The truth about Covid’s origins is finally coming out

Under questioning from Congress, two key figures have unwittingly strengthened the lab-leak theory.

Matt Ridley

Topics Covid-19 Science & Tech USA

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Two of the key figures in the story of Covid’s origins gave away vital new information last week before the US Congress.

One of these figures is Ralph Baric, the University of North Carolina professor who invented ingenious techniques for genetically altering coronaviruses. He effectively taught scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China how to do ‘gain of function’ experiments with bat-derived sarbecoviruses to make them more infectious or lethal in humanised mice. The other figure is Peter Daszak, the highly paid president of the non-profit, EcoHealth Alliance. Over many years, EcoHealth Alliance has channelled large sums of US taxpayer money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for ‘gain of function’ experimentation, and for finding new sarbecoviruses in bats.

Up until now, Baric and Daszak have taken slightly different approaches to (hardly) helping the world understand what went on in Wuhan before the Covid-19 outbreak in November 2019. Baric has remained largely silent, refusing to do interviews or sign up to articles in the scientific press. He remained silent last week, too, but the Congressional Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic released the transcript of a lengthy closed-door session it held with him in January.

Daszak, by contrast, has adopted a high profile, organising round-robin letters defending his friends and colleagues in Wuhan, giving interviews, writing articles and getting himself appointed to not one but two commissions investigating Covid’s origins, despite a glaring conflict of interest. He appeared before the subcommittee on 1 May.

Both men reluctantly admitted under oath to points that markedly strengthen the already strong hypothesis that the pandemic began with an accident in a laboratory in Wuhan. But before considering what they said, it might be worth briefly looking at the relationship between the two.

In comments on a draft of a grant proposal written in 2018, which were made public last year, Daszak boasted of how cheap it is to do experiments in Wuhan because they use a lower biosafety level (BSL-2), without negative-pressure work cabinets. Baric responded that US scientists would ‘freak out’ at that. So a newly released email Baric sent to Daszak on 27 May 2021 smacks one’s gob somewhat. Responding to Daszak’s insistence that the Wuhan Institute actually used safer versions of these low safety standards for its experiments, Baric wrote:

‘Your [sic] being told a bunch of BS. Bsl2 [with] negative pressure, give me a break. There [sic] last paper mentioned bsl2 [with] appropriate PPE. This last part was the first and only time this was ever mentioned, never in earlier papers, and in the latest paper never defined either. I have no doubt that they followed state-determined rules and did the work under bsl2. Yes China has the right to set their own policy. You believe this was appropriate containment if you want but don’t expect me to believe it. Moreover, don’t insult my intelligence by trying to feed me this load of BS.‘

Baric clearly does not have a high regard for the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s safety standards, or indeed for his virus-hunting grantrepreneur colleague, Daszak. Nor do some other scientists who have nonetheless defended Daszak in public. Thanks to freedom-of-information revelations, we now know that ‘Dastwat’ and ‘EgoHealth’ are just two of the epithets used about him by his friends. With friends like that…

Both men still insist, however, that the pandemic began naturally – but, to borrow from Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that wouldn’t they? Before the subcommittee, where even the Democrats gave him a pasting, Daszak was forced to concede some key points on which he had previously stonewalled or said the opposite.

Firstly, he had to concede that a lab leak was possible. Yet back in 2020, Daszak told Democracy Now that ‘the idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true… So it’s just not possible.’

Next, Daszak admitted in a closed session before the subcommittee last year that he did not know everything that was in the Wuhan Institute’s database of viruses. ‘Did you have access to their viral database?’, he was asked, to which he responded, ‘Well, I never asked. I never looked at it. I never needed to. I never wanted to. I never asked.’

This undermines his 2021 claim that ‘we do basically know what’s in those databases’. In last week’s testy exchange with the counsel for the majority on the subcommittee, Daszak tried to stick to the line that he himself had published every sarbecovirus from the Wuhan lab in a paper published in 2020. But he was eventually cornered into admitting that his paper only had data from samples taken up to the end of 2015. Could the Wuhan Institute of Virology have hunted for and studied more viruses after 2015? Yes, conceded Daszak.

Those who deny that a lab leak is even plausible claim that the Wuhan team had never published or spoken about a virus that could be the precursor of SARS-CoV-2. Daszak’s admission, that he did not actually know what viruses the Wuhan scientists were playing with, removes this key plank from the argument against a lab-leak origin for Covid.

There were more admissions of ignorance from Daszak in his testimony. As my Viral co-author, Alina Chan, tweeted: ‘[He] testified he didn’t know the Wuhan Institute of Virology bred bats, studied pangolin samples, engineered viruses without leaving a trace, and continued to collect viruses after 2015. So how does he know [it] didn’t cause Covid?’

Much of the congressional session focussed on the pretty extraordinary fact that the EcoHealth Alliance had submitted a grant report on its work with Wuhan two years late in August 2021. This was despite the fact that EcoHealth Alliance’s work with the institute had become rather more relevant once the pandemic began. Both Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee were unanimous in concluding that Daszak ‘acted with contempt for the American people’ and EcoHealth should be disbarred from further federal funding.

Baric, meanwhile, undermined another key part of the case against the lab leak. In January, he testified that he does not think Covid originated in the Wuhan seafood market. He agrees with China’s leading infectious-disease doctor, George Gao, that the market outbreak came after the initial infection by at least a month. Since the market is the only remotely plausible location other than a lab that any scientist has suggested for a spillover, this rather weakens the natural theory of Covid’s origins. (Chinese scientists have been reduced to arguing that it somehow came into the country on frozen seafood.)

Baric also confirmed several vital things about the Defuse project proposal, a 2018 funding document submitted to the US Defense Department by Daszak, along with Baric and the Wuhan Institute of Virology among others. Defuse reads horribly like a recipe for creating a virus like SARS-CoV-2. First, Baric told the subcommittee that, in their quest to make vaccines against all coronaviruses, he and his colleagues in Wuhan were keen to find a virus that was 20-to-25 per cent different from the first SARS. SARS-CoV-2 is 22 per cent different. So the idea that the Wuhan team would not pay any attention to a virus that was not extremely like SARS – another key plank of the lab-leak opponents’ argument – collapses.

Baric also confirmed that they were indeed planning to insert sequences called furin-cleavage sites into sarbecoviruses. What’s more, as biotech entrepreneur Yuri Deigin points out, the Wuhan team wanted to ‘do so in live, full-length viruses rather than just pseudoviruses or chimeras’.

SARS-CoV-2 is the only sarbecovirus, among more than 870 so far found, that possesses a furin-cleavage site. It is this that makes the virus so viciously infectious. Without it there would have been no pandemic.

The case for the lab-leak theory of Covid’s origins becomes ever more overwhelming with every further revelation, admission and concession. We are not quite there yet, however. The Chinese government and its scientists have yet to admit they caused the pandemic. But in exactly the right city, at exactly the right time, they were playing with exactly the right kind of genetic insertion into exactly the right part of exactly the right gene of exactly the right kind of virus, in exactly the right way. And they showed exactly the wrong kind of openness about it afterwards. It would be a heck of a coincidence and awfully bad luck if somehow Covid broke out naturally, right there and at the same time.

Matt Ridley is a science writer and co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, with Alina Chan.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Covid-19 Science & Tech USA


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