Biological Chernobyl’: How China’s secrecy fueled virus suspicions
In recent days, President Donald Trump’s allies have seized upon an alternate origin story for the novel coronavirus: that the disease emerged from inside a Chinese laboratory, not an outdoor market.
The basic narrative reads like a dystopian movie plot, and goes something like this: Somehow, the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the disease first appeared in late 2019. Researchers there were studying dangerous bat coronaviruses, and safety procedures at the facility were not as rigorous as they should have been. The Chinese government then covered up the incident, blaming a seafood market near the lab for launching the pandemic and refusing to allow any independent investigation.
Variations on this theory, once promoted by only a handful of anti-China hardliners, are now being flogged relentlessly every night on Fox News, the president’s preferred primetime viewing. Trump himself has made vague allusions to the lab-jailbreak concept. “More and more we’re hearing the story,” he told reporters when asked about it during a coronavirus task force briefing last week. But other officials, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have lent it further credence and are now pressing Beijing for answers.
If ever there were a controversy that seemed engineered in a lab to go viral online, it’s this one. Scientists are largely skeptical of the idea, as are top defense officials, but it has given the president’s supporters an alluring new talking point as they seek to deflect blame for the pandemic’s brutal toll on the United States. And it has created a new leverage point for unlocking scientific data that Beijing has kept to itself thus far.
America’s intelligence agencies aren’t dismissing the idea outright; they’ve been examining the theory for months, said people briefed on the intelligence, and the congressional intelligence committees have been asking various agencies if hard evidence exists to support it. So far, there is none, multiple sources familiar with the matter told POLITICO. “There’s no consensus,” an administration official said. A former senior intelligence official said his understanding is that the intelligence on the Wuhan lab being the origin of the virus “is not at all conclusive.”
The search for the virus’ origin has been made even more difficult by the fact that even Beijing doesn’t know the truth, one of the people briefed said, and doesn’t seem to be looking for it. Without an ironclad, high-confidence finding as to the virus’ origin, the intelligence community is unlikely to completely discount the possibility that it spread after a lab experiment gone wrong.
“The China ‘hawks’ have pointed to the Wuhan labs as a source of the pandemic from the beginning,” said former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who described the pandemic as the Chinese Communist Party’s “biological Chernobyl.”
Bannon is one of a coterie of strident China critics who have urged the president to use this moment to fundamentally reorder U.S. relations with Beijing. But Trump has temporized, a reflection of the U.S. need for Chinese help in supplying crucial medical supplies. “You no longer see Trump calling it the China virus or the Wuhan virus because I think he realizes that it’s kind of dumb to do that because we need China’s help,” a person close to the White House noted.
“The White House has a delicate dance to do here because obviously the president has diplomatic sensitivities and a very multifaceted relationship with China that he has to be sensitive to,” another administration official said. “But I think you have and will continue to see other parts of the federal government go a bit further on this,” adding that “DOD and State have been a lot more forward-leaning and that’s by design.”
Pompeo has been the most vocal, publicly pressing the Chinese government to “let the world in, to let the world’s scientists know exactly how this came to be, exactly how this virus began to spread.” China has yet to share detailed clinical and epidemiological data on Covid-19 — information that would help other countries determine how best to treat patients and slow the spread of the disease. Beijing’s withholding of information was especially crucial early on, officials say, as it kept American scientists from fully appreciating just how dangerous the virus is and how it spread from person to person.
“What we do know is we know that this virus originated in Wuhan, China,” the secretary said on Fox News this week. “We know that there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology just a handful of miles away from where the wet market was. There’s still lots to learn. You should know that the United States government is working diligently to figure this out.”
Military leaders have been more circumspect. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley seemed less convinced this week of the more extreme variation of the lab theory — that the virus was engineered by humans, perhaps as a bioweapon. “The weight of the evidence seems to indicate natural,” he said; Defense Secretary Mark Esper said much the same, adding that the intelligence community’s investigation of the matter had been “inconclusive.”
Their remarks represent a shift from previous comments by Joint Staff Surgeon Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, who earlier this month said flatly that “there is nothing” to the idea that the virus originated in a lab. “That is not something that I’m worried about.”
China has denied both versions of the theory: that it was engineered in a lab, or that it was a natural bat coronavirus that leaked out. “I’d like to remind you that the [World Health Organization] has repeatedly stated that there is no evidence showing the virus was made in a lab,” a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday. “Many renowned medical specialists in the world have also debunked the ‘lab leakage’ theory as not science-based at all.”
So far, studies of the virus’ genome have not found any signs that it was engineered. An analysis published last month in Nature Medicine compared the new coronavirus to the six others in the same family that are known to infect people. One strong indicator that the new coronavirus evolved naturally, the study’s authors said, are flaws in the protein it uses to bind to human cells — deficiencies that someone trying to engineer a killer virus would have almost certainly avoided.
“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” wrote the study’s authors, led by computational biologist Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute in California. Their research suggests that the coronavirus hopped from an animal — perhaps a bat — to a human in late November or early December.
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It’s harder to rule out the notion that the new coronavirus escaped from a lab, but many virologists and infectious disease scientists say this scenario, too, is unlikely. SARS and MERS, two other coronaviruses that cause severe illness in people, made the jump from animals to humans in the last 20 years. And while scientists can’t say definitively that the new coronavirus came from a bat, that’s not unusual. The animals also are suspected to be the source of the Ebola virus, which first emerged in 1976, but the link still hasn’t been proven beyond a doubt.
Western media reports on the origins of the virus — notably an account in the Wall Street Journal that identified a shrimp vendor at the Wuhan seafood market, rather than a lab worker, as the likely “Patient Zero” — have found no hard evidence of the alternate origin theory, either.
Nor did James Le Duc, the head of the American research lab that helped the Wuhan Virology Lab train its personnel in security best practices, betray any suspicions that his Chinese colleagues may have let loose the virus in a January opinion article that lauded China for its “transparent” management of the outbreak.
Le Duc declined to comment for this article, but the Galveston National Lab sent along a statement noting its work with scientists around the world, including in Wuhan. “Academic research is a global pursuit, and collaboration, cooperation and support has always been the process for quickly developing countermeasures against the world’s most dangerous public health threats,” he said.
The Wuhan lab theory has been kicking around for months, fueled by sporadic reports and persistent questions from China hawks, as well as by the Chinese government’s lack of transparency about the virus. One Chinese researcher, Botao Xiao, published a paper floating the theory of a lab accident — only to withdraw it, telling the Wall Street Journal in February that his work “was not supported by direct proofs.” China has since cracked down on academic research about the origins of the virus.
But the lab theory gained new life after the New York Times alluded to an internal government debate over the issue (though its reporting suggested deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger had damaged his credibility by promoting it with other officials). Then a pair of Washington Post opinion columns by two frequent administration critics — David Ignatius and Josh Rogin — lent it broader credibility and added new details about the internal government debate.
Its rapid transmission across conservative media was hastened earlier this week with the publication of an “exclusive” report co-authored by Fox News’ Bret Baier — billing the alleged Wuhan lab fiasco as maybe the “costliest government cover-up of all time,” per one of the story’s sources.
The network’s popular, opinion-oriented personalities have amplified that coverage as their commentary on China’s handling of the initial outbreak has morphed from hawkishly skeptical to downright condemnatory.
Tucker Carlson led his weeknight broadcast Thursday by promoting Baier’s reporting and blasting Sen. Tom Cotton’s treatment at the hands of the “little robots” in the news media. The Arkansas Republican has been among the most forceful advocates of the lab storyline and suggested publicly as early as February that the coronavirus was conceived there.
“Why didn’t we know this sooner? Well, there is a specific reason for that. The people who bring you the news were lying about it. And they were covering for China,” Carlson charged, arguing that the virus’ lab escape represents “the most plausible explanation for the epidemic now wrecking our country.”
Sean Hannity, too, opened his program Thursday night with mention of Baier’s story and an indictment that “if Bret’s report is on-target,” then “the Chinese government has blood on their hands. They protected themselves and put the rest of the world at risk.”
Hannity also discussed the allegations with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, who dubbed China “the largest state sponsor of pandemics,” and Ted Cruz, who asserted that the Asian power’s “responsibility and culpability for this pandemic is enormous.”
On Friday morning, a triumphant Cotton took to “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite morning show, to declare that the circumstantial evidence supporting his claims “is stacking up pretty quickly.”
“You can see how the Chinese Communist Party has continued to lie about this from the very beginning, as if they have something to cover up,” the senator said. “If that’s the case, it really is the biggest, the costliest, the most deadly cover-up in the history of mankind.”