Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica
More than two decades ago, I met some of the scientists who had built America’s arsenal of germ weapons. The interviews were some of the most surreal of my reporting career. They would talk in matter-of-fact tones about their work to test and develop the perfect strain of anthrax and the complexities of turning viruses and bacteria into viable implements of war. Although they spoke with surprising nostalgia about their years trying to develop ways to kill tens of millions of people at a time, they agreed the world became a safer place when the United States, the Soviet Union and scores of other nations signed a global treaty in 1972 banning biological weapons. Some of them chose to devote the rest of their lives to protecting the world from the sort of germ attack their research had made possible.
As I worked with my co-authors Bill Broad and Judy Miller to report on the treaty, we uncovered some facts that we found surprising. While the global pact barred countries from developing new germ weapons, they were free to do defensive “research” that explored the potential malign uses of the latest scientific discoveries. The United States, among others, was doing cutting-edge experiments on what sort of weapons an adversary could create using germ splicing or good old fashioned anthrax. We wrote a story about Project Jefferson, a military program in the late 1990s that, among other things, examined whether a technically adept person could grow weapons-quality anthrax using off-the-shelf products. (They could.) Separately, government scientists also drew up plans to see whether they could create a bioengineered variant of anthrax that could get past the existing vaccines.
The American research was driven, in part, by the revelation in the early 1990s that Soviet scientists had actively cheated on the treaty. Some had even experimented with creating what are known as chimera viruses, which combine genes to make a superbug that does not exist in nature. One experiment involved studying what happens when you insert genetic material from Ebola into a virus closely related to smallpox, a step toward what would have amounted to Ebolapox. Such experiments could theoretically be legal under the treaty as a way of understanding what a potential adversary could do with cutting-edge science. At the time my colleagues and I wrote the book “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War,” U.S. government officials argued that the best way to defend a country from a germ attack was for gifted researchers to explore whether it was possible to create a new form of anthrax that could live outside a petri dish and evade the existing vaccines and treatments.
Early in the pandemic, President Donald Trump and some scientists speculated about the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was created and accidentally released by Chinese virologists doing some sort of research. That hypothesis was quickly and vehemently dismissed by the scientific establishment, which noted that the genetic makeup of the virus showed no signs of human tampering.
I encouraged several ProPublica reporters last year to poke around on a slightly different theory: What if the beginnings of the pandemic were the result of a lab accident in which scientists studying the characteristics of coronaviruses inadvertently became infected with a wild virus and spread it to others. Lab leaks are far more common than one might think and have occurred in the U.S. elsewhere. Our reporting turned up some officials who shared that suspicion. But none could offer any direct evidence that it had happened.
This situation is among the least favorable arenas for investigative reporting — a debate in which all sides are drawing conclusions from minimal evidence released by a foreign government renowned for its tight control over information. The credibility of the lab leak theory wasn’t helped by the breathless coverage by Trump-supporting media outlets that took as given China’s culpability. We moved on, but, partly based on my experience reporting on germ warfare, I continued to believe that a lab accident was one possibility among many that would explain the pandemic’s origins.
In the year since, theories about the virus originating in a lab have gained traction, even among those who initially doubted it. A growing number of scientists feel China was less than transparent in its recent dealings with a visiting World Health Organization team that was attempting to gather evidence on the beginnings of the pandemic. In a May 14 letter to Science magazine, 17 prominent researchers from around the world called on the WHO to look more closely at the lab theory. “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” they wrote. “A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest.”
Days later, Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch, one of America’s most respected epidemiologists, added his name to the letter. “There just aren’t any answers yet, one way or the other, about how the coronavirus that’s now ravaging the world began,” Lipsitch told WBUR, a Boston radio station. “What we are saying is that the existing evidence has not ruled out a laboratory origin, nor has it ruled out a natural origin. And there’s really no positive evidence, either. It’s just pretty much a lack of evidence right now.”
The absence of facts fueled a frenzy of internet speculation, a fair amount of which has focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a government-funded lab. To conspiracy theorists, it cannot have been a coincidence that China happened to be doing research on coronaviruses just a few miles from where the pandemic broke out.
The head of the institute, Dr. Shi Zheng-li, reminded me of many of the dedicated scientists I interviewed for the book “Germs.” Press accounts portray her as someone deeply committed to the battle against microbes. After China was hit by the SARS coronavirus in 2003, Shi led teams of researchers into caves to capture and take samples from bats that might be harboring more dangerous strains of the disease.
When an inexplicable outbreak of pneumonia struck Wuhan in December 2019, she worried that a coronavirus had somehow escaped her lab. She told Scientific American that she frantically reviewed records about the genetic makeup of her samples. Li said she was enormously relieved when she learned that SARS-CoV-2 was only 96% similar to its nearest relative at the institute — decades of evolution away from a match.
“That really took a load off my mind,” she said in her interview with Scientific American. “I had not slept a wink for days.”
The Chinese came up with the now well-known theory for the origin of SARS-Cov-2. It began in bats and jumped to an intermediate animal that was sold at a wet market in Wuhan.
Questions quickly arose about that narrative. Chinese authorities had destroyed all of the animals at the wet market soon after the outbreak began, and researchers have never been able to identify the intermediary animal that transmitted the virus to humans.
Then, the British medical journal The Lancet published a paper that poked another hole in the wet market theory. It reported that nearly one-third of the people initially treated in Wuhan hospitals, 13 of the first 41 patients, had no link to the market or to one another.
The uncertainty about the origins of the pandemic have only deepened over the past year. More facts emerged about Shi’s training, including that she worked with scientists who spliced together coronaviruses, creating the same sort of chimera viruses the Soviet germ warriors were experimenting with back in the 1990s. The 2016 paper documenting that research is now a central element in some of the online conspiracy theories. It had what turned out to be a prescient title. “SARS-like” coronaviruses, it warned, were “poised for human emergence.” The likely source? Chinese bats.
As ProPublica President Dick Tofel likes to say, investigative reporting always begins with a question, not an answer. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal quoted U.S. intelligence reports that three members of the Wuhan institute had become sick in November 2019 and required hospital care for unspecified illnesses. The head of the institute, Shi, has said that all of her lab workers tested negative for exposure to SARS-CoV-2, a result some analysts viewed with skepticism given the prevalence of the virus in Wuhan.
The history of germ weapons shows that even eminent scientists can misread the evidence. In the early 1980s, Matthew Meselson, a Harvard geneticist and molecular biologist, disproved allegations that Hmong anti-Communists in Laos had been attacked by a mysterious Soviet chemical weapon known as “yellow rain.” Meselson and a colleague’s inquiry showed it was bee feces. On the other hand, Meselson backed the Soviet cover story that an outbreak of anthrax in the town of Sverdlovsk was due to consumption of contaminated meat. It turned out to be an accident at an anthrax factory. After the fall of Communism, Meselson was allowed to investigate in Russia and concluded that it was indeed a leak from a weapons facility.
So where does that leave us? As I’ve watched the theories about the pandemic’s origin wax and wane, I believe more strongly than ever that reporters should begin their research agnostic and remain skeptical as new facts come to light. No story is ever really over. Certainly not this one
“But that delta between the nature evidence and the lab-escape evidence appears to be shrinking.” - May 26, 2021
If the Lab-Leak Theory Is Right, What’s Next? The Atlantic - May 26, 2021
Biden Orders Intelligence Inquiry Into Origins of Virus NYT
US documents were declassified erlier in the week
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