The virus “lab origin” narrative is gaining traction in the US.
By Manoj Joshi
For some time now, the thesis that the coronavirus leaked from a Wuhan lab has been gaining traction in the US. The standard original narrative was that it had escaped from an animal and seafood market near the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) where the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory is housed. The newer storylines are varied, if imaginative. In one the Wuhan lab had been carrying out experiments on bats from a cave and a sample in the lab leaked because of careless handling. In another, the careless handler infected his girlfriend, who became “patient zero.” In yet another version, a WIV researcher had sold experimental animals to the animal and seafood market.
The issue has huge implications: the virus has not only caused large scale misery and death but also brought on an economic depression that has already destroyed millions of livelihoods. If indeed, the virus escaped from a lab, the Chinese cannot escape liability in the eyes of the world.
But so far, there has been a lot of theorising on the Internet, and speculation by politicians. But as of now, there has been no evidence that could really provide a definitive conclusion as to whether or not the virus escaped from a lab by accident. That the virus was not engineered by humans, has, of course, been proved. On the other hand, the Chinese government’s original story that the virus emerged from the animal and seafood market in Wuhan is somewhat wobbly.
Yet, the virus “lab origin” narrative is gaining traction in the US. Earlier this week on 15 April President Trump said at a White House press conference that he was aware of the reports of the virus escaping from a lab and that the US was “doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation that happened.” On the same day in a Fox News appearance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that Beijing needed “to come clean” about what happened. A subsequent Fox News report claimed that the US believes it was not a bio-weapon, but part of a Chinese effort to show the world that China was as good as the US in identifying and combating viruses. According to the report, “patient zero” who worked in the lab picked up the infection from a bat there and who then infected others in Wuhan. The whole animal and seafood market claim was a bid by China to deflect blame.
Actually much earlier in January, the British tabloid Daily Mail, citing the magazine Nature, had said that a SARS like virus could escape a lab that had been set up within the WIV in Wuhan in 2014. This Wuhan National Biosafety Lab had been designed to meet the highest biosafety — Level 4. It gained steam as other tabloid papers took it up. The Washington Times star reporter Bill Gertz claimed that the virus was part of a biowarfare programme. Subsequently, in late March, the newspaper issued a disclaimer saying that scientists outside China who had studied the virus had conclusively determined that it was not “manufactured or purposefully manipulated in a lab.”
Steven Mosher of The New York Post added grist to the mill when he analysed a series of speeches and statements from China. According to him on 14 February Xi Jinping delivered a speech his party brass on overall governance reform. As part of this, he spoke of the need for a law on biosecurity and plugging loopholes in the handling of infectious disease. The Post connected this to a directive issued by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology the next day on “strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus.” Mosher said that since there was just one Level 4 lab of the kind in China, the Ministry directive was really talking about the WIV.
This is despite the clean chit given to the lab by an American researcher Jim LeDuc who heads the Galveston National Laboratory which is also a Level 4 lab. LeDuc has worked for six years with a Chinese team at WIV and he certified that the lab was as good as any in the US or Europe. Indeed, after Trump and Pompeo’s remarks, the French government also weighed in with an official in President Macron’s office saying that “to this day no factual evidence” to corroborate the US media claims about the origins of the virus and the WIV lab. The Level 4 National Biosafety Lab had been built with French assistance and its personnel trained in France.
The narrative than took a different turn in February when rightwing politicians like former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas latched on to the story. That old rightwing faithful Rush Limbaugh added his bit to it on 24 February. First, he claimed that it was being “weaponised” to bring down Donald Trump. Second, “It’s probably is a Chi-Com laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponised. All superpower nations weaponise bioweapons.” After meandering through the issue of whether it was the “Wuhan virus” or the “China virus” or plain old “corona virus”, the story surfaced again a day ago.
This was the result of a Washington Post revelation on 14 April of a US connection with the work in the lab. The WIV was assisted by a $3.7 million grant from the US National Institutes of Health and published research based on its work on bats in November 2017. As part of the study US scientists had also worked in the lab. Between January-March 2018, the US Embassy in Beijing had, according to The Washington Post, “repeatedly” sent US science diplomats to the WIV. The US officials were concerned enough about the lab that they sent back to cables to Washington, warning about safety and management weaknesses of the lab and even warned that “the labs work on bat coronaviruses and their potential for human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like epidemic.”
Shortly after The Washington Post’s report, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley told the media that evidence that the virus originated in a Chinese lab was “inconclusive.” He said the US had “a lot of intelligence take a hard look at that” and the weight of evidence would suggest that the origin was natural. CNN confirmed that US intelligence and national security officials were indeed looking into the possibility that the coronavirus spread had originated in the WIV, rather than the market. They were not necessarily pursuing a single thesis, but exploring other possible theories on the origin of the virus. On 16 February, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, too, weighed in and said that the government was indeed looking at the issue, mostly the evidence so far suggested it was natural, but more investigative work needed to be done. Given the fiasco of the WMDs in Iraq in 2003, the US intelligence community is likely to be cautious in coming up with a definite pronouncement.
What we see are three strands in the US handling of the “virus origin” issue. At one level, it is part of a “blame China” manoeuver by the Trump Republicans when confronted with a tough election in November. With the “China virus” and “Wuhan virus” controversy having played out, something new is needed to fend off attention from the administration’s shoddy and casual handling of the virus outbreak. Second, it is part of the Trump style wherein he is not responsible for anything, especially the mis-steps in handling the virus outbreak.
But, third, and beyond Trump’s personal and political needs, there is also an institutional need for the US and the world community to try and get to the bottom of the issue. US officials have repeatedly said that China has not been transparent in handling of the virus outbreak and they are not wrong. It is important, not just for the US and China, but the global community, to have greater insight into the origin and the spread of the virus so as to be better equipped to handle a similar threat the next time around.