Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Coronavirus: All evidence point to Wuhan labs as source of infection

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The Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan. Picture: AFP.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan. Picture: AFP.
The US government is investigating whether the COVID-19 virus came from a government laboratory in Wuhan, China. The Chinese Communist Party denies the possibility. “There is no way this virus came from us,” claimed Yuan Zhiming over the weekend. Mr. Yuan is a top researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studies some of the world’s deadliest pathogens. He is also secretary of the lab’s Communist Party committee. He accuses me of “deliberately trying to mislead people” for suggesting his laboratory as a possible origin for the pandemic.
Beijing has claimed that the virus originated in a Wuhan “wet market,” where wild animals were sold. But evidence to counter this theory emerged in January. Chinese researchers reported in the Lancet January 24 that the first known cases had no contact with the market, and Chinese state media acknowledged the finding. There’s no evidence the market sold bats or pangolins, the animals from which the virus is thought to have jumped to humans. And the bat species that carries it isn’t found within 160km of Wuhan.

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Wuhan has two labs where we know bats and humans interacted. One is the Institute of Virology, eight miles from the wet market; the other is the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, barely 300 yards from the market.


Both labs collect live animals to study viruses. Their researchers travel to caves across China to capture bats for this purpose. Chinese state media released a mini-documentary in mid-December following a team of Wuhan CDC researchers collecting viruses from bats in caves. The researchers fretted openly about the risk of infection.
The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, known as SARS, was believed to have emerged from wet markets — where exotic animals are kept alive alongside other animals which are butchered for meat — in China’s Guangdong province. The WHO said SARS was most likely originally an animal virus and a small number of cases may have occurred through animal to human transmission.
November 17: A 55-year-old resident of Hubei, China, presented with a mysterious lung infection, believed to be coronavirus.
November 17 onwards: One to five new cases of the lung infections were being reported every day, at hospitals around Wuhan, China. Many worked or regularly visited the Huanan wet market, making it the prime source suspect.
December 20: A total of 60 cases of SARS-CoV-2, the virus’ official name, were recorded in China.
January 1: Officials closed the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
January 23: China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan as COVID-19 spread.
January 25: Australia’s first case emerged, when a man from Wuhan fell ill in Victoria. He had flown into Melbourne from the Chinese province of Guangdong on January 19.
February: The Chinese state-backed Wuhan Institute of Virology dismissed rumours that the virus may have been artificially synthesised at one of its laboratories or perhaps escaped from such a facility.
March 5: Chinese authorities temporarily banned the buying, selling, and transportation of wild animals in markets, restaurants, and online marketplaces. Farms that breed and transport wildlife were also quarantined and shut down. The ban was expected to stay in place until the coronavirus epidemic ended, Xinhua News reported. But now it’s permanent.
March 19: The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations said the Chinese Government could gradually reopen live poultry markets. Four reopened in Guangzhou city.
The organisation said COVID-19 control measures had been put in place and the number of dealers and workers had been limited.
April 3: “I think we should shut down those things right away,” Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said of wet markets in a US TV interview. “It boggles my mind how when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we don’t just shut it down.”
April 6: The United Nations’ biodiversity chief, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, said she wanted to ban the sale of all live animals, not just wild ones. “It would be good to ban the live animal markets,” she said in an interview in The Guardian. “The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us.”
April 8: A bipartisan group of more than 60 US politicians also called for a ban on wet markets in a letter to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Organisation for Animal Health, and the UN. “Market vendors cage animals of different species in close proximity, where the animals are likely to urinate, defecate, and potentially bleed or salivate on the animals below them,” they wrote.
April 13: Fish and vegetable merchants reopen stalls at wet markets in China’s central city of Wuhan as it lifts a months-long lockdown.
April 14: Prime Minister Scott Morrison also admonished the WHO for its “unfathomable” decision to support China reopening live animal markets. “To be sanctioning that is just completely mystifying to me,” he told 6PR radio. “But that said, the WHO also as an organisation does a lot of important work, including here in our own region in the Pacific, and we work closely with them. We’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater here, but they’re also not immune from criticism and immune from doing things better.” 
April 15: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg launched a blistering attack on the WHO for its apparent support of reopening wet markets in China. But Australia will not be following the US in pulling funding from the WHO over its response to the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s unbelievable, it’s extraordinary, that the World Health Organisation sees it fit for these wet markets to continue in China,” Mr Frydenberg said.
April 16: Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton savaged the WHO over Chinese live animal markets, backing a review of Australia’s links to UN bodies.
April 16: US President Donald Trump said his government was trying to determine whether the coronavirus emanated from a lab in Wuhan, China, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Beijing “needs to come clean” on what they know.
These risks were not limited to the field. The Washington Post reported last week that in 2018 US diplomats in China warned of “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate” the Institute of Virology. The Wuhan CDC operates at even lower biosafety standards.
While the Chinese government denies the possibility of a lab leak, its actions tell a different story. The Chinese military posted its top epidemiologist to the Institute of Virology in January. In February Chairman Xi Jinping urged swift implementation of new biosafety rules to govern pathogens in laboratory settings. Academic papers about the virus’s origins are now subject to prior restraint by the government.
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In early January, enforcers threatened doctors who warned their colleagues about the virus. Among them was Li Wenliang, who died of COVID-19 in February. Laboratories working to sequence the virus’s genetic code were ordered to destroy their samples. The laboratory that first published the virus’s genome was shut down, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported in February.
This evidence is circumstantial, to be sure, but it all points toward the Wuhan labs. Thanks to the Chinese cover-up, we may never have direct, conclusive evidence — intelligence rarely works that way — but Americans justifiably can use common sense to follow the inherent logic of events to their likely conclusion.

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