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UK Tabloids Sensationalise on Deleted Wuhan Institute Field Researcher Photos

From the Sun, a couple of days ago:

THE laboratory at the heart of the world’s coronavirus pandemic lied about taking safety precautions when collecting bat samples, The Sun can exclusively reveal.

Shocking leaked photos – which reveal a scandalous lack of safety – were deleted from the website of under-fire China science hub the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

…Incredibly some scientists didn’t even wear gloves as they entered caves to collect fecal bat swab samples, beaming for the camera and oblivious to the dangers.

The damning photos tell a different story to an official 2017 journal, when the institute insisted: “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.

“All members of field teams wore appropriate personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, tear-resistant gloves, disposable outerwear, and safety glasses.

…One of the party even gave an interview to state-run news agency Xinhua, admitting he forgot his protective gear and was sprayed with bat urine or blood.

Several of the photos are presented, such as this one:

However, photographs published on an official website can hardly be called “leaked”, even if they have since been removed for some reason. And in this case they remain available on Chinese news websites, such as here at Guancha, where they illustrate a January article by Shi Zhengli, a high-profile researcher at the Wuhan institute who has been the subject of media speculation, including in the Sun. Her account, however, includes the following detail:

有的朋友可能觉得我们采样是在和可怕的病毒打交道,有点生化战的架势,就像左边这张图片一样。但其实这个工作并不像大家想象的那样危险。蝙蝠虽然携带很多病毒,但直接感染人的机会是很小的。除非我们已知某个地点的蝙蝠携带可能传播给人的病毒,会采取级别高一些的防护措施,大多数情况下只采取普通的防护。

Google Translate renders this as follows:

Some friends may think that our sampling is dealing with a terrible virus, a bit of a biochemical warfare, just like the picture on the left. But in fact, this job is not as dangerous as everyone thinks. Although bats carry a lot of viruses, the chance of direct infection of people is very small. Unless we know that bats in a certain location carry viruses that may spread to people, we will take higher-level protective measures, and in most cases, only ordinary protection will be taken.

Photos are provided:

Without access to the deleted Wuhan Institute webpage (I’ve been unable to trace the url), we cannot know if this photo was absent there or if was present but overlooked by the Sun hacks. But Shi’s text and these images together undercut the case that field researchers were “oblivious” and that the 2017 journal authors must have lied about having worn appropriate protective clothing. There’s also a documentary that shows field researchers wearing full protective equipment, a segment of which is available at… erm, the Sun website, as part of an earlier story from 2 April.

Was the working assumption that most viruses are not dangerous excessively lax, though? I don’t claim to know – but neither does the Sun or the Henry Jackson Society, which provided the paper with a predictable rent-a-quote. I’m sure that proper expert opinion could have been found, but perhaps for some reason it was not wanted.

As for the other details: the 2017 journal paper was published in PLOS Pathogens and is available on open access here.  The Xinhua article, meanwhile, is here. This story also dates from 2017, and it profiles Tian Junhua, a field researcher who also appears in the documentary noted above. Again resorting to Google Translate, the story includes the following:

However, in the operation, Tian Junhua forgot to take protective measures. The urine of the bat dripped like raindrops from the top of his head. If he was infected, he could not find the medicine. Tian Junhua tried to calm himself down: “As long as the incubation period of 14 days does not occur, he can be lucky to escape.” After returning home, he took the initiative to keep a distance from his wife and children, isolated for half a month.

It’s clear that Tian took the matter seriously after his mistake, and it is excessive to extrapolate a general theory of sloppiness from this one incident. It’s not clear why the Sun refers to “urine or blood”, but we may suspect that this incident forms the kernel of an “unconfirmed” report that appeared a few weeks ago that workers at the lab had been “sprayed by blood” in an accident.

The Sun story has now been rehashed as part of a new article in the Mail on Sunday by the paper’s political editor Glen Owen. Owen’s articles are an ongoing series; I looked at last week’s overheated installment here. Owen adds that

And the institute appears to have also removed reference to a visit to the institute in March 2018 of Rick Switzer, a science and technology expert from the US embassy in Beijing.

As a result of Mr Switzer’s visit, cables were sent to the US State Department from the embassy warning about the risks of the bat experiments. One read: ‘During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they [the diplomats] noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.’

It should be noted that although the cable referred to a staff shortage, that’s not the same as claiming to have observed bad practice. The start of Owen’s article refers to “visits by diplomats” in the plural, although the removed webpage appears to have described just one visit.  The designated webpage is gone, but the text remains available in a pdf newsletter dated March 2018 still on the institute’s website. The Mail on Sunday article also features a still from the documentary, again showing researchers in protective clothing.

Of course, when an institutional website deletes photos without providing a reason we may suspect that it is because someone wants to conceal something. However, it seems to me that the images of the field researchers, when placed in the context of Shi’s article, do not advance the theory that the COVID-19 outbreak began with infected lab workers or an escape from the laboratory itself.

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