Ola Wong is Kvartal’s editor for the culture section, China expert, and writer.
It is fully acceptable to mention the Brazilian mutation, to raise the alarm about the British mutation, or express fear of the South African or Indian variants of the virus. But if you mention China, you risk being labeled as a racist or accused of spreading conspiracy theories. Why has the origin of the virus become such a contentious issue?
MSB’s report serves the Communist Party
A study from the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) goes so far as to claim that searching for an answer to the origin of the virus and the responsibility for its spread basically amounts to a desire to find a “scapegoat”. MSB says that this is the hallmark of conspiracy theories and a threat to democracy. The authors of the report, COVID-19 and Conspiracy Theories: Mechanisms Behind a Growing Societal Challenge, admit that it is reasonable to ask these kinds of questions, but still maintain they are a risk for conspiracy-minded people. Calling COVID-19 “The China Virus” is synonymous with blaming China for creating and spreading the virus. Andreas Önnerfors, author of the MSB study, maintains that “the cause of the disease (the coronavirus) cannot be attributed to culture or geography; it can affect anyone and everyone.”
As a person of Chinese heritage, I would also find it offensive if the virus became known as “The China Virus”. A more neutral name, such as SARS-CoV-2 is preferable.1 However, holding Beijing accountable is not the same thing as racism, as Ho-fung Hung from John Hopkins University wrote in The Journal of Political Risk in March 2020. A desire to analyze the issue of responsibility is rather a central feature of the rule of law and essential for forming a truthful explanation and description for the history books.
Anyway. MSB’s message benefits China’s Communist Party (CCP) and the narrative that the one-party state has worked hard to establish during the pandemic. This narrative entails that the virus is a global problem to which the Chinese government has the answers – not a problem originating from China to which the world has the right to demand answers.
The Party is rewriting history and sowing seeds of doubt
The crisis sparked by COVID-19 reveals how skillful China’s propaganda machine has become, according to Maria Repnikova, communications professor and Chinese propaganda scholar, in her recently published research paper, Pandemics & propaganda: How Chinese state media creates and propagates CCP coronavirus narratives. The Party controls a massive media operation and researchers. It sponsors social media posts and exercises influence over international bodies such as the WHO.
Once the spread of the virus became known, the party-run media successively transformed the narrative, with every step sowing doubts as to whether COVID-19 actually came from China. Concurrently, it spread the message globally that discussions concerning a possible laboratory leak can be attributed to a conspiracy theory. This message was spread through sponsored posts on Facebook.
Right from the start, the party-controlled media maintained that the virus had originated from Wuhan, but that the only uncertainties concerned which animals at the illegal wet-market had led to the spread of the virus. They then began to sow seeds of doubt as to where the outbreak had begun. Successively, the state-controlled media itself began to spread conspiracy theories. These included that the virus had been brought to China by foreigners, in particular, by American soldiers who had participated in the Military World Games in Wuhan in November 2019. They also asserted that the epidemic might have come to China through imported frozen food. In February 2020, China Daily bragged that, “if it had not been for the unique advantages of the Chinese system, the world would have been battling a devastating pandemic by now.” While the death toll was rising in the rest of the world, focus shifted to how China provided PPE and later vaccines to affected countries.
The issue of the origin of the virus disappeared from the global agenda and when politicians, such as Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne, raised the issue they were met with anger and threatened with boycotts.
The CCP equates itself with the Chinese people and regularly dismisses criticism as racism and anti-Chinese denigration.2 In Sweden, the restaurant Riche was pressured to take down a satirical sketch depicting president Xi Jinping as Batman – a reference to the theory that the virus had spread from bats. A customer had reported the picture as racist.
The media’s aversion to Trump created a fear of association
There are two dominating theories on the origin of the virus. One is that it spread naturally from animals to humans. The other theory is that the virus was produced in a laboratory and subsequently leaked out. Both are possible explanations; however, the lab theory is the most probable. Science journalist, Nicholas Wade demonstrates this in a long article for Medium, an online magazine.
“The political agendas of governments and scientists have generated thick clouds of obfuscation, which the mainstream press seems helpless to dispel,” Wade writes.
The CCP has also been helped by the former president Donald Trump’s infallible ability to create polarization. He talked about the “The China Virus” and maintained that he had seen proof that the virus had come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Hereafter, there was an increase in racially motivated attacks against persons of Asian ethnicity. The American established media, with the support of prominent researchers, eschewed the lab hypothesis.
Wade, who has previously worked for Nature, The New York Times and Science magazine, writes that many virologists do not want to see a public debate on the dangerous gain-of-function-experiments that many of their peers conduct. This is a technique to enhance virus characteristics, making them more dangerous than in their naturally occurring form. The objective has been to stay one step ahead in order to be able to quickly develop vaccines for new diseases.
In February 2020, a group of virologists published an open letter in The Lancet criticizing “conspiracy theories claiming that COVID-19 is not a naturally occurring virus.” The letter had been drafted by Peter Daszek, head of the Ecohealth Alliance in New York, an organization to protect humans and other animals from pandemics. It is strange that Daszak was so certain regarding facts that he could not possibly have verified at the time. That Daszek’s organization had financed research on the coronavirus at the Wuhan Institute of Virology further complicates the issue. If the virus had spread from the lab, Daszek could partly be responsible for the pandemic, which has, according to official statistics, claimed more than three million lives – at a conservative estimate.3
The WHO invited temptation
Despite his indisputable conflicts of interest, Daszek became an influential member of the expert group that the WHO and China sent to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the virus. According to the Swedish newspaper, SvD, China had power of veto over the group’s composition and members, which it used to block all the names proposed by the USA, with the exception of Daszek. The WHO group’s findings, presented on March 30 of this year, were that a lab leak was an “extremely improbable” explanation, and that the virus most likely had spread to humans from bats or other animals.
The dominating popular conviction was still that the virus had originated or spread from the infamous wet market in Wuhan.
Daszak was then, shockingly, assigned to lead a working party within the commission to study the origins of the virus appointed by the medical journal, The Lancet.
It is well documented that researchers conducted gain-of-function-experiments designed to create a coronavirus that can attack human cells and humanized mice.
What Wade describes is not a conspiracy, but rather an accident for which no one has wanted to assume responsibility. In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute. The pandemic started in the vast country of China, at the gates of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where researchers were conducting experiments designed to create a coronavirus that could attack human cells or humanized mice.4 Exactly the type of experiment that could create a SARS-CoV-2 virus, writes Wade.
The coronavirus in Wuhan had already been adapted to humans, as can be expected of a virus from humanized mice; however, it does not spread easily among bats. The virus has qualities that indicate it was artificially created, rather than being a product of natural evolution. It has qualities that cannot be found in other similar types of coronavirus. The staff did not have a vaccine and the biosafety level was insufficient. Direct evidence, such as documentation on how the lab had developed SARS-CoV-2, is lacking. If such documentation does exist, it is being held back by the Chinese authorities.
“His documentation and his arguments are credible,” says Fredrik Elgh, professor in virology.
Fredrik Elgh, professor in virology at Umeå University, has read Wade’s article. He says that, even if other causes cannot be excluded, it is wholly possible that Wade’s description is correct. “His documentation and his arguments are credible.”
Lab leaks have occurred many times before
“There are countless examples of dangerous viruses leaking from labs, including influenza, smallpox, SARS1, the West Nile virus, etc,” notes Elgh. He was responsible for establishing the Swedish high biosafey level laboratories at the Institute for Infectious Disesases (Smittskyddsinstitutet), which has since been incorporated into the Public Health Agency of Sweden (Folkhälsomyndigheten), and at the former Knowledge Center for Microbiological Contingencies (Kunskapscentrum för mikrobiologisk beredskap).
“We cannot exclude the possibility of an incident at the laboratory in Wuhan; there is too much evidence to that effect,” says Elgh.
In 2014, the US introduced a moratorium on high-risk research in certain viruses that can cause pandemics. The US, however, continued to finance similar research in Wuhan. In laboratory environments that, according to the American inspectors, had “grave insufficiencies in staff training” and a biosafety level 2 (BSL-2). This level only meets requirements for laboratory work with viruses and bacteria that can be easily controlled and lack the potential to cause serious diseases among a larger population.5 According to Wade, this is the same level as at an American dentist’s practice.
The US financed research in Wuhan
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH), may thus have contributed to the catastrophic experiment that has cost over a half million American lives. This is incentive enough to avoid going to the bottom of the matter. One of the officials that Wade names is Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH. Fauci has been praised for his civil courage during the Trump Administration and has continued to lead the fight against the pandemic for the Biden Administration. The US Senate questioned Fauci on May 10.6
Fauci admitted that the NIH had financed research in Wuhan to study how viruses in bats could infect humans in the future; however, he maintains that the funding was not intended for gain-of-function research.
“Because of the American funding, there are research applications and results that must be produced and inspected,” says Elgh. “The virology laboratory in Wuhan should, of course, also present its research and data in detail.”
Because of the general detest for Trump, the established media chose to trust virologists such as Daszak rather than investigating the laboratory hypothesis.
Wade does not mean that the Chinese authorities developed and spread SARS-CoV-2 as a biological weapon. Neither does he subscribe to any of the mad theories cited in the MSB report, such as that the virus was the result of a conspiracy between China and the Democratic Party to damage Donald Trump.
The CCP would never have intentionally spread the disease among the Chinese population. However, the CCP has indeed done its best to obscure the nature of the tragedy and China’s responsibility for it. At the same time as China closed its internal borders to travel, the CCP allowed Chinese nationals to travel internationally and the Chinese government, in conjunction with the WHO, criticized countries that imposed a ban on travel to and from China. The CCP toned down the seriousness of the virus, and the foreign ministry’s spokesperson Hua Chunying incorrectly claimed that it was not worse than a seasonal influenza. The Party has carried out a cover-up, arrested whistleblowers, and closed down the Institute of Virology’s database. Peking has done its best to manipulate the WHO’s study into the origins of the virus and still appears to be far more interested in deflecting blame than in taking the steps necessary to prevent a second pandemic, writes Wade.
Don’t let sweeping allegations of conspiracy theories and racism undermine the work to trace the origins of the virus.
Science journalists, on the other hand, are not accustomed to questioning researchers’ motives. They generally see their role as transforming research results into comprehensible prose for the masses. Because of the general detest for Trump, the established media chose to trust virologists such as Daszak, rather than investigating the laboratory hypothesis.
Common sense says that, if a pandemic begins in Wuhan, it may be related to the lab in the same city working on developing new, extremely dangerous variants of the coronovirus in an unsafe environment. These facts should weigh more heavily than the ideological conviction that everything Trump says must be incorrect. “People who have been more or less confined to their homes over the past year merit better answers than the media is giving them,” says Wade. He concludes on a more optimistic note, “let the day of reckoning come.”
I recommend that everyone read Wade’s article to form their own opinion. See footnote for links to the article and the ensuing debate.7
The last word is yet to be had. Suspicious circumstances and insinuations are not the same thing as establishing the burden of proof. There are also forces in the US that have an interest in blaming the Chinese Communist Party. But don’t let sweeping allegations of conspiracy theories and racism undermine the work to trace the origins of the virus.
n infected by the virus can develop COVID-19. See: https://www.isof.se/sprak/sprakradgivning/aktuellt-sprakrad/granskade-rad/2020-02-26-coronavirus-covid-19-eller-sars-cov-2.html
2, For more analysis of how the Communist Party uses its influence, see Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlbergs book ”Den dolda handen – Hur Kinas kommunistiska parti underminierar västliga demokratier och omformar världen” (Daidalos, 2020). See page 3 on how the CCP uses the concept of racism.
3, According to official figures, 3.4 million persons have died of COVID-19, at the time of writing (see https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/). This is a conservative estimate, as it only includes persons who have had a positive test result and a death certificate citing COVID-19. In many parts of the world, this is not possible. The Economist has conducted a broader analysis (”Counting the dead”, The Economist 15/5 2021) and estimated the death toll to be between 7.1 to 12.7 million, with 95% accuracy. The average is 10.2 million deaths attributable to COVID-19 worldwide.
4, Humanized mice are genetically modified to exhibit more human characteristics, such as a receptor for SARS-CoV-2.
5, Shi Zhengli, leads research on the coronavirus at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In an interview in Science, she has said that research on the coronavirus is carried out at BSL-2 and BSL-3. In the same interview, she denied that the laboratory could have been the cause of the pandemic.
6, In April 2021, Republican leaders in the House Committee on Energy & Commerce initiated an investigation into Ecohealth Alliance (EHA) and NIH’s role. SvD’s journalists, Henrik Ennart and Gunilla von Hall, reported from the hearings, see: https://www.svd.se/kvaste-teori-om-labblacka–extremt-egenintresse
7, Wade’s article can be accessed here: https://nicholaswade.medium.com/origin-of-covid-following-the-clues-6f03564c038 It is also published in the Bulletin of the Atomic scientists: https://thebulletin.org/2021/05/the-origin-of-covid-did-people-or-nature-open-pandoras-box-at-wuhan/
Reply from Shi Zhengli:
Senate hearing with Anthony Fauci.
NOW – Dr. Fauci: "NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain of function research in the Wuhan institute"pic.twitter.com/CiMA22ueGX
— Disclose.tv 🚨 (@disclosetv) May 11, 2021
”The joint team’s assessment of likelihood of each possible pathway was as follows:
- Direct zoonotic spillover is considered to be a possible-to-likely pathway;
- introduction through an intermediate host is considered to be a likely to very likely pathway;
- introduction through cold/ food chain products is considered a possible pathway;
- introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway.”