Throughout the last month there have been a number of reports with headlines like:
- China Lab In Focus Of Coronavirus Outbreak
- US officials sounded alarm about Wuhan lab years before coronavirus outbreak
- US officials were reportedly concerned that safety breaches at a Wuhan lab studying coronaviruses in bats could cause a pandemic
All the above and many more hark back to a Washington Post opinion piece by Josh Rogin published on April 14 and headlined:
Josh Rogin is a neo-conservative hack who carries water for the Trump administration. That administration has launched a 'blame China' campaign to distract from its failure to contain the epidemic outbreak in the United States. To that purpose they handed Rogin an old diplomatic cable and told him how to 'interpret' it. Rogin dutifully does as he is told.
Two years before the novel coronavirus pandemic upended the world, U.S. Embassy officials visited a Chinese research facility in the city of Wuhan several times and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab, which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats. The cables have fueled discussions inside the U.S. government about whether this or another Wuhan lab was the source of the virus — even though conclusive proof has yet to emerge.
That sets the frame for describing the one cable that was given to Rogin. But when one extracts the facts from his reporting while eliminating the propaganda this picture arises:
- The Wuhan Institute of Virology has a level 4 bio-security laboratory.
- The institute is known for research on coronaviruses that occur in bats from south China.
- Some of the research was done in collaboration with two U.S. universities and financed by the U.S. government.
- The laboratory had asked to receive additional U.S. support for further studies.
- The January 2018 the U.S. embassy in China sends two diplomats to visit the laboratory. Neither of them is an expert for laboratory safety or virology.
- The diplomats are told that research on bat derived coronaviruses is important as such viruses, like SARS, can threaten humans.
- They are told by the Chinese researchers that more work could be done if the laboratory had more trained technicians.
- The diplomats travel back to their embassy. They write a cable using the researchers' arguments to recommend that additional U.S. support should be granted to the laboratory.
- No additional funds are granted.
When described as above the story is one that occurs in publicly financed research institutions day in and out. Everyone research institution is always looking for new grants. It communicates with possible grant givers and empathizes the necessity of its research and the need for further support.
But Rogin constructs a rather wild picture from those facts:
What the U.S. officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.
“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” states the Jan. 19, 2018, cable, which was drafted by two officials from the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with the WIV scientists.
A real warning about safety issues at the lab would certainly be classified. What Rogin describes as "warning about safety" is a warning of a new SARS like pandemic. The "management weakness" is the desire to get the U.S. to finance more personnel at the laboratory. Rogin admits as much in his next paragraph:
The Chinese researchers at WIV were receiving assistance from the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and other U.S. organizations, but the Chinese requested additional help. The cables argued that the United States should give the Wuhan lab further support, mainly because its research on bat coronaviruses was important but also dangerous.
Rogin then introduces an additional scare factor by lamenting about 'gain of function' research on viruses. Such research attempts to manipulated viruses to give them additional features. He is trying to associate the Wuhan lab with such type of research:
As the cable noted, the U.S. visitors met with Shi Zhengli, the head of the research project, who had been publishing studies related to bat coronaviruses for many years. In November 2017, just before the U.S. officials’ visit, Shi’s team had published research showing that horseshoe bats they had collected from a cave in Yunnan province were very likely from the same bat population that spawned the SARS coronavirus in 2003.
The research was designed to prevent the next SARS-like pandemic by anticipating how it might emerge. But even in 2015, other scientists questioned whether Shi’s team was taking unnecessary risks. In October 2014, the U.S. government had imposed a moratorium on funding of any research that makes a virus more deadly or contagious, known as “gain-of-function” experiments.
The link Rogin provides goes to a Nature piece on a debate about a certain 'gain of function' research. The research in question was experiments at University of North Carolina, not in Wuhan. The paper describing that research, A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence, was written by Professor Ralph S. Baric who had also designed the experiment. The paper lists a total of fifteen collaborators. One of the listed authors is indeed Zhengli-Li Shi who leads the laboratory in Wuhan.
But neither Zhengli-Li Shi, nor her laboratory, were actually involved in any of the experiments. At the and of the research paper the contributions of each co-author are listed. About Zhengli-Li Shi it says:
Z.-L.S. provided SHC014 spike sequences and plasmids.
The Wuhan laboratory only provided specific gene sequences from its pool of bat viruses, the laboratory's and Zhengi-Li Shi's specialty, that the researchers in North Caroline wanted to use in their experiment.
To construe that furnisher function as involvement in 'gain of function' experiments is a unjustified exaggeration. I have found no evidence that the Wuhan lab itself ever engaged in such research.
Rogin concludes his scare piece by handing the microphone to the demagogue in the White House that is his source:
Inside the Trump administration, many national security officials have long suspected either the WIV or the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab was the source of the novel coronavirus outbreak. According to the New York Times, the intelligence community has provided no evidence to confirm this. But one senior administration official told me that the cables provide one more piece of evidence to support the possibility that the pandemic is the result of a lab accident in Wuhan.
“The idea that it was just a totally natural occurrence is circumstantial. The evidence it leaked from the lab is circumstantial. Right now, the ledger on the side of it leaking from the lab is packed with bullet points and there’s almost nothing on the other side,” the official said.
Manipulated interpretations of diplomatic cables and evidence-free claims about allegedly existing evidence were also used in warmongering campaigns about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and chemical attacks in Syria. The neo-conservatives are now using the same old tricks against China.
The media echo shows that they have some success with this.
Source: Moon of Alabama