Shi Zhengli Provides Proof SARS CoV-2 Was Not An Accidental Release From Wuhan Institute of Virology
On Saturday, I took a deep dive into the origin of SARS CoV-2, the virus that is the cause of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. That post was the result of several long days of deep reading and thinking. Somehow, I missed that Scientific American had put out an update on Friday of their profile of Dr. Shi Zhengli, the scientist responsible for much of what the world knows about bat coronaviruses, including isolating the bat coronavirus from Yunnan Province that is the closest relative to SARS CoV-2 that has been seen in a laboratory. Even worse, commenter Zinsky linked to the Scientific American article in one of the earliest comments on my post.
I finally got around to reading the article today. As you might imagine, this editor’s note at the top really got my attention:
Editor’s Note (4/24/20): This article was originally published online on March 11. It has been updated for inclusion in the June 2020 issue of Scientific American and to address rumors that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from Shi Zhengli’s lab in China.
I strongly urge you to read the entire article. It provides an effective look into work that Shi had been doing prior to the outbreak and then takes us along with her as she gets the news on December 30 that a novel coronavirus had been detected in two patients in Wuhan with atypical pneumonia. On instruction from the lab director, Shi left the conference she was attending in Shanghai and rushed back to Wuhan to concentrate all of her attention on the new virus.
It is important to keep in mind that Shi’s career up to the SARS CoV-2 outbreak was aimed at just such an event. In fact, she and her team had warned us. From the Scientific American article:
With growing human populations increasingly encroaching on wildlife habitats, with unprecedented changes in land use, with wildlife and livestock transported across countries and their products around the world, and with sharp increases in both domestic and international travel, pandemics of new diseases are a mathematical near certainty. This had been keeping Shi and many other researchers awake at night long before the mysterious samples landed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on that ominous evening last December.
More than a year ago Shi’s team published two comprehensive reviews about coronaviruses in Viruses and Nature Reviews Microbiology. Drawing evidence from her own studies—many of which were published in top academic journals—and from others, Shi and her co-authors warned of the risk of future outbreaks of bat-borne coronaviruses.
With that as background, her actions in digging into the new virus make perfect sense for how a respected scientist engaged in work with dangerous viruses would seek the source of the outbreak.
She and her team jumped into work on the train trip back to Wuhan from the conference in Shanghai:
On the train back to Wuhan on December 30 last year, Shi and her colleagues discussed ways to immediately start testing the patients’ samples. In the following weeks—the most intense and the most stressful time of her life—China’s bat woman felt she was fighting a battle in her worst nightmare, even though it was one she had been preparing for over the past 16 years. Using a technique called polymerase chain reaction, which can detect a virus by amplifying its genetic material, the team found that samples from five of seven patients had genetic sequences present in all coronaviruses.
But here’s where the character of a person who has been dedicated to science her entire career comes out:
Shi instructed her group to repeat the tests and, at the same time, sent the samples to another facility to sequence the full viral genomes. Meanwhile she frantically went through her own lab’s records from the past few years to check for any mishandling of experimental materials, especially during disposal. Shi breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves. “That really took a load off my mind,” she says. “I had not slept a wink for days.”
Yes, months before the rumors of an accidental release from her lab started circulating, one of Shi’s very first steps was to make sure that the sequence of the virus found in patients from the wet market did not align with the sequences of any of the viruses isolated from bats that she had in her lab. She had already warned the world of the danger posed by some coronaviruses jumping from bats to humans. [Note: even though we talk about SARS CoV-2 and the bat virus RaTG13 being “closely related”, they still differ by enough that it is clear that SARS CoV-2 came from a different source than either the virus circulating in that bat population at the time it was isolated or the virus as it exists now in the lab.]
Even more importantly, she checked lab safety records and did not sleep until she could eliminate the nightmare of her lab being responsible for the outbreak.
The article goes on to detail the steps taken to confirm SARS CoV-2 as the agent for the outbreak and the use of sequencing of multiple isolates from different patients over time to indicate that it’s very likely that there was only a single introduction of the virus into humans.
Clearly, the rumors of a leak from her lab have bothered Shi, but she will not allow them to stop her:
Despite the disturbance, Shi is determined to continue her work. “The mission must go on,” she says. “What we have uncovered is just the tip of an iceberg.” She is planning to lead a national project to systematically sample viruses in bat caves, with much wider scope and intensity than previous attempts.
“Bat-borne coronaviruses will cause more outbreaks,” Shi says with a tone of brooding certainty. “We must find them before they find us.”
In my post on Saturday, I posited that if we are to believe that the outbreak was the product of an accidental release from Wuhan Institute of Virology, we would have to claim that China has removed from the record any evidence of workers from the lab, or the family or other close contacts, being infected or dying.
Now, after the details that Shi has provided, we would have to believe that a scientist with a long history of top-notch peer reviewed research would be involved in such a lie and would further fabricate the story that none of the previous isolates in her lab match the outbreak.
A scientist of this caliber would know that such a lie would eventually be uncovered. That Shi intends to continue her work unabated is very strong evidence that she is being truthful and can rightfully proceed with a clear conscience.
Those considerations prompted me to return to the “evidence” that was presented to suggest an accidental release. Recall that in my post Saturday, I was perplexed by what looked like the outlines of an information operation. First, the specificity, out of the blue, of the question from John Roberts of Fox about an intern at the lab being infected. I still haven’t heard any others make this same suggestion, so that still stands out as suspicious.
But then I went back and looked at the Josh Rogin column from the same day, where Rogin concentrated on two State Department cables from 2018 about Wuhan Institute of Virology. Here’s the setting Rogin provided for the cables:
In January 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing took the unusual step of repeatedly sending U.S. science diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which had in 2015 become China’s first laboratory to achieve the highest level of international bioresearch safety (known as BSL-4). WIV issued a news release in English about the last of these visits, which occurred on March 27, 2018. The U.S. delegation was led by Jamison Fouss, the consul general in Wuhan, and Rick Switzer, the embassy’s counselor of environment, science, technology and health. Last week, WIV erased that statement from its website, though it remains archived on the Internet.
What the U.S. officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.
And yet, even though Rogin says he got a copy of the first cable, this is the only money quote he chose to put into his column:
“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” states the Jan. 19, 2018, cable, which was drafted by two officials from the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with the WIV scientists. (The State Department declined to comment on this and other details of the story.)
Rogin then adds what I think is the most important part:
The Chinese researchers at WIV were receiving assistance from the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and other U.S. organizations, but the Chinese requested additional help. The cables argued that the United States should give the Wuhan lab further support, mainly because its research on bat coronaviruses was important but also dangerous.
Really? The scariest language that Rogin could lift from the cable warned of a “shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate”, but then he grudgingly had to note that this was in fact tied to a request from the lab for more outside assistance in getting that training. When we couple that thought with the failure, so far, of Rogin or anyone else to have actually published the full cables, I am more convinced than ever that the whole cable story is part of a coordinated information operation where Roberts asked the specific question and then Rogin took information that had been twisted inside-out from a cable asking for help with training at the lab to try to turn it into a potential whistle-blowing event.
One more bit. I did some digging. Rick Switzer, the “embassy’s counselor of environment, science, technology and health” is not a scientist:
Rogin says the cable he saw was written by “two officials from the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with the WIV scientists”. One would hope that there was at least one actual scientist among those two officials.
BTW, Scientific American also has a short post on blood glucose and viruses.
Excellent “news” (too much to keep up with, really), update, and analysis Jim. I was so happy to see your headline.
It’s easy for mis/disinfo on the finer points to circulate because, frankly, none of us has the time to read _everything_ and suss for ourselves. Thanks to you here and Rayne elsewhere for staying on top of your respective literature+ beats.
I’ll add (on the reading list topic) that I, too, had that Sci Am and related stuff in my ‘when I have time’ pile, and more, via e.g. @givebatsabreak (account maintained by an appreciator of bats, often tweets experts countering just the type of stuff addressed here, but also re the resurged anti-bat panic. As to the latter, here’s a recent PNAS item of general interest from the pile:
Viral zoonotic risk is homogenous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts
^ Abstract (emphasis added):
“ Viral zoonotic risk is homogenous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts‘
I’m guessing that means you can get a virus from any mammal or bird residing in the same “order” (the grouping that falls between class and family in the taxonomic ranking system). Is that correct?
As flying colonial cave dwellers, I’d think that bats would be unique within the animal kingdom for their propensity for, and ability to spread, an airborne viral respiratory disease.
They are making a different set of points.
NB: “among” means _between_ groups (here, animal orders), not ‘within’, which trips some people up.
So they are saying* that the risk to us is homogeneous _between_ different orders of animals, because viral load (and potential for zoonoses) correlates positively with the species diversity of/within a given order, such that different species aren’t “inherently” special reservoirs “just because” of, for example, their ‘batness’ or ‘rodentness’.
This matters for surveillance, because while we keep an eye on, for example, different species of bats, rodents, and birds, we risk reinforcing selection- and detection- biases, and missing out on what’s next on the horizon, if we fail to surveil a broader range of animals (which may in fact be the exact problem with SARS-CoV-2: lack of surveillance on the right animal(s)).
*See paper for nuanced discussion.
Thanks Jim, excellent article. I also appreciate your honesty in going back & checking an article someone put in the comments section.
you mistake antipathy for honesty. not a wise choice.
scientists have their work to do.
reporters have their work to do.
if there is a sars virus outbreak in wuhan
if there is a level 4 lab studying sars virus in wuhan
if there is the possibility that that lab is understaffed, has inadequately trained staff, or is inadequately managed (none of which jim white appeared to consider)
then there is the possibility of a viral accident and release sooner or later
the reporter’s job is to report possibilities, not pat scientists on the back. that latter is the job of other scientists – like jim white.
in the meantime, there has been no resolution of the concerns someone in the american government and university universe had about that lab.
how much money or how many lives would you put on “because the scientist is consiencious and honest, everything is hunky dory at the level 4 sars experiment lab in wuhan”.
No, a reporter’s job is NOT “to report possibilities” that is the work of a commentator, maybe; a reporter’s job is the report facts, which may under certain circumstances include the fact that someone is mouthing off. The job of a scientist is NOT to “pat scientists on the back,” it is to challenge and check their work.
What your job is, I don’t know. Fomenting scandal and doubt?
“…No, a reporter’s job is NOT “to report possibilities” .
you could not be more wrong. of course rogin could report what he had read or heard the the level4 lab. that is how many important stories are first broken.
as for reporting only “facts”, what’s a “fact” is ambiguous at best.
“… What your job is, I don’t know. Fomenting scandal and doubt?”
spoken like a republican rejecting the truth about our prez. 🤣
Is a reporter’s job conjecture? To my thinking – having been reared during a time when opinion and news were clearly separated – the job of a reporter under these circumstances would be to inform the reader. How? First, find out if the situation in Wuhan is worse than, similar to, or better than other laboratories worldwide of the same type. That would be good to know. Next, try to find out the likelihood of a viral escape from any and all such laboratories, and what safeguards there are to prevent that occurrence. How does Wuhan stack up against said measures. Third, perhaps try to find out how or even if the Wuhan laboratory is understaffed compared again to similar laboratories worldwide. Perhaps qualified staffing is not a Chinese problem but a lack of qualified candidates everywhere problem?
Simply adding a smokescreen spin about the lab based on some random facts and a letter someone wrote is not the job of a reporter – that is the business of a hack doing a hatchet job.
If the best source of information that nothing went wrong at the lab is the assurance of the head of the lab, then maybe we need more information. Just saying.
What you and orion don’t appreciate is the self-checking mechanism of science and peer review. Everyone is checking every assumption ALL THE TIME.
A lie of the magnitude of hiding an infection among the staff eventually would be found out. Just like other professions, scientists talk to one another. Information passes quickly and moves about much of the time unfiltered. In China, there may be some silencing effect from the government, but it’s less than you would expect.
A scientist hiding a lie of this magnitude would know that it eventually would come out. Evidence of some sort will be found. And it would completely end her career. Told to cover up such an event, my guess is that she would just go completely silent and walk away from her work because she would know that it no longer could be trusted. Instead, she is already talking about getting ahead of the next outbreak.
What you and orion are also overlooking is that she checked to make sure it didn’t come from her lab as part of the very first things she did in the investigation.
Just stop this shit now, both of you. It’s Trump level of disregarding information sitting in front of your face.
jim white –
you have no idea what i do and don’t appreciate about science. it is arrogant and inaccurate to say i am unaware of the intellectual “self-checking” mechanisms. the last person i need condescending lessons from is you, bug man.
in fact, jim white, it is you who missed the key issue raised in rogin’s report. that issue is not the meticulous scientific checking, nor whether szi could be counted on not to lie (your key defense, repeatedly made).
the key issue for me is that a level-4 biolab is a dangerous facility (rather like a texas chemical factory). a potential for serious harm exists alongside the opportunity for productive activity. from a public health and safety standpoint the key concern rogin’s article raised was the security of the lab (or labs). that is what i emphasized and what you ignored about rogin’s report, specifically what are often called “manpower and personnel” problems.
“… In January 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing took the unusual step of repeatedly sending U.S. science diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which had in 2015 become China’s first laboratory to achieve the highest level of international bioresearch safety (known as BSL-4). WIV issued a news release in English about the last of these visits, which occurred on March 27, 2018….
“… What the U.S. officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic…
“… During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” states the Jan. 19, 2018, cable, which was drafted by two officials from the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with the WIV scientists. (The State Department declined to comment on this and other details of the story.)…
“…the Chinese researchers at WIV were receiving assistance from the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and other U.S. organizations, but the Chinese requested additional help. The cables argued that the United States should give the Wuhan lab further support, mainly because its research on bat coronaviruses was important but also dangerous…”
why did the u.s. embassy take these steps, jim. were they just looking for a nice travel opportunity in the great nation of china? did they have nothing else to do but visit some obscure lab?
all the matters that concerned me about rogin’s report were: potentially inadequate staff, inadequate training, and management weaknesses. it from a fertile soil like this that disasters erupt. and then what do folks like you sputter? john galt?
going into the lists with you lance set to defend dr. szi was a noble act of obliviousness to warnings that could lead to a disaster. the lab personnel needed to be up to the tasks of running to dangerous organization. were they? has anyone checked in the intervening two years since these state department concerns were first written up? is there merit to claims of understaffing, undertraing, or inadequate management. or were they overstated. had the lab received the additional help from the u.s. in the intervening two years.
it would be smart to get away from concerns about trumpian political manipulations regarding china and covid-19 and focus instead on whether there was any merit to the concerns that surfaced about the wuhan lab two years ago. it seems to me unwise to ignore them.
get down off your hobby horse and do some work, scientist.
Look. I normally skip past your comments because they wander off on long irrelevant tangents and the ee cummings shtick makes them unreadable.
But, here, you are skipping over the whole first post in this series where I specifically addressed the risk of accidental release and linked a detailed independent report about the worst ones that are known. Significantly, one was in Beijing and was recognized and responded to immediately by lab personnel and the government. So this time we’d have to say both the lab and government reacted in the opposite way. Of course an accidental release is the first thing a person from this lab would look for and she did. Oh, and google “John Galt Kills Texans” if you want to familiarize yourself with my thoughts on risky chemical facilities.
I also went, in the first post, to the significant statements in Rogin’s report from Richard Ebright, the world’s leading person for cautioning about accidental releases. That his hair is not on fire right now about this speaks volumes. If there was any “there” there, it would have made its way to him, probably even first by anyone wanting to get the word out. His call for further data from the government speaks volumes.
One more note about the outbreak virus not matching an isolate in Shi’s lab. Note that for full sequencing, she mentions sending material to another lab. You can rest assured that getting sequence information is one of the first things the lab does when it gets a new isolate. She knew the sequence of the outbreak virus would come out and she sent it for sequencing immediately, before she knew what that result would be. Also, the lab or labs doing sequencing for her would already have the sequences from the previous isolates the lab had. So now we even have to get whatever lab sequenced the “guilty” isolate involved in the conspiracy to hide its accidental release.
As for the rest of your “analysis” from Rogin, it’s pure bunk. If you look at what I wrote, you will see I pointed out that Rogin’s claims about danger are not backed up by any actual quotes from the cable itself. Instead, what we see is a vague warning of danger based on a lack of training, ALONG WITH A REQUEST FOR HELP WITH TRAINING. It is of course natural to frame the request for help with information to the effect of what the risk is if they fall too short of trained personnel. If the cable had said that this lack of training was resulting in improperly trained personnel carrying out work that posed a clear risk at the time of the visit, rest assured that would have been in the cable and would have been the prime piece of evidence in Rogin’s column. It’s just too handy for Rogin’s spin that he doesn’t release the full cable.
Do me a favor and take your act to other threads. I’m back to skipping your comments.
jim white –
you really don’t distinguish reporting from science very well. it is not up to a reporter to “prove” anything. his job is to check for interesting or valuable stories and see that the information he puts put is trustworthy. rogin did this. the story about the lab is well worth reading – and following up on. though no one has bothered to do so.
it was nice of you to discuss accidental release in general for hoi polloi. the trouble i have with all your talk is that you have not addressed the possible “manpower” problems (training, numbers, management) specific to the level-4 lab in wuhan, a potentially dangerous lab. that is the issue that concerns me.do you know anything at all? do you have anything specific to that lab’s situation to contribute to rogin’s reporting? that would move the discussion forward in a positive manner.
as for your great trust in richard ebright and related name dropping, is this the way a competent scientist goes about confirming a hypothesis – quote dr. so-and-so and all is proven?
this quote just summarizes nicely your arrogance:
“… As for the rest of your “analysis” from Rogin, it’s pure bunk. If you look at what I wrote, you will see I pointed out that Rogin’s claims about danger are not backed up by any actual quotes from the cable itself. Instead, what we see is a vague warning of danger based on a lack of training, ALONG WITH A REQUEST FOR HELP WITH TRAINING. It is of course natural to frame the request for help with information to the effect of what the risk is if they fall too short of trained personnel.”
i am not analyzing anything. i am not concerned to prove a viral release or not. i am pointing out for others to read and consider potentially serious operational problems at a particular level-4 biolab related by a washington post reporter. i am impressed by the amount of antipathy (and silence) generated by a valuable news report. personally, i think a person would be a too-trusting idiot not to give this report his attention.
jim white –
one other comment. i am impressed by the quality of “credulity” which runs all thru your initial post. i think “active scepticism” is much more appropriate to scientific work.
You do realize you are scolding someone with a background qualified to make assessments about research labs which journalists like Rogin do not possess, right? You’ve looked at his biography in the site’s About page?
EDIT: On second thought, fuck it. If you comment in this thread again it’s going into moderation. You’ve been a total boor to Jim in this thread instead of asking specific questions. We don’t have time deal with belligerence toward contributors who generously offer their considerable expertise which corporate media don’t have.
my comments are reasonable; they are focused. i am not here to kiss jim white’s feet or yours. i already challenenged you quite reasonably on the rogin article a week or so ago. i thought you were off base then and i still think so. and prejudiced to boot.
this is a serious issue, not one for pals in the upper echelons of emptywheel to be ganging up on a commenter who has a serious, but conflicting point. the problem between white and i is i am talking about a specific set of problems in a specific lab. white chooses to ignore those problems in favor of more general commentary. the problems that concern me are potentially serious security problems.
status and jim white’s qualifications should not be an issue with what i have been concerned about – manpower problems.
Orion – I love you, but this is not a good battle to pick. You said your piece, Let. It. Go.
I and Marcy know Jim White, and his credentials, personally and in real life, extremely well. And he and they are extremely good. Frankly, his Emptywheel bio barely scratches the surface of his qualifications.
We, especially Jim here, are not your enemy. Give it a rest. Please.
i have no question whatever about jim white’s credentials. none. but jim white is not the last word on anything in science. in fact, if you look thru the last two posts you will see evidence that what concerned me, but not jim, concerned some experts as well.
my point has been very simple. there are unanswered questions about that level 4 lab that josh rogin raised in a wapo article. jim white chose not to address them. i did want them addressed. there should have been room for both viewpoints.
They’re addressed. You just refuse to believe the evidence I’ve provided and that other commenters have even discussed.. So just stuff the self-righteous bullshit. It’s really beneath such a long term friend of the blog. Not sure what your problem is today, but accuse me again of dishonesty and you will never have another comment appear on one of my posts.
Ask specific questions. Save your rambling boorishness. This is your 2nd warning; you’ve been at this site long enough to know being an ass toward contributors is not acceptable. That includes this kind of bullshit: “not one for pals in the upper echelons of emptywheel“
thanks rayne but i don’t need your angry, intemperate advice on writing. there is no rambling boorishness in my commentary. you could not have picked a poorer choice of words.
like jim white you are failing to acknowledge and allow to be addressed problems at that level 4 lab. that is foolish may come back to bite you in the ass.
And do not fuck with Rayne either. We are simply not, for numerous reasons, some obvious, some not, currently in the mood for this crap. Stop.
bmaz @ 7:13pm.
sorry for the sites concerns and problems. i’ll retire to fight another day. 🙃
thanks for the wise advice.
Then why didn’t we send a ‘real scientist’ to the lab? Instead of the two they did send.
I’m a basic research biomedical scientist, and have been for 35 years. When they open the lab and all notebooks for inspection, I’ll believe what they are saying. Look, I’m not pushing any kind of conspiracy theory, but her lab studies bat coronaviruses, it’s in Wuhan, and the coronavirus, of bat origin, originated in that city. To simply ignore the possibility of an accidental infection without real verification (remember, Trust but verify) is irresponsible.
Here’s what you wrote: “Told to cover up such an event, my guess is that she would just go completely silent and walk away from her work because she would know that it no longer could be trusted.” Your “guess” is not verification. Neither is the word of the person who runs the lab. Again, open the books and lab to inspection. It’s what is done in the US when an accusation of misconduct is made.
I agree opening the books would be the best. I doubt China will allow that, but I still just don’t see a way she could have an isolate responsible for the outbreak and hide it this effectively. See one of my responses to orion for a discussion on the topic that she sends material out for sequencing. That seems like the very first step the lab would take on any new isolate because it will be one of the best tools for sorting out which ones to study further. It’s hard for me to see how that could be hidden after determining the sequence of the outbreak virus.
your comment, virtually word for word, summarizes my thoughts. i too am not interested in conspiracy regarding the lab or any scientist or worker. i am very resolute that matters in that lab need to be checked out very carefully and in close detail. these labs can be important vehicles for insight but they pose danger also.
That was 57 words. Amazing how you can be more concise when you choose, and you could still be more concise than 57 words.
this is a silly comment. if you paid attention you would realize i have a very large number of short comments at emptywheel.
[Obviously you’re choosing not paying any heed to two moderators./~Rayne]
Please cite an example of a country with which the U.S. is in a trade and national security dispute which has been allowed to examine a U.S. BSL-4 lab.
There’s an awful lot of context ignored in your demand, including the GOP’s plan to frame China with sole responsibility for the pandemic.
I think the comment is for me, so I will note that I don’t know of any example in which the the U.S. is in a trade and national security dispute and had been allowed to examine a U.S. BSL-4 lab. I also don’t know of any historical example of a virus that came from China (regardless of how it originated) and killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. The burden is on the Chinese to explain and prove what did or didn’t happen. Something really bad happened, even if was entirely natural, and we (i.e., the world) needs to know what it was so we can avoid it again. I’m a liberal Democrat, but please don’t expect me to believe the word of a Chinese scientist from Wuhan. I wouldn’t believe the word on an American scientist if the virus originated in an American city. We need verifiable facts.
Swine flu, bird flu, SARS. You’ve missed a lot of the viruses that came out of China – all of them natural.
I agree COVID almost certainly has a natural origin, the question is whether it went directly from an animal to a human or passed through a laboratory first. For the third and final time, the Chinese need to open the lab and its notebooks for inspection. Is this so difficult to understand?
2009 Swine flu came from Mexico, FWIW.
Read the SciAm story. Dr Shi checked everything – because she was afraid that something *had* escaped.
So disagreeing is Trump level disregarding of information that is right in front of one’s face and that is shit. Do you really want to say that?
From John Barry “To be a scientist requires not only intelligence and curiosity, but passion, patience, creativity, self-sufficiency, and courage. It is the courage to accept-indeed, embrace-uncertainty. A scientist must accept the fact that all his or her work, even beliefs may break apart upon the sharp edge of a single laboratory finding….Ultimately a scientist has nothing to believe in except the process…deeper than physical courage.”
So there is a lot of uncertainty here about the release of the virus and also a lot of good science, I find your explanations of the process very informative, but the question of “how” remains unanswered. The science I am not going to dispute, but the uncertainty surrounding the release of the virus is fair game and in that respect both Orion and padfoot have legitimate concerns. IMHO that is not Trump level shit, but questions deserving clarification not condemnation.
According to Rogin, in 2018 the Chinese scientists responsible for the Wuhan lab, aware of their own deficits in highly skilled staff, requested U.S. help. This strikes me as an unusually open admission by a reputedly secretive system, thus signaling real need for American talent to conduct research of global urgency. In 2018 the Trump administration closed the pandemic preparedness group. Did we give the Wuhan lab the requested assistance?
What they wanted was more trained people. I don’t think they got them.
What can history tell us here? Is there agreement on the origin of past novel diseases? For example, SARS, MERS, etc. If there is agreement that, for example, SARS “came out of the wild, not human fault”, then how was that consensus reached? And was it reached in spite of the presence of weak evidence like this cable quote? Is there agreed proof that a serious lab leak has occurred before? I assume we’re not confronting this question for the first time in history.
See the post from Saturday for a link to an analysis of previous accidental releases. What you find across the board is that it was the labs themselves that detected it. Part of the security at labs of this level of containment is routing monitoring of health for all the personnel. They check temperature daily for everyone.
bloopie2, this site requires you to actually do some reading on your own. We’re not here to give you a primer on evolutionary virology, genetics, and epidemiology.
There’s material all over the internet about SARS, for example, which will explain the trail tracking down the virus’s origin. Put some effort into participating.
Excellent post Jim.
Sorry I missed this article too.
Good to know it did not come from Dr. Zhengli’s lab. Still one wonders what the origin of the virus is. It is clearly a recombinant, being in the main derived from an RaTG13-like bat virus, having a RBD in the spike protein that seems to be lifted from a pangolin virus that binds the ACE2 receptor with high affinity, and then has the mysterious 12 nt insertion at the S1/S2 boundary. The mutations that otherwise dot the landscape could have arisen naturally from passage in humans or an intermediate host, or maybe from continued passage of the virus in vitro in human cell lines, who knows?
It would be curious to know who, besides Dr. Zhengli, has access to the bat coronavirus specimens and the BSL-4 facility. Are there any other researchers at WIV that have those privileges? And maybe Dr. Zhengli knows nothing about them?
It is a large lab, so there likely are several other principle investigators. Don’t know how many have access to related viruses, either hers or if there are other scientists with their own isolates, but that seems unlikely. Note that one of the main things Ebert has been concerned about with the proliferation of level 4 labs is the possibility of someone certified inside the lab essentially turning “rogue” and carrying out a deliberate release. An act of that sort hasn’t been seen yet in any of the releases identified previously. All have been the result of human errors. One would think that in China, personnel receiving training for work in such a lab would be screened very carefully and likely subject to various levels of surveillance during their time working there.
I’d actually be in favor of fewer level 4 US labs and very strict security clearance for personnel in them with follow-up monitoring to try to prevent the scenario Ebright is concerned about.
As for the origin, the Cell paper in Saturday’s post has a long section discussing just what you are talking about here. It discusses theories of time spent in an intermediate host or time spent as a less pathogenic virus in a human population until getting the final changes. That’s why finding the true intermediate species and looking at the viruses in it is the holy grail: it will go a long way toward clarifying those questions.
The bottom line is that we have to balance the need to know details of how these pathogens work and especially how they make the species jump, so there is no avoiding the need for such labs. We just have to make them as safe as we can and be constantly on the alert for anything going wrong. Part of the process for getting a level 4 lab certified, as you probably know, is have in place a monitoring plan to know as soon as possible if something does go wrong.
Shi is the main suspect. Don’t believe everything you read in journals.
“takes us along with her as she gets the news on December 30 that a novel coronavirus had been detected in two patients in Wuhan with atypical pneumonia.”
Lancet: First patient was Dec. 1.
South China Morning Post: First patient November 17 with “266” cases in 2019.
So how many lies and mis-directions before it counts?
Well, thank you for buzzing in with links THAT ARE IN THE FUCKING POSTS and discussed in detail. Now get lost with this “suspect” shit and not believing what you read in journals. I’m sure it must be time for you to head out to your local “end the lockdown” protest.
“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Robert J. Hanlon
A quip of occasional accuracy no longer applies in the world of Trump and the behavior he elicits.
Exactly who were the bureaucrats involved with closing the pandemic preparedness group? Were Fauci, Redfield Birx involved. Was the President involved in the decision?
Fauci would have been against it, if he were involved at all.
I believe it was under John Bolton’s watch that the pandemic response group was: streamlined, disbanded, reorganized, pick your euphemism. It was part of a cost-cutting move. snopes.com has the thumbnail sketch about it: https:// http://www.snopes.com/fact-check/trump-fire-pandemic-team/, and references a Fortune article about it.
It was stated that sequencing the virus didn’t provide a match with previously isolated viruses from the lab. This doesn’t exclude the possibility of contamination and infection resulting from mishandling bats or a new sample.
I am wondering if you have any thoughts on this article. It is a deep dive into coronavirus research and the similarities of Cov-2 with previously found and sequenced coronaviruses. The author does not say they concretely believe either way but that current “this is indisputably not an accidental release” statements need more receipts. He brings quite a few points up that are hard to hand-wave away as simply random viral recombination outside of a lab. Now, this is not my field but the data presented and logical steps shown to get to the belief that there is at least a probability, and not a far fetched one at that, that this is from a lab is hard for me to dismiss.
That’s not a really reliable source.
Many experts on viruses say it’s definitely natural.
I’ve skimmed it previously. It’s not his field either. He comes from a background of wireless technology startups. Not interested in digging through it in detail until it’s been peer reviewed instead of self-published.
I’m getting a strong whiff of whatabout-flea-infested-blankets-to-indigenous-nations whacko conspiracy theories in the air these days . . .
Jim ~ thank you for your syntheses! Namaste.
Jim, the value of that Medium post is to simply document that the types of recombinant events seen in SARS-CoV2 are, coincidentally or not, similar to specific changes that have previously been studied in coronavirus gain-of-function research, including research by the scientist/lab in question. For the most part, the post is pretty fair and does a good job documenting links. I think what the post does even better is to point out that arguments *against* lab release specifically are pretty thin as nothing is conclusive. Similarly a very recent WaPo article does not seem to match its headline or its conclusion. It is infuriating that we do not know and might never know, but it is important to investigate all possibilities at some point.
The arguments against lab release are fairly strong – the lab wasn’t even working with this particular virus, and the spike protein isn’t something that anyone had even considered.
I am reluctant to comment but here it is. Has anyone seen this on the carolinefifemd.com blog, a post by Marissa Carter titled “COVID-19: The Origins Story”? This is not to impugn the work of the good people here; are there any valid points in the above mentioned post? The tone of the writing implies to me that the author might have an agenda…
From Rogin‘s April 14, 2020 “commentary” in the Opinion section of WaPo:
Jan. 19, 2018 Two officials from the [US] embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with the WIV scientists wrote [2 excerpts]:
Mid-February The cables began to circulate again inside the administration.
March 27, 2018 Last visit of US officials.
1] April 14, 2020 at 6:00 a.m Rogin’s column
State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses
[link in post]
2] April 14, 2020, 6:38 PM EDT / Updated April 14, 2020, 9:42 PM
Trump says he is halting funding for the World Health Organization
President Donald Trump accused the WHO of “severely mismanaging and covering up” the coronavirus crisis, specifically the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China.
3] April 15, 2020 FOX News [links to Rogin’s column]
Sources believe coronavirus outbreak originated in Wuhan lab as part of China’s efforts to compete with US
https://www.foxnews.com/politics/coronavirus-wuhan-lab-china-compete-us-sources Bret Baier, Gregg Re; Fox News
Trump Officials Are Said to Press Spies to Link Virus and Wuhan Labs
Some analysts are worried that the pressure from senior officials could distort assessments about the coronavirus and be used as a weapon in an escalating battle with China. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/30/us/politics/trump-administration-intelligence-coronavirus-china.html
April 30, 2020 Updated 8:15 a.m.
What will we hear about next…a STOVEPIPE ? https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/10/27/the-stovepipe
Thanks for that. My online gym class is starting and then I’ll dive into it.
Have fun, Jim! You are much more conscientious than I!
Week of 4/19 to 4/25 A “tasking” seeking information about the outbreak’s early days was sent to the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, which includes the National Center for Medical Intelligence […] The CIA has received similar instructions […]
From Trump administration asks intelligence agencies to find out whether China, WHO hid info on coronavirus pandemic
A specific “tasking” seeking information about the outbreak’s early days was sent last week to the Defense Intelligence Agency. The CIA got similar instructions.
April 29, 2020, 5:00 AM
This is almost as good as PROOF that The Trump Administration is HIDING information about the PANDEMIC!
Meanwhile back in Washington Democrats are thinking that if the Chinese asked for help making their lab safer and we didn’t cooperate, the lab accident theory is party Trump’s fault.
Josh Rogin on Senators Murphy and Markey:
“These Democrat senators are not endorsing the lab origin theory outright and they definitely don’t agree with Trump on China policy. But they do not dismiss the possibility that the Wuhan labs were connected to the outbreak, and they want the U.S. government to get to the bottom of it.”
I guess they might be open to the possibility that a Chinese scientist who would have no career if she were caught lying might also have no career (or life, or family) if she got in the way of a Party cover-up. Hard to say.
I have to laugh at all the Wuhan bsl-4 lab leak conjecture. 13 cases outside of the market recorded initially. Wrong lab to be placing your blame at in the first place. Try the bsl-3 Chinese CDC lab 300 yards down the street with bats being handled with less care. More diatribe from the pop up book people.
I have been lurking, and unfortunately not been visiting this blog too much since the Stone sentencing. I can’t really comment about much on Sars-Cov-2 here because of all the background noise and conjecture. This site addresses policy, corruption, and politics.
Science should not be proffered here.
Do I think there is a possibility of a leak? However minute, there are always possibilities. It was definitely not manufactured!
Does the discussion of this have anything to do with the handling of the problem in our nation? Absolutely not…
This whole shift to a tangible culprit is so BS and transparent.
Leave the conjecture to the reddit threads, and let’s get back to exposing the truth in our own back yard.
Time to do some scenario planning or postulate your own.
Without communication and cooperation, the immediate future risks are not good.
Why would anyone rely on an accounting consultancy which didn’t provide predictive forecasting about pandemic risks to all their clients ahead of COVID-19? Their last pandemic consultancy work happened after the swine flu pandemic began.
And before you jump into my shit like you did Jim’s, yes, I have worked with both Fortune 100 corporations, their futurists, and their consultancy firms on scenario planning. I will tell you that scenario planning for one household name was worthless after six months though it was supposed to have created predictive scenarios 2-5 years out. The mental models were limited by the biases of the persons engaged in modeling. The persons engaged in Deloitte’s post-COVID-19 have two biases on the face of it: a bent toward faith in networked solutions and excessive faith in government stability.
Let me also point out these scenarios mention nothing about the impact deaths from this pandemic will have on any of the four scenarios they offer.
Did I not say to postulate your own scenario?
But offering a consultancy-based example for people unfamiliar with scenario planning to use? ~side eye~
Pretty sure everybody is already doing their own mental modeling based on their environment. Not like folks in quarantine have much else to do but think about COVID-19 and life after COVID-19.
I don’t belong here, huh?
Thanks for that.
Jim, your fine. You and your opinions are well respected, and I hold no disagreement with anything you have presented to laypersons here. The community and I here appreciate your contributions.
That being said, this is a novel virus and the evolution of research changes every day, literally. I do not come here to stay on top of the scope of said evolution. For that, I go to the direct published research and to medical accounts from the front lines. The research I would really like to get my hands on from chictr is mostly unpublished, and will be for some time.
The more bickering and blame shifting heaped on the Chinese, the less cooperation you will see.
You’ve been here for a whopping 11 comments, this one being your 10th and your first on November 5 last year. Jim, however, has been here for more than a decade and has written a considerable amount of the site’s coverage of anthrax and Ebola.
You will not be the judge of who belongs here. You will also not police what, why, and how contributors write at emptywheel, which often includes conjecture corporate-owned media journalists can’t/won’t offer.
I humbly ask for forgiveness.
My original comment was geared towards the Orion’s of the world, not Jim.
Science is hard to refute when the data starts to stack up. Jim has forgotten more on molecular biology than I could pretend to know on a clipped fingernail. When the comment section starts in with the conjecture and background noise, it seems like ‘throwing pearls before swine’ sometimes.
Hence, I don’t comment on Sars-Cov-2 here, or elsewhere. I am not qualified.
Evaluating the various possibilities of how CoV-2 arrived in humans has me giving significant weight to Shi’s statements about the absence of an accidental release from her lab.
Her statement is falsifable both in theory and very likely in practice.
The stated early timing of her checking on the possibility of accidental release from her lab is probably also falsifiable.
Having read “A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman’s Immortal Legacy-And the Medical Scandal It Caused”, by Michael Gold, which featured the head of at least one lab blithely denying that cell-line contamination could occur in her lab (whereas in fact it was occuring in that lab and many others), I see that Shi at least presents herself as having taken a very different and more responsible approach to the possibility of an accident in her lab.
Of course nothing presented to date has been adequately tested and more time and more information would be needed before I’d be highly confident of any account of the route the virus took from bat to human.
It may be falsibiable, but I think I’ve pointed out that in this case, the number of players needed to create the false story is already quite large. It will only grow over time. Note that in the example you used, the truth did eventually come out. If I’m wrong and it was a lab escape, we will eventually know. Given the number of different labs working on the virus, I think we’ll find out pretty fast. On the other hand, finding a definitive intermediate host would go a long way toward disproving. As would epidemiological data on the earliest cases. Right now, we don’t know how much info exists and/or if it will ever be released by the the government.
I agree that it would be very difficult to reliably erase the history of who was working in the lab and what was being worked on.
The US IC community has come to the conclusion it’s a natural virus and neither created in a lab nor an escapee from a lab.
ODNI News Release No. 11-20
Thank you for the article. For a non scienitific type, like me, it was informative.
Once I became aware of COVID 19, and then the peddling of the “escape from the lab” theory, it just didn’t make sense to me,the escape from the lab theory. It works for some who want to blame some one or something. If I were betting from the start I’d have put my money on “no escape from a lab”.
read through the comments and the “pissing contests” , I’m going with Jim White’s position. Lab escapes are nice for movies and might make nice stories on broadcasts for some, but scientists being scientists are careful. Yes, accidents can happen, but given there are two positions being put forward, the one which makes the most sense, in my opinion, is the bat from the wet market.
of course for some a lab “accident” makes it so much more “fun”. At some level it doesn’t matter how the disease got into the the population, in my opinion, its there. the focus now ought to be how to keep it under control and ensure people don’t die because of it. the lab escape theory might work for trump and his gang, but really, that is just a way of deflecting how little they have done to deal with COIVID 19. right now from what I saw on the American news the U.S.A. has the highest number of people who died because of the disease and appears to have done the least to deal with it, for an industrial country/first world country.
Every time I read an article regarding Trump’s insistence the meat packing plants open, I just shake my head. It doesn’t matter how it started, there is a person who is doing everything to ensure as many Americans as possible die from the disease. The lack of national coordination, the president’s use of the virus as a political weapon, his unwillingness to listen to medical experts, etc. No, the problem the U.S.A. has is not the making of China, its the making of Trump. When you look at how other countries are handling the disease, they’ve done a much better job.
thank you again for the work you do for the blog.
Is there any basis for reports that lab samples and records were destroyed?
Not challenging any experts here but something I had read but was not addressed.
here is a collection of interesting scientific articles related to this jim white post. the first on the list is the scientific american article with which jim began his tale:
all these articles were cited by josh rogan in his washington post article which jim discusses in the “epilogue” toward the botom of his post. you will rarely find higher quality or fairer reporting than this:
Never heard of Rogin being described as all that competent. Can’t say as I’ve ever seen that out of him.
i did not say he was competent; i have no idea one way or another. what I said was that his was an unusually fair article and of high quality (because he actually took the trouble to cite scientific articles). it is very rare i see that in msm articles unless they are written by science journalists. in fact i still can’t figure out why rogin felt obliged include them unless his editors stepped in.
rogin posed both sides of the question: he wrote up a story of possible serious problems with lab security on the one hand, and, by remarkable coincidence, he led his set of citations with precisely the same scientific american that jim white used at the beginning of this post to exonerate shi zhengli.
this is not the end of the matter of the suggestive state dept cables. the security side of the problem, tied as it is with the extremely important scientific question “how did this virus get started on humans”, persists, not always from pure motives to be sure. this ain’t shuffleboard:
Thus the rabbit hole… do you see where we are going here?
Heh. I had totally missed this Max Blumenthal piece on the column: https://thegrayzone.com/2020/04/20/trump-media-chinese-lab-coronavirus-conspiracy/
He went all the way to calling Rogin the next Judy Miller. That thought had been rumbling around my head lately. Of note, though, is Blumenthal linking a number of tweets with virologists calling out Rogin for cherry-picking quotes from the cable (gosh that sounds familiar) and him flat-out refusing to publish the entire cables.
Blumenthal also went back to remind of us of Rogin’s history as a mouthpiece for neocons and debacle of some of his “work” with Marcy’s favorite, Eli Lake.
Yeah, now “that” is the Josh Rogin I know. Come on though, you know Eli Lake has been my “favorite” as much as Marcy’s for a long time!
Well, sorry to leave you out. Eli really is a special level of propaganda catapultist.
Gonna take a flier here: did you mean “Marcy’s”?
For what it’s worth, the NY Times has an article today about the Trump Administration pressuring U.S. spy agencies to link the origin to the Wuhan labs.