Robert Redfield has a lot of questions. The virologist and former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants to know what happened at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, especially in the months before the emergence of COVID-19 in the same city. But China’s answers didn’t satisfy him.
“On Sept. 12, 2019, coronavirus bat sequences were deleted from the institute’s database. Why? It changed the security protocols for the lab. Why? It put out requests for more than $600 million for a new ventilation system. What prompted this new need?”
Redfield, who believes that the coronavirus escaped from the lab in Wuhan, asked those questions in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday, alluding to the possibility that something bad happened at the facility as early as September that year and caused a pandemic that has killed more than 4 million people worldwide. To bolster this view, he said a Harvard study of satellite images revealed a shutdown of traffic around the Wuhan lab around that time and that hospital parking lots in the city were filling up—signs, perhaps, of a lab accident and a subsequent surge in sick people.
But almost all of those insinuations are disputed, inaccurate, or just plain wrong.
The opinion article offers a stark illustration of the limits of circumstantial evidence as the search for the origins of COVID-19 enters a contentious new phase.
U.S. spy agencies are preparing to release a report on their findings on whether the pandemic started from human contact with an infected animal or a laboratory accident in China. The report is expected no later than next week, after President Joe Biden in May gave the U.S. intelligence community a 90-day deadline to further collect and analyze information that could “bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” on the origins of COVID-19.
But China is not keen to cooperate. Further muddling the search is Beijing’s renewed push of an unsubstantiated, alternative theory that the virus could have originated in a U.S. army lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The move has only fueled suspicions that the Chinese government is hiding something.
Unless U.S. spies uncovered substantial evidence—such as proof that the Wuhan lab possessed the virus that caused COVID-19 or evidence that it created the virus—the debate on the pathogen’s origins is likely to persist.
Redfield co-authored the Journal article with Marc Siegel, a physician and Fox News contributor who last March said the coronavirus was no worse than the flu. It was riddled with mistakes.
For example, the planned ventilation system upgrade at the Wuhan Institute of Virology cost about $600,000, not $600 million as the authors stated. The figure was corrected on Friday, a day after VICE World News emailed questions to the Journal’s opinion desk. That number came from a report by Republicans that exaggerated the amounts of several other projects by orders of magnitude and has been cited in several other prominent news outlets.
The Trump-appointed former director of the CDC apparently also misattributed the findings of a military contractor’s report to Harvard. The Harvard study he links to analyzed satellite images of hospital parking lots in Wuhan, but it did not once mention the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It was also criticized for its poor dataset, abuse of statistical methods, and mistranslation.
The analysis of traffic outside the Wuhan institute used commercial satellite imagery and phone location data to conclude that traffic was unusually thin around the Wuhan institute and was the result of containment efforts following a hazardous event. But the report’s key assertions were found to be false as early as June last year.
These are just a few examples, from one article, showing the challenges of investigating the origins of the coronavirus without being in China and without the country’s full cooperation.
The closest thing to a field study the world has seen was the World Health Organization (WHO) trip to China early this year, but the global health body has complained about not being able to access the complete raw data from the early COVID-19 patients that could give researchers insights into how the virus emerged.
Last month, the WHO chief urged Beijing to share the data, but Chinese officials said the information could not be disclosed due to patients’ privacy. Some scientists are not convinced by the argument, citing the possibility of disclosing the data while keeping the patients’ anonymous.
Beijing’s obsession with a theory that the coronavirus could have been brought into China through frozen food imports has also raised doubts. Officials have kept calling for more research into such potential cold-chain transmission, although few scientists abroad have found it credible enough to justify further investigation.
“In my opinion, it’s even less likely than lab origin,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, told VICE World News. Rasmussen, who has argued in favor of a natural origin of the coronavirus, said the Chinese government might be trying to distract people from the wildlife trade that could have led to a virus zoonotic spillover.
Scientists say only greater transparency will help Chinese authorities fend off all these suspicions. “We are being asked to take their words for it, without seeing any data,” said Alina Chan, a biologist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has promoted the lab leak hypothesis. Chan told VICE World News she would like to see all of the sequences of the pathogens that were processed at the Wuhan lab. If the data could not be made public, she said, they should at least be reviewed by an international team of scientists.
“This situation is setting precedents for how future outbreaks are tracked,” she said. “If every single country does this, and refuses to let international investigators check where the virus came from, we would just be facing a future where viruses are just exploding everywhere, and we are just getting a new pandemic every five or ten years.”
Some other scientists still maintain that the lab leak theory is unlikely, in contrast with what they have called a “substantial body of scientific evidence” supporting a natural origin for the coronavirus, according to a peer-reviewed paper published in Cell this week.
Still, with few new data points to inform the origins probe, scientists on both sides of the debate have called for greater transparency.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in July said the lack of raw data on the early days of the outbreak was hampering the investigations into the origin of the virus and urged China to be more transparent. Tedros suggested further studies into Chinese laboratories in the next phase of studies.
But the Chinese government would not feel comfortable with this degree of transparency. The Communist Party leadership is used to conducting investigations and making decisions behind closed doors, and sees the call for openness as a political threat.
“That is not atypical in China’s crisis management,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE World News. “The U.S. could push for more transparency, but they fail to recognize that the lack of transparency itself is part of the authoritarian governance in the country.”
This mindset could hurt China’s reputation—the pandemic is not a small crisis but one that has upended almost everyone’s life. “Even if the virus is caused by a natural spillover event,” Huang said, “when you don’t show transparency, when you are perceived as unwilling to share the data, people naturally will think you have something to hide.”
The Chinese government has remained intransigent to the mounting calls for more transparency.
At the press conference last month, Chinese officials said they were “shocked” to hear about WHO’s proposal for fresh audits into Chinese labs, adding the suggestion indicated “disrespect for common sense and an arrogant attitude toward science.”
The same month, state media quoted a Facebook post by a self-claimed Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards as saying that researchers faced intimidation from the U.S. for supporting the WHO-China origin-tracing study. The Swiss embassy said no such person exists.
It’s unclear whether the U.S. intelligence probe, which was condemned by Chinese state media as a “political witch-hunt,” would yield anything more than circumstantial evidence.
By the time a preliminary report was drafted, the intelligence community was still divided over the lab leak theory and the natural origin one, CNN reported this month. The outlet cited a source as saying that the draft contained “nothing too earth shattering.”
In September 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology shut off public access to its database, which holds thousands of genetic sequences of bat coronaviruses it studied.
Shi Zhengli, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the institute, said the online database was shut down after cyberattacks—believe it or not, that’s the answer to ex-CDC director Robert Redfield’s first question. But almost two years later, the database remains offline. It’s no wonder that people are asking questions.