Complex and grave situation inside Wuhan Lab?

For a long time, there was a large and seemingly ever-growing pile of circumstantial evidence pointing to the possibility that a lab leak or accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic. But there wasn’t a smoking gun, something akin to a confession or a contemporaneous internal communication indicating there had indeed been some sort accident.

Today ProPublica and Vanity Fair report on Toy Reid, a China specialist for the RAND Corporation and a political officer in East Asia for the U.S. State Department, who reviewed hundreds of dispatches archived on the website of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Reid worked as part of a team assembled by the minority oversight staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

As Reid burrowed into the party branch dispatches, he became riveted by the unfolding picture. They described intense pressure to produce scientific breakthroughs that would elevate China’s standing on the world stage, despite a dire lack of essential resources. Even at the BSL-4 lab, they repeatedly lamented the problem of “the three ‘nos’: no equipment and technology standards, no design and construction teams, and no experience operating or maintaining [a lab of this caliber].”

And then, in the fall of 2019, the dispatches took a darker turn. They referenced inhumane working conditions and “hidden safety dangers.” On Nov. 12 of that year, a dispatch by party branch members at the BSL-4 laboratory appeared to reference a biosecurity breach.

Once you have opened the stored test tubes, it is just as if having opened Pandora’s Box. These viruses come without a shadow and leave without a trace. Although [we have] various preventive and protective measures, it is nevertheless necessary for lab personnel to operate very cautiously to avoid operational errors that give rise to dangers. Every time this has happened, the members of the Zhengdian Lab [BSL4] Party Branch have always run to the frontline, and they have taken real action to mobilize and motivate other research personnel.

Reid studied the words intently. Was this a reference to past accidents? An admission of an ongoing crisis? A general recognition of hazardous practices? Or all of the above? Reading between the lines, Reid concluded, “They are almost saying they know Beijing is about to come down and scream at them.”

Oh, a warning that these viruses “come without a shadow and leave without a trace” in November 2019, you say? Hey, did anything unusual happen in Wuhan, China, in the following weeks?

For those wondering about the reliability and authenticity of the documents:

Vanity Fair and ProPublica downloaded more than 500 documents from the WIV website, including party branch dispatches from 2017 to the present. To assess Reid’s interpretation, we sent key documents to experts on CCP communications. They told us that the WIV dispatches did indeed signal that the institute faced an acute safety emergency in November 2019; that officials at the highest levels of the Chinese government weighed in; and that urgent action was taken in an effort to address ongoing safety issues. The documents do not make clear who was responsible for the crisis, which laboratory it affected specifically or what the exact nature of the biosafety emergency was.

Whatever was going on, it was serious enough to be communicated to Xi Jinping, around November 21:

Vanity Fair and ProPublica examined research from Chinese academics on pishi and separately got three experts on CCP communications to review the WIV meeting summary. All agreed that it appeared to be urgent, nonroutine and related to some sort of biosafety emergency. Two also agreed that it appeared Xi himself had issued a pishi.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official said that, while the pishi in the dispatch is not necessarily a smoking gun, he reads it as saying that “there is some issue related to lab security, which doesn’t come up very often, that needed to be seen by Xi Jinping.” He added, “Something signed off on by the General Secretary (Xi) and Premier (Li) is high priority.”

Separately, ProPublica and Vanity Fair question how Yusen Zhou could have applied for a patent for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine on February 24, 2020. Yusen Zhou is the director of the State Key Laboratory of Pathogen and Biosecurity at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology, in Beijing. The top experts in vaccine development conclude that it is impossible to start from scratch and have a vaccine ready in three months. A South China Morning News report said that the Chinese government traced the first case of Covid-19 back to November 17, but other reports said that Chinese doctors only came to realize that they were dealing with a new and serious virus in late December; the first public statement about a “cluster of pneumonia cases with an unknown cause” from Chinese health authorities was dated to December 21, 2019. Yet the evidence suggests that the Chinese military and medical authorities would’ve had to have started the research on their vaccine before the first cases emerged:

Vanity Fair and ProPublica consulted two independent experts and one expert adviser to the interim report to get their assessment of when Zhou’s research was likely to have begun. Two of the three said that he had to have started no later than November 2019, in order to complete the mouse research spelled out in his patent and subsequent papers.

Larry Kerr, who advised on the interim report, called the timeline laid out in Zhou’s patent and research papers “scientifically, technically not possible.” He added, “I don’t think any molecular biology lab in the world, no matter how sophisticated, could pull that off.”

Rick Bright, the former HHS official who helped oversee vaccine development for the U.S. government, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica that even a four-month timetable would be “aggressive,” especially when the virus in question is new. “Things aren’t usually that perfect,” he said.

You wanted a smoking gun? I smell smoke, and that gun barrel feels awfully warm.

Way, way back, on April 3, 2020 — roughly three weeks after normal daily life in the U.S. came to a screeching halt because of the pandemic — I dug into what was then known about the Wuhan Institute and concluded:

It is a remarkable coincidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was researching Ebola and SARS-associated coronaviruses in bats before the pandemic outbreak, and that in the month when Wuhan doctors were treating the first patients of COVID-19, the institute announced in a hiring notice that “a large number of new bat and rodent new viruses have been discovered and identified.” And the fact that the Chinese government spent six weeks insisting that COVID-19 could not be spread from person to person means that its denials about Wuhan laboratories cannot be accepted without independent verification.

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