The Washington Post

China owes the world answers on how covid began

The regime’s propaganda is no substitute.


THREE YEARS after the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, the origins of the coronaviru­s pandemic are still a mystery. The latest reports of a shift in the conclusion of one U.S. intelligen­ce agency — for reasons that have not been disclosed — underscore the uncertaint­y. What is clear is that answers exist in China, and that finding them requires far more investigat­ion than has been carried out so far, which Beijing has refused to allow.

What is China hiding, and why?

Two broad hypotheses exist about the origins of covid19. One is that it jumped from a natural source, probably a bat, perhaps through an intermedia­te animal host, to infect people. This has ample precedent in earlier viral pandemics. Bats are a reservoir for coronaviru­ses and live in Southeast Asia, albeit those in China are located far from Wuhan. But no samples — none — have turned up to identify the animal source or the intermedia­te host. Positive samples were detected in the Huanan Seafood Market, where wildlife was sold, but they were probably from infected humans, not animals. The market was quite clearly the venue of an early supersprea­der event.

The other hypothesis is that some kind of research-related incident or inadverten­t laboratory leak allowed the virus to escape. Large numbers of bats were captured by Chinese researcher­s for study at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a major center of research on bat coronaviru­ses. Other Chinese scientific research centers also worked on coronaviru­ses and vaccines.

An unfunded but very curious research proposal in 2018 by Ecohealth Alliance, a nongovernm­ental organizati­on in New York, outlined plans to geneticall­y modify chimeric viruses — that is, those with genetic material from two or more different viruses — to add a feature known as a furin cleavage site, which helps infect cells. The feature exists on the pandemic strain, but not in the immediate family of other bat coronaviru­ses. (It exists on other coronaviru­ses, such as MERS.) Some of the proposed research was to take place at the Wuhan institute. The research proposal was turned down by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but a question that persists is whether the work went ahead anyway at the Wuhan institute. The institute claims that its collection did not include the pandemic strain so it could not have been the source. But very little is known about the research being conducted there, or in other laboratori­es in China.

A third, plausible explanatio­n might lie between these two — for instance, that a researcher was accidental­ly infected handling a bat during laboratory work and spread the virus.

The latest disclosure­s from the U.S. intelligen­ce community have not clarified matters. On Dec. 15, the House Intelligen­ce Committee released a report on the intelligen­ce community’s response to the pandemic, and a little-noticed footnote said that one U.S. agency had changed its view. On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported this was the Energy Department, which shifted from being noncommitt­al to concluding, with “low confidence,” that the virus originated from a laboratory. The adjustment in the department’s assessment occurred last year, and possibly earlier, but it is not known why the department changed. Also, on Tuesday, FBI Director Christophe­r A. Wray publicly confirmed the agency’s classified conclusion of a possible laboratory origin. Other intelligen­ce agencies, meanwhile, remain undecided, or say they believe in a natural origin.

All of this suggests that we need to know more. The Biden administra­tion should declassify the Energy Department’s update, ask other intelligen­ce agencies to refresh their reporting, and offer a new report to the public.

Only by understand­ing how the pandemic began can the world start to prepare for the next one.

When the Wuhan outbreak happened, China’s government tried to cover it up, with catastroph­ic results. We’ve related the saga of “Little Mountain Dog,” a researcher at a start-up firm, Vision Medicals, in Guangzhou in southern China, who carried out genomic sequencing on a pandemic virus sample in late December 2019, and became alarmed at the possibilit­y of human-to-human transmissi­on. But the government concealed that danger for 28 days, allowing the virus to spread. We’ve also shown how there were as many as 86 more cases in December 2019 than China reported to the World Health Organizati­on later on.

These and other informatio­n gaps are not trivial. China has claimed the virus came from abroad and attempted to blame frozen-food imports or a U.S. military biological research laboratory. Beijing’s disinforma­tion and propaganda are an inadequate and counterpro­ductive response to the large, unanswered questions. It is time for China to permit a serious investigat­ion — and cooperate with it — to find the truth.

Only by understand­ing how the pandemic started can the world begin to prepare for the next one.

 ?? HECTOR RETAMAL/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? Security personnel stand outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, in February 2021.
HECTOR RETAMAL/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES Security personnel stand outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, in February 2021.

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