This commentary is by Meg Hansen (MBBS, MA), the former executive director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, a health policy think tank. She ran for state-level public office in 2020.
Until the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in the early 2000s, animal-borne coronaviruses were considered minor pathogens in humans. Scientists discovered that the outbreak emerged in China when a bat coronavirus broke the species barrier to infect humans, concluding that future cross-species spillover could devastate society. It sparked a biotechnology race to identify coronaviruses that held pandemic potential, and turbocharge them (“gain of function”) to ostensibly anticipate and prepare for the worst. Playing with fire has but one problem.
A timeline of key events in the first hundred days of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) demonstrates how global actors with vested interests in pathogen bioengineering, and exploiting the Chinese market, used censorship and lies to hide the truth; and the Communist Party of China (CCP), to which the World Health Organization (WHO) gave cover, turned an outbreak in one city into a pandemic.
Our story begins on Dec. 18, 2019, when an emergency care specialist in Wuhan, China saw the first of a cluster of flu-like cases resistant to treatment. Dr. Ai Fen’s report (circling the word SARS) reached her colleague Dr. Li Wengliang who spread the word via social media. On Dec. 31, the WHO learned about an outbreak of “viral pneumonia” of unknown origin in Wuhan, prompting an investigation by a team from the WHO Laboratory at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Taiwanese intelligence warned the WHO that human-to-human spread of a mysterious pneumonia had been occurring through December in Wuhan, but the report was ignored.
On Jan. 2, 2020, Chinese authorities forced Li and Ai to recant and apologize for disturbing the public order with fear-mongering rumors. He died of the infection a month later. She has since vanished. (In successive weeks, other whistleblowers would also disappear.) On Jan. 3, China told the WHO that there were 27 cases with no deaths. It would take three months for the real numbers to surface – 104 cases including 15 deaths between Dec. 12 and Dec. 31.
On Jan. 5, Zhang Yongzhen at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre isolated the virus, sequenced its complete genome, and waited for authorities to act — they did not. In its first report on Jan. 10, the WHO cited Chinese accounts that the causative agent was a “novel coronavirus” (later named SARS-CoV-2), but made no mention of Zhang’s sequencing. Chinese authorities implicated a Wuhan “wet market” (where livestock and wild animals are freshly slaughtered for meat), alleging that all the patients had visited it.
On Jan. 11, Zhang posted the virus’s genome sequence on open access platforms because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had taken “no obvious action” to warn or protect the people. His move sent authorities scrambling and within a day, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences released genetic sequences of the virus. Zhang’s laboratory was immediately shut down for “rectification.” On Jan. 13, Thailand reported a confirmed case of the infection imported from Wuhan. Yet, the next day the WHO echoed the CCP’s determination that no evidence of human-to-human transmission had been found, lulling the world into a false sense of security.
Virologist Li-Meng Yan from the WHO/ HKU investigative team noticed that the genome provided by the Chinese CDC was removed, modified, and re-uploaded without explanation twice between Jan. 12 and Jan. 17. Alarmed by the secrecy and growing discordance between what she saw on the ground and heard in the official narrative, she anonymously contacted a US-based Chinese YouTube personality. In his Jan. 19 show, she revealed that the CCP had been aware of human-to-human transmission and was underreporting cases. She also cast doubt on the claim that the virus had spread from bats to humans at a Wuhan wet market.
By Jan. 22, cases emerged in Japan, France, and the US (all confirmed travelers from Wuhan). China and the WHO could no longer deny human-to-human spread outright, but they asserted that it was not airborne and limited to close contact with patients. (Even at the urging of 239 scientists from thirty-two countries, the WHO refused to acknowledge that the virus spreads via aerosol particles.) On Jan. 23, China locked down Wuhan, suspended domestic flights, and restricted movement to its major cities. However, it insisted that airlines maintain international travel. China forms the world’s second largest air travel market. Further, CCP head Xi Jinping pressured the WHO against declaring the outbreak as a global health emergency. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had to reverse this decision on Jan. 30 when worldwide cases had jumped to nearly 10,000.
Preoccupied with President Donald Trump’s politically-motivated impeachment trial, American news outlets ignored Wuhan until the White House issued a partial travel ban for China on Jan. 31. Historically, American culture lionized the reporter as an irreverent newshound who leaves no stone unturned in pursuit of the truth. Even our most iconic superheroes work for newspapers when they aren’t saving the world. From challenging power to shilling for it, this once working-class profession is now an elite graduate degree club whose members chase the spotlight, not facts. As clickbait outrage about Trump’s “xenophobia” saturated media discourse, leaving no airtime for news about the spreading virus, bad actors manipulated public policy and the narrative behind the scenes.
On Jan. 31, Anthony Fauci (director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIAID) sent his colleague Kristian Andersen an article about searching nature for clues to the Wuhan outbreak’s origin. It prompted Andersen to respond that he and his team had analyzed SARS-CoV-2 and found that some features “look engineered.” The genome was “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” he wrote. A cache of Fauci’s emails (obtained by the Washington Post and BuzzFeed News through the Freedom of Information Act in June 2021) reveal that he then set in motion a campaign to ensure that no one would arrive at Andersen’s conclusion. Why? Because a genetically enhanced, deadly coronavirus out of Wuhan would raise a trail of questions that would lead to him.
Multiple safety lapses at federal laboratories in 2014 led the Obama Administration to place a moratorium on gain-of-function experiments. It halted the research of virologists like Ralph Baric (University of North Carolina) who pioneered the creation of synthetic, hybrid coronaviruses with enhanced transmissibility, infectivity, and immunogenicity. The “pause,” however, allowed for an exception. If the head of an agency (e.g. NIAID or its parent NIH) were to decide that the research was “urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security,” it could continue. Fauci had taken advantage of this loophole. NIAID/ NIH contracted a nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance that subcontracted the Wuhan Institute to conduct gain-of-function research from June 2014 to May 2019. In Wuhan, Baric collaborated with Shi Zheng-li (known as the “bat lady” for her extensive work with bat-borne coronaviruses).
As NIAID Director (a position he has held since 1984), Fauci circumvented the moratorium by offshoring the banned research to China, while keeping the federal government in the dark. He and his colleagues would bury this fact by wielding pseudoscience (to establish a natural origin for the virus), and ridiculing skeptics as conspiracists and anti-Chinese racists. Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, drafted a letter condemning “crackpot theories” about COVID’s origin. A public records request by US Right to Know shows that he asked well-known scientists to endorse it in an effort to keep “critical bridges open between the USA and China.” These steps dovetailed with the CCP’s refusal to provide accurate information and hide its role in wreaking global devastation.
Meanwhile, the WHO (speaking for the CCP) urged countries not to impose travel restrictions because it would increase “fear and stigma with little public health benefit.” The Tom Tom traffic index illustrates that by then, China had imposed a near total domestic lockdown even as it encouraged international travel throughout February. Taking the bait (un)wittingly, political detractors in the US media and academia denounced the White House for contradicting the WHO by issuing an ineffective, counterproductive, and “racist” ban. The CCP’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, repeated these charges about the travel restriction, thus coming full circle.
On Feb. 3, Nature published “bat lady” Shi’s paper stating that a naturally occurring bat coronavirus with the genome RaTG13 shares a 96.2 percent genetic identity with SARS-CoV-2, and should therefore be considered as its precursor. Her paper established the basis for a natural origin of the pandemic, and the scientific community accepted it unchallenged. Independent researchers would later expose inconsistencies with her claim. They uncovered that Shi had renamed an old coronavirus genome as RaTG13 in Jan. 2020, and obscured where she had collected that virus because it was too far from Wuhan to have caused the outbreak. More evidence that RaTG13 could not have evolved into SARS-CoV-2 has become available.
Did Shi put forth a red herring, and if so, why? The answer may lie in another paper (also published on Feb. 3), in which the Shanghai-based Zhang team discusses its findings about SARS-CoV-2’s genome. They demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 is most closely related to the first SARS virus (SARS-CoV) and two bat coronaviruses ZC45 and ZXC21, noting that it is well adapted to infect human cells. The analysis suggests that SARS-CoV and coronaviruses ZC45 and ZXC21 could have been manipulated in the laboratory to create SARS-CoV-2. Moreover, gain-of-function experiments using ZC45 and ZXC21 to investigate the “possibility of cross-species transmission” have been conducted and published by scientists affiliated with Chinese military institutions (Nanjing Military Command and the Third Military Medical University). The implications considerably complicate the received narrative.
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Neil Postman compares George Orwell’s 1984 dystopian future to that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932): “Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” The story of COVID-19 proves that both Orwell and Huxley were right. On Feb. 15, Tedros lavished praise on China for containing the outbreak at its source with early and swift measures that “bought the world time.” Most of the American elite agreed. People and organizations that prize, above all, access to China’s cheap manufacturing, 1.4 billion consumers, and asset management market (worth $18.9 trillion in 2020), know better than to criticize the CCP.
Tedros added without irony that we were in the midst of an “infodemic” of fake news, which is “just as dangerous” as the virus. Mark Zuckerberg announced, after consulting with the WHO, that Facebook would expand its list of prohibited “false claims” to include “COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured.” (Zuckerberg would work with Fauci to ensure that the social media giant promoted “authoritative information from reliable sources” only).
On Feb. 19, the Lancet published Daszak’s letter, signed by 27 scientists from nine countries including himself, which attested to overwhelming scientific evidence that the virus originated in wildlife. The Lancet did not disclose that several of the signatories work for EcoHealth Alliance and the organization facilitated coronavirus bio-enhancement at the epicenter of the pandemic. Furthering the deception, Daszak told Baric to maintain “some distance” from the letter so as not to jeopardize its façade of objectivity. The influential Lancet statement gave teeth to COVID-19’s natural origin premise.
On March 6, Andersen informed Fauci that his SARS-CoV-2 “origins paper” had been accepted by Nature Medicine and thanked him for “advice and leadership.” Published on March 17, it made no reference to Baric and Shi’sgain-of-function experiments at Wuhan. It simply declared that SARS-CoV-2’s emergence through laboratory manipulation was improbable. Fauci cited the paper as the final word at a White House press conference, thereafter making inquiry into the pandemic’s origin morally out of bounds.
The world will live with the medical, socio-economic and political catastrophe in COVID-19’s wake for decades. If we never learn what caused it, then we cannot stop it from happening again. But truth became a casualty of opportunism long ago.