How China made Covid worse

Published by UnHerd (9th December, 2021)

Two years ago this week, a middle-aged man in Wuhan caught a strange respiratory disease. The 41-year-old accountant was called Chen and he worked for his family firm, commuted to work by public transport and shopped in a sleek modern supermarket rather than a traditional market selling wild animals. He had not travelled outside the city in the days before catching the disease beyond a short trip to some hills north of Wuhan and — bar one relative working in healthcare — had no obvious links to high-risk settings.

This is the official Chinese narrative: that Covid 19 should be traced back to this “earliest onset date” when Chen visited a hospital dental clinic. The World Health Organisation promoted this story in its study group report earlier this year into origins of the virus, influencing global discussion. Yet this “first case” merely highlights the duplicity of Beijing in obscuring the truth about the birth of this deadly disease — along with the complicity of the global public health body and so much of the scientific establishment in promoting the Communist regime’s deceptive stance.

The extent of the dishonesty became startlingly obvious after the WHO’s patsy report was published in March. Data for Chen, this heavily-scrutinised patient, seemed confused since the sample sequence listed in its documents belonged to another man who had died after falling sick later in December 2019. Chen’s profile actually matched the sequence of a patient listed as becoming ill on December 16. This was one of the cases that frightened local doctors — leading ophthalmologist Li Wenliang to warn colleagues about a contagious new virus, only for him to be detained by police for “rumour-mongering”. His death several weeks later from the disease sparked an eruption of grief and fury on social media.

Chen’s case could not be hidden, since it had been highlighted by Ai Fen, another doctor at Wuhan Central Hospital, who was also reprimanded by party chiefs after sharing details about the alarming new virus. The stricken accountant, who lived in the dense residential district closest to the Wuhan Institute of Virology site in the southern part of the city, had no known links to the infamous Huanan Seafood Market. After failing to respond to treatment, he travelled some distance from his district hospital to the renowned emergency department at the major hospital where his relative worked.

Last month, Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, declared in Science that Chen was not really the first known case. He argued correctly that the WHO had bungled its chronology — but then pointed instead to a female seafood vendor who fell ill on December 11, saying Chen developed his symptoms five days later. The existence of this new Patient Zero sparked excitable headlines around the world about the pandemic being triggered by a spillover from animals sold at the bustling market in the central Chinese city. “The latest report adds weight to the theory that the virus originated from wildlife sold at the market, rather than as a leak from a Wuhan virology lab,” stated The Guardian.

Yet as one expert told me, this latest study — eagerly lapped up by docile science correspondents — simply “piled wishful thinking on deception”. The market was discounted even by Chinese authorities last year as birthplace of the pandemic after being challenged by academic studies, and again in a paper co-authored by the country’s top infectious diseases expert six months ago. It was more likely to have been the location of a super-spreader event. Despite Beijing’s efforts to control the narrative, stifle dissent and suppress data, there is still considerable evidence in circulation to counter the concept that either of these two cases was Patient Zero.

I have previously revealed how Professor Yu Chuanhua, a professor of biostatistics at Wuhan University placed in charge of collating official data, told a Chinese health journal that he had 47,000 cases on his database by late February. These included two more suspected cases on November 14 and 21. The Health Times article included a screenshot exposing personal details of one of them: Patient Su, a 61-year-old who lived about a mile from a lab run by China’s Centre for Disease Control and less than three miles from the downtown Wuhan Institute of Virology site — but more than 13 miles from the wildlife market.

Other early cases included Connor Reed, a 25-year-old Briton teaching in Wuhan, who said he grew ill on November 25 and that his condition was later confirmed as the new coronavirus. US intelligence was reported to have issued alerts to allies at end of that month after analysing communication intercepts and satellite images collected in preceding weeks. The Lancet published a landmark early pandemic paper by Chinese scientists on a cluster of initial Wuhan cases, which recorded the first patient on December 1 — and stated that three of the first four cases had no confirmed exposure to the market. Then a well-sourced article in the South China Morning Post disclosed nine confirmed cases by the end of November, involving four men and five women aged between 39 and 79 with the first diagnosis on November 17. Finally it was discovered that specimen data records from four Covid patients were created on December 10 by scientists at a Wuhan military hospital, including for a woman aged 21 listed as coming from close to Wuhan Institute of Virology’s older city centre site and another high-security university lab carrying out bat coronavirus experiments on genetically-modified mice.

There were also whispers among well-connected scientists. Several academics spoke publicly of hearing about the disease by mid-December — including Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist at Columbia University honoured by China for work on the first SARS epidemic earlier this century, who said he knew about it on December 15. Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law in Washington, said he heard in mid-December from a friend in Wuhan about a novel coronavirus and that “it looks very serious”. It seems strange that George Gao, the Oxford-educated virologist who is director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, claimed to have found out about the disease more than two weeks later, on December 30 — the day before the WHO was tipped off by Taiwan.

The issue of early cases is clouded by geo-politics and an intensifying superpower struggle. Donald Trump’s outbursts — “the China virus” — during his presidency were often intemperate, and tended to inflame opinions on both sides. Yet his administration concluded with a carefully-worded State Department document claiming researchers at Wuhan Institute of Virology “became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses”. David Asher, who led the inquiries, told me three scientists were believed to have fallen ill in the second week of November, 2019, with “credible” information from a trusted foreign source that the wife of one researcher died later that month.

Scientific analysis based on dynamics of disease outbreaks and genome evolution suggests a most likely emergence between mid-October and mid-November — which tallies with censored reports, circumstantial evidence, leaks and US intelligence claims. Chen’s case actually implies that the virus had spread significantly around the city by the second week of December, since he lived almost 20 miles from the centre and the notorious market.

None of this proves anything definitive about the first case of SARS-Cov-2 — the strain of coronavirus that causes Covid — let alone its origins. Worobey argues it may still be possible to obtain conclusive evidence from these late December cases, although evolutionary biologist Jesse Bloom is more pessimistic. “Normally in an outbreak investigation you trace the contacts of known patients backward in time to find earlier cases,” he tweeted recently. “But for SARS-CoV-2 investigations in Wuhan, it’s going in the opposite direction!”

Yet this vexatious issue does raise two big questions. First, why has China gone to such lengths to conceal crucial data about the origins of this disease, given the critical importance in understanding the cause of this public health disaster? Certainly, it is impossible to ignore the coincidence that it erupted in the city that hosts Asia’s biggest bat coronavirus research centre, located far from the dark places where scientists from the lab and their associates collect samples from bats in southern China and — according to recent revelations — possibly eight other nations. Not least when there are so many unanswered riddles swirling around the secretive Wuhan labs over the real nature of their research, the erratic behaviour of their most prominent scientist and their true relationship with key Western funding bodies.

We know also from Chinese media reports — later deleted from the internet — that Chinese firms were sequencing the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 before the WHO even learned about the new disease, with one passing its findings to the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. And it is clear from early cases involving infected medical workers and family members that human transmission was known about well before such critical information was shared beyond its borders. Bear in mind that modelling experts suggest the number of global cases could have been cut by 95% if China had moved to contain the disease three weeks earlier instead of pressing ahead with New Year festivities that involve the biggest annual migration of humans on the planet.

Nor is there any sign yet of an animal host for natural zoonotic transmission. So the second, profoundly-disturbing question raised by this issue is to ask why leading scientists and their funding bodies effectively colluded with China to stifle public debate over a possible laboratory cause of this pandemic — aided by swathes of the news media, leading science journals, science administrators and most of the Left that seemed to loathe Trump more than a horribly repressive Chinese dictatorship.

A series of email conversations have emerged through freedom of information requests showing how key scientists held discussions that led to publication of influential papers dismissing “conspiracy theories” — despite several of those figures initially fearing that some kind of lab incident sparked this public health disaster. Participants included Anthony Fauci, the US infectious diseases expert and presidential adviser; Francis Collins, head of the major US funding body that backed high-risk experiments into bat coronaviruses in Wuhan; Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of The Wellcome Trust; and Sir Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific officer.

The latest communications obtained by US Right To Know, a public health campaign group, disclose how James Le Duc, the former director of a top-level biosafety lab in Texas who had trained Wuhan researchers, told the ex-president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene last year that it was “certainly possible a lab accident was the source of the epidemic and I also agree that we can’t trust the Chinese government”.

Intriguingly, soon after the pandemic erupted, Le Duc wrote to Yuan Zhiming, head of biosafety at Wuhan Institute of Virology and its most senior Communist party official, with a barrage of questions about samples, security, inventories and handling of live viruses. These included asking about disgruntled employees with access to coronavirus stocks, signs of unusual illnesses among staff, team members visiting the wildlife market and if anyone was “conducting gain of function research, recombination studies or any other studies that may have resulted in the creation of the nCoV [novel coronavirus]”?  Le Duc said he was being peppered with questions from “senior officials and major reputable papers” and stressed the need to “aggressively address these rumours and presumably false accusations quickly and provide definitive, honest information to counter misinformation”.

Instead, China built a wall of lies and obfuscation. The utter failure of the Western scientific establishment to follow evidence wherever it led — whether for personal, political or financial reasons — helped impede investigations and, given their lack of transparency, duped the public at a time when we need trust in our political and scientific leaders. Little wonder Gilles Demaneuf, a member of the Drastic team of researchers that winkled out critical evidence to challenge China’s narrative, argues the response would have been far tougher if the pandemic had emerged elsewhere. “It would be deemed unacceptable if it was in Sierra Leone or Pakistan, so why should it be different with China,” he asked.

The most dramatic Drastic revelation came two months ago with details of a 2018 submission to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency by EcoHealth Alliance — the New York-based body headed by Peter Daszak, the controversial British scientist who has led efforts to dampen talk of lab leaks. It sought $14.2m for work with his long-term collaborators in Wuhan on a scheme to insert rare cleavage sites into SARS-like coronaviruses collected in the field, then conduct experiments on live bats. This particular request — supposedly aimed at “defusing the threat of bat-borne coronaviruses” — was rejected on risk grounds. Curiously, there has been fierce debate over the furin cleavage site on SARS-CoV-2, a feature not found on similar types of coronavirus that allows it to enter so efficiently into human cells.

Two years on, it remains impossible to prove the cause of this catastrophe. The Communist regime led by President Xi Jinping should be a pariah for blocking investigations to discover the cause of this cruel disease given the terrible impact on the planet (and indeed for the crimes against humanity being inflicted on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang). Instead, it is preparing for another parade of its power with a global showcase as host of the Winter Olympics. Meanwhile we see how the WHO still kowtows to Beijing, skipping the use of ‘Xi’ when rifling through the Greek alphabet to name the latest variant of the virus ‘Omicron’ in deference to China’s leader. This symbolises how as wave after wave of this mutating virus washes over the world, there seems still the most astonishing global complacency over Beijing’s duplicitous actions that, regardless of the origins, have led to millions of fatalities.

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