© screenshotGoing Batty
Is it now case closed on the Wuhan lab leak? After EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak appeared before the U.S. Congress last week and revealed himself as a man of dubious honesty, that's what many are saying. Some of Daszak's key earlier claims, such as that he knew what was in the hidden Wuhan virus database (he now admits he had no access to it and has never seen it) and that he had published every SARS-like virus from the WIV (he confessed he hasn't published any discovered after 2015), collapsed under questioning. In response, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has now suspended EcoHealth Alliance from receiving federal funds and initiated debarment proceedings against it.

Daszak's performance, as well as that of University of North Carolina virologist Professor Ralph Baric (the transcript of whose January closed-door session was released last week) has added to the sense that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is now all but confirmed. Something like a consensus - at least among those not still wedded to the idea of a natural zoonotic origin - is emerging: that the virus was a product of Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) research into coronaviruses in 2019 that was inspired by Ralph Baric's DEFUSE proposal (regarded as a blueprint for SARS-CoV-2) but in which Baric and other U.S. scientists were not personally involved.

DRASTIC's Yuri Deigin gives perhaps the clearest account of this scenario in a lengthy post on Medium (handily summarised at the start and end). He also succinctly sums it up in a Facebook post, where he contrasts a lab origin with the obviously hopeless zoonotic theory:
Covid origin really comes down to which of the following is more likely:

1) The Wuhan Institute of Virology found the kind of SARS-like virus it set out to look for in late 2018 (with a 'highly variable' spike that is 10-25% different from SARS1 but still able to enter human cells while escaping SARS1-based immunity).
2) A SARS2 progenitor spilled over from bats into some unknown intermediate host in Laos/Yunnan that was then kept on a farm in Yunnan in large enough numbers for the virus to change from a gut virus to a lung virus, pick up additional characteristic respiratory mutations over the next few months or years, and then, out of the thousands of wet markets in China, these unknown animals were shipped 1,000-plus km to a single market in Wuhan, carrying the very virus WIV set out to look for only one year earlier. Oh and then the wildlife trade industry destroyed all traces of these infected mystery animals.
Virologist Alex Washburne - whose paper showing that SARS-CoV-2 bears characteristic marks of engineering was cited by members of Congress as they questioned Baric - agreed that SARS-CoV-2 has telltale signs of being a DEFUSE-related research product that was "perfectly suited" to the WIV's 2019 research programme.

The case against the WIV seems to be becoming watertight. As Matt Ridley puts it:
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.
In fact though, there is still one point at least on which dispute remains possible. While there seems little doubt that a DEFUSE-related virus escaped from the WIV in 2019, there is still a question of whodunnit. Was it made in China or made in the USA? We know that Baric and his team continued their own post-DEFUSE work on engineered coronaviruses, so it certainly remains possible that it was made in the U.S. and was in the WIV for testing on Chinese bats rather than because it was engineered there. This is not at all farfetched: DEFUSE had explicitly envisaged sending viruses made by Baric to Wuhan for testing.

Here are three compelling reasons not to take our suspicions off the American scientists.

First, we have the apparent cluelessness of China's response to the virus in the early weeks (a point I discussed at greater length in a recent article). The Chinese authorities' initial response, of course, was to close and clean the Huanan wet market, and then to spend the next two weeks saying they weren't sure if the virus was even spreading between humans. Certainly they took no obvious further action to contain the spread at this point. Insider information relayed to the Associated Press indicates that in these early days Beijing was being kept in the dark by local government officials worried about getting into trouble, suggesting this haphazard response wasn't just some elaborate ruse by central Government.

If the virus had emerged from Chinese research, Beijing would surely have ascertained this at a very early point. Shi Zhengli told Scientific American that her first thought in late December 2019 on hearing it was a coronavirus was that she didn't expect such an outbreak in Wuhan and wondered if it could have "come from our lab", before checking her records. Had she found it there she would surely have told Beijing without delay; yet the Government continued to treat it as a market outbreak for several weeks, suggesting it was indeed not found in her records.

A second reason for suspecting an origin with an American rather than Chinese team is the timing of when China switched to treating the virus as a serious threat, which was straight after the genetic sequence was published on January 10th. That same day, Linfa Wang, the Singapore-based Director of Duke-NUS's Emerging Infectious Disease programme, unexpectedly resigned from his post as Director of the Duke programme (a position he had held for nearly a decade) for reasons that have never been disclosed. Prior to the genome's publication, Linfa told the New York Times he was frustrated that scientists in China were not allowed to speak to him about the outbreak. He later called January 10th "the most important day in the COVID-19 outbreak" because it was when the genome was published.

Did Linfa resign because he realised the virus was one that his colleague, Dr. Danielle Anderson (Dani), had been testing on animals in the high security BSL4 lab at the WIV? Did he inform the Chinese authorities of this? Certainly after this date the Chinese began treating the virus much more like a biosecurity threat. On January 14th, in a private teleconference with provincial officials, the head of China's National Health Commission called the situation "severe and complex" as he signalled the pivot to suppressing the virus. It was also at this time that Major General Chen Wei, the Chinese military's "top epidemiologist and virologist", arrived at the WIV with her "team of top military scientists" to take over leading the response at the lab.

Linfa meanwhile flew into Wuhan that week, where he discussed Shi's forthcoming paper claiming the virus to be of "probable bat origin", based largely on the 'discovery' of a 96% similar bat virus held in the WIV, RaTG13 (this paper, making the case for zoonotic origin, is widely believed to be part of the cover-up). Crucially, in 2019 Linfa and Dani were involved in the American post-DEFUSE research, not the Chinese post-DEFUSE research. WIV researchers were left out of American post-DEFUSE research, but Linfa and Duke-NUS were integral to it, not least because of their links to the WIV where they could test the American-made viruses on Chinese bats. We also know that Baric had already been doing some of the DEFUSE work ahead of the funding application going in, with notes from DEFUSE-related calls stating that Baric had "already generated SARS-like chimeras [i.e., engineered viruses] with RBD [receptor binding domain]... which is 20% different than epidemic strains" - a bracket into which SARS-CoV-2 falls.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to suspect an American origin, though, is the telling fact that SARS-CoV-2 transmits efficiently in only five known mammals, and four of those five - American deer mice, Syrian hamsters, American mink and Egyptian fruit bats - are commonly found in U.S. labs, including Anthony Fauci's high security Rocky Mountain Lab (RML) in Montana. (The fifth animal, American white-tailed deer, is prevalent across the United States.) On the other hand, SARS-CoV-2 doesn't infect lab animals common in Chinese labs or present in the WIV, such as Chinese horseshoe bats.

Here's chapter and verse on that:
  • "North American deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) are susceptible and can transmit SARS-CoV-2 to naïve conspecifics, indicating [the species'] potential to serve as a wildlife reservoir for SARS-CoV-2 in North America." Deer mice are experimented on at RML.
  • "Syrian hamsters are highly susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and one of several animal hosts that have been naturally infected by this virus. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from pet Syrian hamsters to humans has also been reported. Currently, Syrian hamsters are the only rodent model in which airborne transmission can easily be tested." Syrian hamsters are experimented on at RML.
  • "American mink (Neovison vison) have gained notoriety due to their unfortunate susceptibility to the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS‐CoV‐2)... Whole‐genome sequencing of the virus isolated from mink on farms in the Netherlands has provided evidence of both human‐to‐mink and mink‐to‐human transmission of the virus." American mink are experimented on at RML.
  • "Fruit bats showed characteristics of a reservoir host." Egyptian fruit bats are experimented on at RML.
  • But not Chinese bats: "Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 [SARS-CoV-2] did not replicate efficiently in 13 [of 13] bat cell lines... SARS-CoV but not SARS-CoV-2 can replicate efficiently in R. sinicus [Chinese horseshoe bat] kidney cells."
Engineered viruses are trained to become infectious using techniques such as 'serial passage' in lab animals, a specialism of Vincent Munster at the Rocky Mountain Lab. So it is well within the bounds of possibility that a Baric DEFUSE-type virus could have been trained at RML or another U.S. lab before being sent to Dani in Wuhan for testing on Chinese bats. Recall that the purpose of DEFUSE and other proposals submitted to the PREEMPT funding call, including those from RML, was to investigate ways of vaccinating bats against potential spillover pathogens (and thus 'preempt' or 'defuse' a pandemic). This entailed sending viruses for testing on bats in Wuhan. Such testing on animals is by far the most likely way a virus would escape as the animals breathe and excrete them all over the place and containment is a major challenge.

Yes, a WIV team could have created SARS-CoV-2. But in favour of it being the work of an American team we have the cluelessness of the early Chinese response, the unexplained resignation of a DEFUSE-linked Duke professor on the day the sequence was published, and the smokiest gun of all: the fact that the virus transmits readily in a range of American lab animals but not in Chinese laboratory bats.