Three researchers at a laboratory in Wuhan, China, who had fallen ill in November 2019 had been experimenting with SARS-like coronaviruses under inadequate biosafety conditions, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, citing current and former U.S. officials.
The Journal had reported in 2021 that some researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had sought hospital care that November, around the time that evidence suggests Covid first began to spread among people. It was not publicly known, though, that those scientists had been experimenting with SARS-like coronaviruses — that is, pathogens related to the ones that cause SARS and Covid.
Their role in that work is not proof that the virus initially leaked out of a lab rather than spreading from animals at a market in the city, the other theory into how the pandemic started. There is no proof of that path, either, since the known cases from market outbreak were too late to have been the origin, and no infected animal has been found there.
But this is yet another demonstration that almost all of the most significant information we’ve had about Covid’s possible relationship to scientific research in Wuhan has come out in dribs and drabs from the hard work of independent researchers, journalists, open records advocates and others, not directly from our government choosing to act with transparency.
The names of the researchers who reportedly fell ill, which have not been publicly confirmed by the U.S. government and therefore remain unverified, and the nature of their work, were disclosed last week by the news site Public. One of those named researchers, Ben Hu, is a leading scientist who has worked on bat coronaviruses related to SARS. Some of Hu’s work was funded by the U.S. government, a fact that was unearthed through Freedom of Information Act requests by the nonprofit group White Coat Waste Project, which opposes taxpayer-funded research on animals, as well as by The Intercept, which uncovered broader U.S. funding for potentially dangerous lab work in Wuhan.
Another researcher who reportedly fell sick, Yu Ping, had written a thesis in 2019 about work at the virology institute on bat coronaviruses related to SARS — a thesis that was unearthed by a group of independent researchers who call themselves DRASTIC The thesis further confirmed that work on these dangerous viruses was being done in labs with the second-lowest level of biosafety, BSL-2.
In September 2021, DRASTIC also obtained a funding proposal that the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s U.S. collaborator, EcoHealth Alliance, submitted to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The proposal called for using genetic engineering to perform experiments with bat SARS-like coronaviruses and modify them by inserting features that can increase their ability to infect humans. The U.S. government rejected the proposal. One of the things that the scientists were proposing to do was to insert into these SARS-like viruses what is called a “furin cleavage site” — a feature of the Covid virus, but of no other known member of its subgenus.
The feature could also have evolved naturally, and many scientists dismissed its significance as evidence that research set off the pandemic origins. In a September 2021 journal article, published just before the grant application was made public, 21 scientists wrote that there was no evidence of research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology “involving the artificial insertion of complete furin cleavage sites into coronaviruses.” So the grant application, which calls that claim into question, is significant.
Thanks to extensive public records requests by the nonprofit group U.S. Right to Know, we are also aware that, as early as February 2020, many scientists who were publicly ruling out any role that research could have played in the pandemic, were privately expressing concern that there was a such connection, and in fact were specifically worried about the unusual furin cleavage site. (Some of the scientists have said they later changed their minds).
What’s notable about all this is not that it necessarily indicates that researchers in Wuhan were doing something nefarious that their counterparts in the West weren’t doing. It’s that they were doing the type of research that occurs around the world, including the United States. By all accounts, some of the most vilified people — including Shi Zhengli, the lead bat researcher in Wuhan — were dedicated scientists. Their work raised safety concerns, but they were not alone in that regard.
A recently published book by the investigative journalist Alison Young demonstrates multiple instances in the United States, including very recent ones, in which labs and universities have downplayed or covered up significant biosafety lapses, including ones that involved deadly engineered viruses that could potentially set off pandemics. If Chinese scientists were endangering the world, American scientists have too.
By keeping evidence that seemed to provide ammunition to proponents of a lab leak theory under wraps and resisting disclosure, U.S. officials have contributed to making the topic of the pandemic’s origins more poisoned and open to manipulation by bad-faith actors.
Treating crucial information like a dark secret empowers those who viciously and unfairly accuse public health officials and scientists of profiting off the pandemic. As Megan K. Stack wrote in Times Opinion this spring, “Those who seek to suppress disinformation may be destined, themselves, to sow it.”
The American public, however, only rarely heard refreshing honesty from their officials or even their scientists — and this tight-lipped, denialist approach appears to have only strengthened belief that the pandemic arose from carelessness during research or even, in less reality-based accounts, something deliberate. According to an Economist/YouGov poll published in March, 66 percent of Americans — including majorities of Democrats and independents — believe the pandemic was caused by research activities, a number that has gone up since 2020. Only 16 percent of Americans believed that it was likely or definitely false that the emergence of the Covid virus was tied to research in a Chinese lab, while 17 percent were unsure.
Worse, biosafety, globally, remains insufficiently regulated. Making biosafety into a controversial topic makes it harder to move forward with necessary regulation and international effort.
For years, scientists and government officials did not publicly talk much about the fact that a 1977 “Russian” influenza pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands of people most likely began when a vaccine trial went awry. In a 2014 report from the Center for Arms Control Nonproliferation, Martin Furmanski explained that one reason for the relative silence was the fear of upsetting the burgeoning cooperation over flu surveillance and treatment by the United States, China and Russia.
The world doesn’t work that way anymore. A few people can’t control the public conversation, especially after tens of millions of people have died, and attempts to do so will only backfire.
The public deserves to know this information. So far, some of the details about the Wuhan scientists who were sickened, including their names, have come from news reports citing unnamed sources, so some skepticism is required. But why hasn’t the Biden administration confirmed or denied these details?
Even though President Biden signed a law in March requiring the declassification of information about Covid-19’s origins by this past Sunday, his administration has yet to release that information. It needs to quickly declassify as much as possible of what it knows about the pandemic’s origins. In addition, the National Institutes of Health, which reportedly funded some of the research in China under scrutiny, need to be forthcoming too, rather than waiting for more leaks or laws forcing its hand.
When people lose trust in institutions, misinformation appears more credible. The antidote is more transparency and accountability.
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Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) is a professor at Columbia University, the author of “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest” and a New York Times Opinion columnist. @zeynep • Facebook
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