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Mail on Sunday Sensationalises on Wuhan Lab Claims

From yesterday’s Mail on Sunday:

Documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday show the Wuhan Institute of Virology undertook coronavirus experiments on mammals captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan – funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government.

Sequencing of the Covid-19 genome has traced it to bats found in Yunnan’s caves.

It comes after this newspaper revealed last week that Ministers here now fear that the pandemic could have been caused by a virus leaking from the institute.

Last week’s article was headlined “Did the Virus Leak from a Research Lab in Wuhan?”, and quoted a unnamed COBRA meeting attendee as saying that the theory “is not discounted”. The article went on to rehash material that had appeared in American sources in February, presented as if new. It thus quoted “biosecurity expert Professor Richard Ebright, of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, New Jersey”, who said that the virus “could easily” have escaped, and cited “unverified local reports that workers at the institute became infected after being sprayed by blood”. It also stated that

A study by the South China University of Technology concluded that Covid-19 ‘probably’ originated in the Centre for Disease Control – although shortly after its publication, the research paper was removed from a social networking site for scientists and researchers.

Both Mail on Sunday articles are by Glen Owen, who is the paper’s political editor rather than a hack with expertise in science or health. As such, the articles are primarily political messaging to the general public as conveyed via a compliant journalist. That does not mean that they might not convey true and relevant information, but in this instance Owen’s sensationalism is misleading, even though he avoids the more egregious”bioweapon” speculation seen elsewhere. (1)

The South China University of Technology paper is discussed by Alex Kasprack at Snopes here (links in original):

This paper, such as it is, merely highlights the close distance between the seafood market and the labs and falsely claimed to have identified instances in which viral agents had escaped from Wuhan biological laboratories in the past. With those two elements, half of them factual, the authors come to the sweeping conclusion that “somebody was entangled with the evolution of 2019-nCoV coronavirus,” and “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.” While SARS viruses have escaped from a Beijing lab on at least four occasions, no such event has been documented in Wuhan.

Moving on to this week’s instalment, the “documents obtained by the Mail on Sunday” are actually two open-access academic articles that various people have been Tweeting about for a while:

Results of the research were published in November 2017 under the heading: ‘Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus.’

The exercise was summarised as: ‘Bats in a cave in Yunnan, China were captured and sampled for coronaviruses used for lab experiments.

‘All sampling procedures were performed by veterinarians with approval from the Animal Ethics Committee of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

‘Bat samplings were conducted ten times from April 2011 to October 2015 at different seasons in their natural habitat at a single location (cave) in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. Bats were trapped and faecal swab samples were collected’

It should be noted that despite the Mail on Sunday headline “Wuhan Lab was Performing Coronavirus Experiments on Bats”, the above states that the experiments were actually performed on coronavirues. There is no indication (and no reason to suppose) that the bats themselves were transported to Wuhan after the swab samples had been obtained (2). Owen’s scoop here amounts to “research lab investigating coronaviruses published research about coronaviruses”.

As for the second academic article:

Another study, published in April 2018, was titled ‘fatal swine acute diarrhoea syndrome caused by an HKU2-related coronavirus of bat origin’ and described the research as such: ‘Following a 2016 bat-related coronavirus outbreak on Chinese pig farms, bats were captured in a cave and samples were taken.

Experimenters grew the virus in a lab and injected it into three-day-old piglets. Intestinal samples from sick piglets were ground up and fed to other piglets as well.’

This is again the sort of research that one might expect, but Owen attempts to link it to the “leak” theory via a couple of quotes from commentators:

…Last night, Anthony Bellotti, president of the US pressure group White Coat Waste, condemned his government for spending tax dollars in China, adding: ‘Animals infected with viruses or otherwise sickened and abused in Chinese labs reportedly may be sold to wet markets for consumption once experiments are done.’

US Congressman Matt Gaetz said: ‘I’m disgusted to learn that for years the US government has been funding dangerous and cruel animal experiments at the Wuhan Institute, which may have contributed to the global spread of coronavirus, and research at other labs in China that have virtually no oversight from US authorities.’

These American quotes are lifted without attribution from an article that appeared a few days ago in the Washington Examiner (3). Bellotti is a Republican strategist who frames animal experimentation as government “waste”, and the Examiner article attempts to back up his assertion by referring to a February op-ed in the New York Post by the activist Steven Mosher:

And then there is this little-known fact: Some Chinese researchers are in the habit of selling their laboratory animals to street vendors after they have finished experimenting on them.

You heard me right.

Instead of properly disposing of infected animals by cremation, as the law requires, they sell them on the side to make a little extra cash. Or, in some cases, a lot of extra cash. One Beijing researcher, now in jail, made a million dollars selling his monkeys and rats on the live animal market, where they eventually wound up in someone’s stomach.

Who was this “researcher”? At what kind of institute did he work? What is the basis for extrapolating from one criminal incident to the claim that this is a “habit” among Chinese researchers? We can imagine a corrupt scientist using grant money to purchase animals that are then sold on, but it is also reasonable to suppose that Mosher is being deliberately vague here because a more detailed account would not support this argument. Yet it forms the basis of the Examiner headline “Taxpayer-Funded Animal Experiments tied to Chinese ‘Wet Markets’ and Wuhan Laboratory” that one way or another later came to Owen’s attention at the Mail on Sunday – even though Owen’s argument also incorporates “doubt” about the presence of the virus at the market.

But what about the claim that “sequencing of the Covid-19 genome has traced it to bats found in Yunnan’s caves”? An article by Matt Ridley for the Wall Street Journal (and also posted to his own website) explains the sources more clearly, and notes:

…analysis shows that the most recent common ancestor of the human virus and the RaTG13 virus [i.e. the virus as found in a specific bat specimen sampled in Yunnan] lived at least 40 years ago. So it is unlikely that the cave in Yunnan (a thousand miles from Wuhan) is where the first infection happened or that the culprit bat was taken from that cave to Wuhan to be eaten or experimented on.

Rather, it is probable that somewhere much closer to Wuhan, there is another colony of bats carrying the same kind of virus. Unless other evidence emerges, it thus looks like a horrible coincidence that China’s Institute of Virology, a high-security laboratory where human cells were being experimentally infected with bat viruses, happens to be in Wuhan, the origin of today’s pandemic.

More generally, one wonders why there appears to be so much investment in the “lab escape” theory. We know that the Chinese government is horribly culpable for covering up the initial rise of the virus, but that remains the case however the virus first emerged. Perhaps the idea that the virus is the result of scientists making conscious decisions is in a strange way reassuring, in that it suggests that humans remain the masters of their own destiny. The downside, though, is the potential vilification of Chinese scientists working in good faith (despite their corrupt political masters) to track and prevent disease.

Notes

1. The week before Owen’s first article, the Mail on Sunday splashed on the claim that “Mr Johnson has been warned by scientific advisers that China’s officially declared statistics on the number of cases of coronavirus could be ‘downplayed by a factor of 15 to 40 times'”. Again, this is science journalism via political leak. Who are these “advisers”, and what was their methodology? The story is not implausible, but if politicians believe it is in the public interest for us to know about it, they should provide us with all the details.

The same issue also carried an absurd piece (in retrospect, also in bad taste) headlined “Did Michel Barnier infect Boris Johnson?”, in which Owen and co-authors tried their hand at amateur contact tracing.

2. The institute does appear to have handled live bats for some research, though. A 2017 paper by researchers there includes the detail that

A total of 450 bats of eight different species were captured in Longquan city and Wenzhou city, Zhejiang Province in the spring of 2011 (Figure 1 and Table 1). Similarly, 155 bats representing eight species were captured in Hubei Province in the spring of 2012.

Recent media reports have referred to “605 bats”.

3. Gaetz, of course, is infamous as the congressman who recently wore a gas mask on the House floor, apparently as some kind of joke about coronavirus. It’s not clear to what extent Gaetz has a general objection to animal experiments; certainly, the research at Wuhan is no more “dangerous and cruel” than research undertaken at comparable institutions in other countries, including the USA. For instance, live mice were infected with the bat virus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016 (this in turn has now become a focus of speculation, with the risible Chanel Rion of OAN [One America News Network] citing a certain “Greg Rubini” as a source. Little is known about Rubini other than that he controls a Twitter account and supports the QAnon conspiracy theory, He uses a photo of Keir Duella from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey as his Twitter profile image, and Rion mistook this for his actual likeness).