It reads like science fiction, but it is very real. The United States paid for the work that likely created COVID-19. Research which could create a bioweapon—genetically engineering the highest possible infectivity for human cells—was subcontracted to the Chinese. A series of cover-ups means we are unlikely to ever know the truth of why our loved ones died.
There are two origin stories for COVID-19. One is that it emerged naturally, evolving from a bat virus to infect humans. The other is that COVID-19 was genetically created by China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology and escaped into the world. That year you spent at home, those loved ones who died, might have been our own fault. The point is more than assigning guilt; understanding the true origin of the pandemic is critical to preventing it from happening again, as well as a guide to future gain-of-function research.
The first bioscientist to take a serious look at the origins of the virus raised the possibility it had been manipulated by humans, not nature. More recently, science writer Nicholas Wade went on to ask directly “Did people or nature open Pandora’s Box at Wuhan?” in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and makes a strong case it was us.
It starts with EcoHealth Alliance of New York. For 20 years they have created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature. Scientists argue that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent “spillovers” from animal hosts to humans. Like something out of Jurassic Park, this is known as gain-of-function research, genetic manipulation to “improve” nature. Such work has already allowed scientists to recreate the 1918 flu virus, to synthesize the almost extinct polio virus, and introduce a smallpox gene into a related virus.
Some of that work was done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, teamed with researchers at the University of North Carolina. Specifically, they focused on enhancing the ability of bat viruses to attack humans. In November 2015 they together created a manufactured virus that was once dangerous only to bats but now able to infect the cells of the human airway.
The key Chinese researcher at Wuhan, Shi Zhengli, known as the “Bat Lady,” specialized further, engineering coronaviruses to attack human cells. Her research was funded by the Obama administration’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIH initially assigned those grants to EcoHealth, who subcontracted the work to Wuhan. The work which likely created COVID-19 was paid for by the United States.
The Wuhan lab was already a nexus of attention pre-pandemic. Following a controversial September 2019 corona lecture the Bat Lady gave in Mozambique, Wuhan pulled their virus database offline. The Chinese government still refuses to provide any of its raw data, safety logs, or lab records. Another Wuhan scientist was forced to leave a Canadian university for shipping deadly viruses, including ebola, back to China. The lab also tried to steal intellectual property regarding remdesivir, a class of antiviral medications used to treat COVID-19 prior to the vaccine. The editorial board of the Bat Lady’s virology journal includes members of the Chinese military.
As early as 2018, Wuhan alarmed visiting U.S. State Department safety inspectors. “The new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” the inspectors wrote. They warned the lab’s work on “bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.” The Chinese worked under mostly BSL2-level safety conditions far too lax to contain a virus like COVID-19.
The other origin theory, natural emergence, never has had any evidence to support it. Wade’s Bulletin report states, “This was surprising because both the SARS1 and MERS viruses [related to COVID-19] had left copious traces in the environment. The intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months.”
Yet some 15 months after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Chinese researchers have failed to find the original bat population, or the intermediate species to which COVID-19 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to late 2019. The search in China for the natural origin of the virus included testing more than 80,000 different animals from across dozens of Chinese provinces. Not a single case of COVID-19 in nature was found. Chinese researchers did find primordial cases in people from Wuhan with no link to that infamous wet market China claims sold an infected bat eaten by Patient One.
So why does the natural origin theory persist? One of the strongest shows of support was a letter from dozens of scientists published in early 2020 in the British medical journal Lancet. The letter had actually been written not by the scientists, but by Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth, the grantee who subcontracted with Wuhan. If the virus had indeed escaped from research they funded, EcoHealth would be potentially liable, as of course would the American government. EcoHealth went on to plant never-challenged stories in the MSM labeling anyone who thought Wuhan was to blame as a conspiracy crank.
Meanwhile, a Chinese-affiliated scientific journal at the University of Massachusetts Medical School commissioned commentary to refute that COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan lab, the same position held by the Chinese government. Mirroring the American media, the journal called anything to the contrary “speculations, rumors, and conspiracy theories.” Chinese officials also objected elsewhere to any name, such as the Wuhan Flu, linking the virus to China.
In addition to these cover-up efforts, there were those of Dr. Anthony Fauci. In answer to Senator Rand Paul, Fauci stated “you are entirely and completely incorrect—that the NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” He appears to have committed perjury, as Fauci now admits “there’s no way of guaranteeing” American taxpayer money routed to Wuhan didn’t fund gain-of-function research. Fauci has also reversed himself completely in saying he is no longer convinced COVID developed naturally. The Senate in response passed a Rand Paul-sponsored amendment banning funding of gain-of-function research in China.
The cover-up was aided in every possible way by the media. Though in 2021 the Wall Street Journalreported three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology became “sick enough in November 2019 [a month before the first “public” cases] with COVID-19-like symptoms that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report,” they along with their peers showed little curiosity a year earlier.
One important word in the Journal’s reporting is undisclosed. What they mean is the media did not know about the report, but the U.S. government did. When President Trump spoke about his now-prescient decision to shut down travel from China in early 2020, he knew about the intel report. As in most cases involving intelligence, the president had to act on the information and inform the public without giving away sources and methods. No thinking person today can claim the move to shut down travel was a mistake.
The media, however, had other priorities. They immediately slammed the decision as racist, and promoted the Chinese government’s evidence-free explanation the Wuhan lab had no connection with the pandemic.
A WaPo headline read “Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research” and a separate story said believing the Chinese had anything to do with creating COVID was as credible as the Soviet Union in 1985 accusing the CIA of manufacturing AIDS. “Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins,” said the New York Times in February 2020, adding “Scientists have dismissed suggestions that the Chinese government was behind the outbreak.” The Times’s article, however, did not name any of the supposed scientists. Then there was a hagiographic bio piece on the Bat Lady. Later, Time named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2020. The media shut out dissenting opinions, even mocking the Nobel Prize winning co-discoverer of HIV for suggesting non-natural origins.
It is only now, months into the safety of the Biden administration, that the media is willing to take a peek inside Pandora’s Box. Politifact has since walked back its “fact checks” and Facebook announced it would no longer censor posts claiming the virus was man-made.
Yet despite the deaths of millions of people, Washington still has little interest in the origin question. The Biden administration shut down a State Department investigation in March of this year, claiming it was politically motivated. Under pressure, Biden later asked for his own slow-roll investigation, likely to conclude happily none of the scenarios can be confidently ruled in or ruled out.
There will be no smoking gun. The people who know the truth, the Chinese and American governments, and EcoHealth, have already been caught lying. Though this kind of gain-of-function research does not leave a physical marker to prove origin, to date, there is no evidence COVID-19 was of a natural origin. There is much to show it was not.
We do know Wuhan conducted gain-of-function research aimed at doing what COVID-19 does, making a virus originally not dangerous to humans into a super-infector designed to spread quickly while resisting then-existing cures and vaccines. We know the first cases of the virus were in Wuhan, and include researchers at the virology lab who were infected in November 2019. We know precautions at the lab were insufficient to contain the virus. In a murder case this would be enough to show means, motive, and method to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
We know the basic gain-of-function research at the lab was funded by the United States. We also know despite the global importance of the story, curiosity was non-existent in the media. They instead promoted the cover-up stories.
We are unlikely to ever know the full truth, and politicians and pundits will make the most of the ambiguity. But we know the people who lost loved ones, lost their jobs, who fell into despair under societal restrictions, deserve better.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.