with my life that this has nothing to do with our laboratory. May I give advice to those people who believe in and spread bad rumors in the media: shut your dirty mouths. "

Although Shea portrayed the WIV as a transparent center for international research surrounded by false accusations, a January State Department newsletter paints a different picture: an entity conducting secret military research and hiding it, which Shea vehemently denies. But a former national security official who reviewed US classified materials told Vanity Fair that inside the WIV, military and civilian researchers "are doing animal research in the same space."

Photo: Shutterstock

When officials at the NSC tracked a 20-year collaboration between the WIV and military scientists with 51 co-authored articles, they also took note of a book noted by a college student in Hong Kong. Written by a group of 18 authors and editors, 11 of whom were at the Chinese Air Force Medical University, The Unnatural Origins of SARS and New Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Biological Weapons explores the challenges posed by the development of biological weapons capabilities.

Claiming that gene-editing terrorists created SARS-CoV-1 as a biological weapon, the book contained some disturbing practical tricks: “Bioweapon aerosol attacks are best carried out at dawn, dusk, night or cloudy weather, because that ultraviolet rays can damage pathogens. " And it cites co-benefits, noting that a sudden surge in hospital admissions can lead to a collapse of the healthcare system. One of the book's editors collaborated with WIV researchers on 12 scientific articles.

SARS-CoV-2's inflammatory bioweapon idea has gained acceptance as an alternative right-wing conspiracy theory, but Shi-led civilian research that has yet to be made public raises more realistic concerns. Shi's own comments on the scientific journal and grant information available on the Chinese government's database suggest that her team has tested two new but undisclosed bats coronavirus in humanized mice over the past three years to assess their infectiousness.

In an April 2021 editorial in Infectious Diseases & Immunity, Shea resorted to familiar tactics to contain the cloud of suspicion surrounding her: she called for scientific consensus: “The scientific community strongly rejects these unsubstantiated and misleading assumptions and generally agrees that SARS-CoV-2 is naturally occurring and was collected from either a host animal before zoonotic transmission or from humans after zoonotic transmission, ”she wrote.

But Shi's editorial had no effect: On May 14, in a statement published in Science Magazine, 18 prominent scientists called for a “transparent and objective” investigation into the origins of COVID-19: “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory side effects until we have enough data. "

Out of the shadow

By the spring of 2021, the debate over the origins of COVID-19 had become so virulent that threats were flying in both directions.

Dr. Redfield, former director of the Trump CDC, frankly admitted on March 26: "I am of the view that the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was obtained from a laboratory." Redfield added that he believed the release was accidental and not intentional. In his opinion, everything that has happened since his first conversation with Dr. Gao has not changed a simple fact: the WIV should have been ruled out as a source, and this was not.

After the interview aired, his inbox filled with death threats. Peter Dashak was also threatened with death.

Meanwhile, within the US government, the laboratory leak hypothesis survived the transition from Trump to Biden. On April 15, the director of national intelligence, Avril Haynes, told the House Intelligence Committee that two "plausible theories" were being considered: a laboratory accident or a natural accident.

However, during April, talk of leaks from the lab was largely confined to right-wing news outlets. The ground began to shift on May 2 when Nicholas Wade, a former New York Times science writer, published a lengthy essay on Medium. In it, he analyzed scientific evidence for both the laboratory leak and against it, and criticized the media for not reporting on the dueling hypotheses. Wade devoted an entire section to the distinctive segment of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic code, which makes the virus more infectious by allowing it to efficiently enter human cells.

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In response to the growing concerns, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins issued a statement on May 19 stating that “neither the NIH nor the NIAID have ever approved a grant that would support research on coronaviruses to increase their functionality, which would increase their transmissibility or lethality. for people".

The governing body of WHO, the World Health Assembly, launched a virtual edition of its annual conference on 24 May. A number of high-profile stories had erupted in the weeks before, including two front-page coverage in The Wall Street Journal and a long Medium post from a second former science reporter for the New York Times. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government returned fire during the conference, stating that it would not participate in further investigations within its borders.

The U.S. Senate passed a unanimous resolution on May 28, which Jamie Metzl helped shape, urging the World Health Organization to launch a comprehensive investigation into the virus's origins.

Will we ever find out the truth? Dr. David Relman of Stanford University School of Medicine advocates an investigation, such as the 11/19 Commission, to investigate the origins of COVID-11. But XNUMX/XNUMX happened overnight, he said, while “the coronavirus has so many different manifestations, consequences and reactions in different countries. All this makes the problem very huge. "

The big challenge is that so much time has passed. “Every day and week, information that can be useful will tend to scatter and disappear,” he said.

It is clear that China is responsible for discouraging researchers. Whether he did it out of pure authoritarian habit or because he had a laboratory leak that needed to be covered up is unknown.

The United States also deserves a healthy dose of blame. The practice of funding risky research through intermediaries such as the EcoHealth Alliance confused leading virologists with conflicts of interest at precisely the moment when their expertise was urgently needed.

Now there is the prospect of exploring the level - the kind that Gilles Demaneuf and Jamie Metzl wanted from the beginning. “We needed to create a space in which all hypotheses could be considered,” Metzl said.

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