Covid Emerged as Chinese Lab Faced Biosafety Issues, Senate Republican Study Finds
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Covid Emerged as Chinese Lab Faced Biosafety Issues, Senate Republican Study Finds
Report says vaccine research, other ‘circumstantial evidence’ point to laboratory leak as source of pandemic.
By Warren P. Strobel and Michael R. Gordon, WSJ
Updated April 17, 2023 7:08 pm ET
WASHINGTON—A Chinese laboratory conducting advanced coronavirus research faced a series of biosafety problems in November 2019 that drew the attention of top Beijing officials and coincided with the Covid pandemic’s emergence, according to a new report being released by Senate Republicans on the pandemic’s origins.
The report, released Monday by a Republican member of the Senate Health Committee, a final version of which was viewed by The Wall Street Journal, charts a confluence of unexplained events in that month and concludes the pandemic more likely began from a lab accident than naturally, via an animal infecting humans.
Based on the work of a team of specialists, the 300-page document draws on open source reporting, including medical studies, scientific journals and numerous Chinese government documents.
It estimates that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid, first emerged between Oct. 28 and November 10, 2019—weeks earlier than the Chinese government’s timeline and close to that of an earlier assessment from the U.S. intelligence chief.
A Chinese researcher affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army apparently began work on a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 in November 2019, the report says, citing the time needed for research that went into filings for a patent in February 2020. It notes that November 2019 is “before the known outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic” and suggests some in China had earlier knowledge of the virus.
Around the same time, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in the Chinese city where the pandemic began, put unusual emphasis on raising its biological safety protocols, according to the report. Steps included a visit from Beijing by a high-ranking biosafety official, remedial biosafety training courses for staff and urgent measures to procure new safety equipment.
After 18 months of research, the team that worked on the Senate report acknowledged it were unable to definitively pinpoint the source of the pandemic, which has killed 6.9 million people worldwide.
Many previous pandemics began when a pathogen-carrying animal or animals infected humans, known as zoonotic transmission. Some scientists say that is how the Covid pandemic began, including some who note that genetic sequences done in 2020 indicate raccoon dogs, which are susceptible to Covid-19, were present at a Wuhan market.
The Senate committee investigators examined both hypotheses. “The preponderance of circumstantial evidence, however, supports an unintentional research-related incident,” said the Senate report.
“Even though there seems to be precedence for these events to be zoonotic, the evidence just doesn’t support it, and what evidence there is seems to be contrary,” said Robert Kadlec, a biodefense expert and former Health and Human Services assistant secretary in the Trump administration who oversaw the research.
Dr. Kadlec led a team that included an epidemiologist, biodefense experts, lawyers and a State Department China specialist. They were aided by an outside advisory group that included retired intelligence officials, three former directors of U.S. national laboratories, and others.
Arguments over Covid’s origins have become highly politicized between virologists and other scientists who cite evidence pointing to a natural spillover and some researchers, members of the national security community and politicians, especially Republicans, who cite other evidence that they say indicates a laboratory leak. The divisions, and a lack of transparency from Beijing, have hobbled efforts to determine how the virus first infected humans. Knowing the disease’s genesis, researchers on both sides say, might be critical in preventing or curbing future pandemics.
“It is not beyond a shadow of a doubt, but there certainly is a preponderance of evidence that shows that this virus originated from an unintentional lab leak in Wuhan, China,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R., Kan.), who is releasing the report. “We won’t be able to prove this in a criminal trial. But I do think there’s enough evidence, if this was a civil case, that we would convince a jury,” said Mr. Marshall, a member of the Health Committee.
The committee’s Democratic majority, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) didn’t respond to requests for comment.
China’s National Health Commission didn’t respond to a request for comment.
China has disputed that the virus could have leaked from one of its labs and has suggested it emerged outside China. Beijing has limited access by investigators with the World Health Organization and declined to turn over some information requested by the global public health agency.
The Senate report expands on an interim version last October that also backed a research-related source for the pandemic.
The office of Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines office recently sent an expanded intelligence report to Congress that gives more detail on why the Energy Department shifted its view to conclude, with low confidence, that the pandemic likely arose from a lab leak, people familiar with the classified document said. The Journal first reported the Energy Department change in February.
The Energy Department reached its conclusion that the Covid-19 pandemic probably arose from a laboratory leak because of new intelligence about work being done with the virus at China’s Center for Disease Control in Wuhan, the people familiar said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation also supports a lab leak with medium confidence, a judgment made as part of an assessment the Biden administration ordered in 2021. The FBI, however, focused on coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, not the China CDC, the people familiar said.
Four other U.S. intelligence agencies lean toward the natural-transmission theory with low confidence. Despite their differences, all of the intelligence agencies assess that the hypotheses that Covid-19 arose through a laboratory-associated incident or exposure to an infected animal are each “plausible,” Ms. Haines office said in an unclassified version of the 2021 assessment.
The new Senate report looks at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV, which has long been a target of lab-leak proponents because of the extensive coronavirus research being conducted there under biosafety conditions that Western experts consider inadequate.
“China’s progress in biosafety advanced slower than its aspirations for and research of highly pathogenic microorganisms,” the report says. “It is evident that the convergence of sophisticated coronavirus research, government demands for scientific breakthroughs and biosafety problems at the WIV appears to have peaked in the late-summer or early-fall of 2019.”
A senior Chinese biosecurity official traveled from Beijing to the Wuhan Institute on Nov. 19, 2019, bearing instructions from China’s leadership on the “complex and grave situation facing (bio) security work,” the report says, citing the WIV’s own reports. That session was immediately followed by a 2 ½-day remedial biosecurity training course for the WIV and other research institutes in Wuhan, it says.
On the day of the official’s visit, the report says, the WIV issued a short-notice procurement for an air incinerator to address “some problem or failure” with a biosafety autoclave, a machine designed to kill microorganisms via heat and pressure. That was one of numerous procurement notices and patent applications issued in 2019 to address apparent shortcomings in biosecurity, it says.
The report also cites an increase in cases of flulike illness in Wuhan in October and November 2019 that tested negative for influenza, drawing from Chinese epidemiological data and observations by the U.S. consulate in Wuhan.
At that time, satellite imagery showed an increase in vehicles parked at major hospitals in the city, an indicator that has often been associated with higher hospital occupancy rates. These, the report says, may have been unrecognized initial cases of Covid-19, which didn’t burst into full view until December.
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In early November 2019 “all the guards go up” at the WIV, said Larry Kerr, a former HHS and intelligence official who served as an outside adviser to the study. That, he said, was followed by actions “you normally would not see in a laboratory environment.”
The report says that Zhou Yusen, a scientist and member of the Chinese military, filed a patent for a Covid-19 vaccine on Feb. 24, 2020, a month after China locked down Wuhan because of the outbreak.
The patent includes data from blood tests on mice done for vaccine-related experiments, the report said. It said that based on interviews with U.S. vaccine developers, the effort detailed in Dr. Zhou’s work “represents at least two to three months of vaccine development work.” Dr. Zhou later died of unknown causes.
Moderna Inc. began work on its Covid-19 mRNA vaccine in January 2020, once the genetic sequence of the new virus was published, and had initial batches made within weeks.