18 of the world’s foremost Covid-19 researchers have asked for a new probe of all possible origins of the virus.
New Delhi: Eighteen of the world’s foremost Covid-19 researchers have asked for a new investigation of all possible origins of the coronavirus, while calling on China’s laboratories and agencies to “open their records” to independent analysis. It is expected that this will put renewed pressure on the World Health Organization (WHO) and on countries that are in a position to put pressure on China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to make it accountable for its alleged role in the Covid-19 outbreak.
This recent letter titled “Investigate the origins of Covid-19”, written by acclaimed medical experts and published in Science, one of the most prestigious global journals, has stated that the origin of Covid-19 is still unclear and there is not yet enough evidence to say conclusively if it occurred naturally or was caused by a laboratory leak.
It has been an established fact that Chinese scientists were carrying out experiments to engineer pathogens at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), China’s first bio-safety level 4 laboratory. Many experts have stated that the fact that Covid-19 first appeared in the same city in which the laboratory is located is not just a mere coincidence.
In their letter, these 18 medical experts, who include names like David Relman, professor of microbiology at Stanford, and Marc Lipsitch, a well-known Harvard University epidemiologist, have also quoted from the WHO report raising pertinent questions:
“The information, data, and samples for the study’s first phase were collected and summarized by the Chinese half of the team; the rest of the team built on this analysis. Although there were no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a laboratory accident, the team assessed a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host as ‘likely to very likely’, and a laboratory incident as ‘extremely unlikely’. Furthermore, the two theories were not given balanced consideration. Only four of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident. Notably, WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus commented that the report’s consideration of evidence supporting a laboratory accident was insufficient and offered to provide additional resources to fully evaluate the possibility,” the letter reads.
The signatories to this letter also include Akiko Iwasaki, a much-acclaimed immunologist from Yale, who has spearheaded the research on the immune system’s response to Covid-19, and Ralph Baric, a virologist with the University of North Carolina, who is considered the world’s foremost authority on Covid-19.
The letter comes just weeks after a WHO mandated team that comprises 17 world and 17 Chinese scientists who did the “ground investigation”, released a 120-page document on the origins of Covid-19, on 30 March.
The report, however, failed to answer the most important question that it was expected to find a response to: from where did the Covid-19 virus originate and how did it infect humans?
The findings of the WHO’s report have led to more questions, as even WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, while releasing the report stated: “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions. Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy. In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data. I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”
Significantly, these scientists have called for “Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public”.
“As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general, the United States and 13 other countries and the European Union that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. 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. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts,” the letter reads.
A similar letter written by 26 experts, which was published in the Wall Street Journal recently, has also called for a new investigation published into the Wuhan institute of Virology (WIV) and argued that “the [WHO] team did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses” to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation to find out the Covid-19 originated and from where.
Any kind of confirmation that the Covid-19 virus was indeed conceived artificially in the WIV laboratory operated by the PLA, is likely to bring the focus of the global investigation on a Pakistani defence establishment—Defence Science & Technology Organization (DESTO), Rawalpindi—which, according to “unofficial” documents accessed by this newspaper, had entered into a covert collaboration with WIV in 2018-19 to explore and develop bio-warfare capabilities in order to use them against its adversaries.
Both China and Pakistan have strongly denied the existence of any such agreement.
DESTO, along with Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), Rawalpindi, operate under the Strategic Plans Division (SPD). As per official records available with relevant Indian and Western agencies, DESTO, under Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence, is responsible for the development military technology, hardware and also promote innovation in defence production related to chemical and biological defence. It is headquartered at Chaklala, Rawalpindi, with at least three research complexes in Karachi, Chattar, Karachi and at Chaklala.
One of the primary reasons that has led to the establishment of a direct link between the PLA and WIV is that once it became public that Covid-19 had broken out from Wuhan, the PLA immediately dispatched Dr Chen Wei, a Major General of the PLA, attached to Academy of Military Medical Sciences, to take control of the laboratory in January 2020.
Days later, even as the world was still to figure out that a pandemic was waiting for it, on 3 March 2020, Chen became one of the first people on earth along with six of her other colleagues to get a Covid-19 vaccine. The images of the said event, in which she is wearing military uniforms, were later deleted from the social media, but are still floating around.
Reports, that later emerged from China, stated that the name of the vaccine that she got, which is now called Convidicea, was developed by Chen and her team at the military-run Academy of Military Medical Sciences in collaboration with Cansino Biologics, a 12-year-old private vaccine maker based in Tianjin, China. By May 2020, even as India was getting engaged in a border dispute with China, the said vaccine was approved by the Chinese government for its PLA soldiers.
Professor Yuan Zhiming, who was heading the WIV laboratory till Chen Wei took it over, later denied in an interview with a state media that the virus leaked from WIV.
However, ever since the pandemic broke out in late 2019-early 2020, multiple credible, independent medical experts and Chinese domain experts, who have now either gone incommunicado or fled to other countries, had raised concern regarding the safety standards of Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where many experts believe the virus was developed.
At least three different individuals, including one US diplomatic official, a US-based corona expert and one Chinese scientist, had expressed concerns that the Covid-19 virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), accidentally.
From January 2018 to March 2018, the US embassy in Beijing repeatedly sent its science diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) after it emerged that the safety standards at the laboratory were poor. These officials later sent two diplomatic cables to Washington, confirming their bosses’ suspicion back home of the poorly managed bio-safety standards at the virology laboratory at Wuhan.
According to a research paper published by two Chinese researchers, Xiao Botao and Lei Xiao, titled “The Possible Origins of the 2019-n-CoV coronavirus”, which became public in February last year, the virus did not origin from the wet sea food market in Wuhan. His report, which was supported by the state backed National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC)—which was subsequently removed from all public domain, had summarized, “In summary, somebody was entangled with the evolution of 2019-nCoV coronavirus. In addition to origins of natural recombination and intermediate host, the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan. Safety level may need to be reinforced in high-risk biohazardous laboratories. Regulations may be taken to relocate these laboratories far away from city center and other densely populated places.”
Similarly, well-known Covid-19 expert, Richard H. Ebright, who is an American molecular biologist, while speaking to The Sunday Guardian in April last year, had said that the virus could have escaped or could have been accidentally acquired by people working in these laboratories where large collections of viruses are maintained.
The same theory was also shared with The Sunday Guardian with Dr Li-Meng Yan, who specializes in virology and immunology at the Hong Kong School of Public Health, which is affiliated to the World Health Organization (WHO). Yan had to flee China after her “expose”.
COLLABORATION BEHIND THE WIV LAB, WUHAN
The Chinese government had decided to build this P4 level laboratory at the Wuhan laboratory after the outbreak of the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, after which it bought the technology and equipment of the P4 laboratory from Lyon, France. Following that, the Chinese and French governments signed multiple cooperation agreements, supplementary agreements and supplementary statements related to the joint construction of Wuhan P4 laboratory in 2004, 2006 and 2007.
All the construction technology and technical equipment for the lab were exported from France. It cost 300 million yuan (US$44 million) and was opened on 31 January 2015 in the presence of former French Minister of Parliamentary Relation, Jean-Marie Le Guen and Alain Mérieux, President of the Mérieux Foundation, a France-based organization that works on fighting infectious disease. At that time the chairman of the French Mérieux Foundation, Alain Mérieux, had stated: “The Far East has a fortress against the spread of infectious diseases.”
Incidentally, a June 2004 health bulletin released by the World Health Organization (WHO) on the SARS outbreak in China had asked the same question that its team is asking now, 17 years later—from where and how the virus leaked. “The recent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China which infected nine people and killed one of them is now over. The outbreak, which began in April at a laboratory in Beijing, has raised questions about storing and handling the killer virus in laboratories. The recent outbreak was the third of four SARS outbreaks associated with a laboratory since 5 July 2003—when the virus was declared to be under control following a major epidemic which left nearly 800 people dead. The outbreak in April began after two graduate students working at a laboratory at the National Institute of Virology in Beijing, where experiments using the live SARS coronavirus were conducted in February and March, became infected with the virus. WHO experts are helping the Chinese authorities investigate the source or sources of infection.”
“The investigation conducted to date has yet to identify a single source of infection or single procedural error at the institute. Consequently the route or routes of transmission are not known at this time,” said Dr Angela Merianos, the then SARS focal person at WHO’s Global Alert and Response Unit, who visited China in May. “It also remained unclear how two researchers at the institute became infected since they were not even working with the SARS virus,” the 2004 health bulletin said.