WHO-China COVID-19 origins team labeled lab leak concerns 'conspiracy theories'

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Meeting minutes from discussions between Wuhan lab scientists and the WHO-China COVID-19 origins joint study team reveal lab leak concerns were referred to as “rumors,” “myths,” and “conspiracy theories.”

The Trump and Biden administrations cast doubt on the joint study by Chinese government-linked scientists and international scientists organized under the auspices of the World Health Organization that was conducted early this year. The WHO-China report said a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” and that a jump from animals to animals to humans was most likely.

The little-noticed Wuhan lab meeting minutes, which seem to switch between being written from the perspective of the WHO-China team and the Wuhan lab, repeat claims made by lab officials and reveal little pushback or probing questions.

The WHO-China joint team’s numerous annexes totaled 193 pages, but the annex on its Feb. 3, 2021, visit to the Wuhan lab is just four pages. The various annexes contained five mentions of “conspiracy theories,” all in relation to the Wuhan lab, one mention of “myths,” only in relation to the lab, and three mentions of “rumors," two related to the lab.

Shi Zhengli was director of the lab’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases and known as “bat woman” for her work with bat coronaviruses. EcoHealth Alliance received at least $3.7 million from the National Institutes of Health between 2014 and 2020, and Peter Daszak, a key member of the WHO-China team who has worked with Shi, steered at least $600,000 in NIH funding to the lab, criticized the Biden administration for skepticism of WHO’s findings, and defended China on Chinese Communist Party-linked outlets.

A State Department fact sheet in January contended Wuhan lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar)” and that the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.” The fact sheet said the lab “engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military." The annex made no use of the phrase “gain-of-function” and doesn't mention alleged Chinese military collaboration.

The annex said that beyond Shi, the Wuhan lab meeting participants were lab Director General Wang Yanyi, lab Deputy Director Yuan Zhiming, and other researchers.

“The Wuhan Institute of Virology was heavily targeted by conspiracy theories,” the WHO-China team wrote. “Staff talked to media and scientific journalists to dispel the myths.”

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A report from House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans contended that “there are a series of outstanding issues with the WIV," including the CCP’s "refusal to allow the WIV to share samples" and China's "military takeover" of the lab.

The WHO-China team contended that Shi “gave an extensive scientific report on her team’s work on bat coronaviruses,” including that “19,000 samples had been collected, coronaviruses were detected in about 13% (2481 positive for CoV).” Shi discussed “one virus strain with high homology with SARS-CoV-2” that “was renamed as RaTG13." Shi told the team about “the low likelihood that RaTG13 was the precursor of SARS-CoV-2."

Shi denied "rumors" in March that the Wuhan lab worked with China's military, but former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Washington Examiner that it was “a high-confidence assessment."

Shi also claimed in the annex that “all fieldwork is done with full PPE.” But Shi previously admitted her team did not always use full protective gear, saying during a June 2018 presentation, “In most cases, we’d wear simpler protection, and it’s OK.”

The annex contained a section on “conspiracy theories" and stated, “The WIV Director raised the issue of conspiracy theories, reiterating that the Institute had worked with the media to stress the need to respect science in the fight against COVID-19 and to rebut the theories. The international team’s visit could help to defuse some of the theories that were circulating.”

“The Institute did not respond to conspiracy theories but understood why the WHO team needed to ask," the team wrote. "There had been no reports of unusual diseases, none diagnosed, and all staff tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.”

State Department cables from Beijing in 2018 warned of biosecurity problems at the lab, noting that “the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”

When the Wuhan lab director was “asked about positive influenza cases in October-November 2019, he replied that WIV performed retrospective research in collaboration with Wuhan Xiehe (Union) Hospital. ... In total 1,001 samples were collected from patients in the hospital (the samples were not from staff of WIV). No SARS-CoV-2 NAT positive samples were found in the samples from December 2019 and four co-infections with influenza and SARS-CoV-2 were found in the 700 samples from January 2020.” The WHO-China team annex added: “With regard to whether a laboratory audit had been done in response to conspiracy accusations, it was stated that annual external audits were conducted routinely. No problems had been identified.”

But the State Department fact sheet said lab workers became sick with COVID-19-like symptoms in autumn 2019.

A former State Department official told the Washington Examiner that “there were several illnesses at the Wuhan lab prior to the openly reported case.” The official added, “I believe they were hospitalized. … If those people were sick ... and the Wuhan Institute of Virology didn’t take any measure, then that is gross negligence. If they did take measures and they still lie about it, then it’s a cover-up.”

The annex also addresses "the rumor about missing data."

Though American officials criticized the Wuhan lab for taking down its database containing thousands of viral samples, Daszak called the lab’s decision “absolutely reasonable” in March.

“This related to an Excel spreadsheet that had been on the website for 10 years as part of a national databank of samples,” the annex said. "They received attacks from hackers — more than 3000 cyber-attacks, so was kept offline.”

The WHO-China team wrote that “the rumors of a leak from the laboratory were refuted categorically by the laboratory director” and “the only SARS-CoV-2-like virus found by this group is RaTG13, which is neither a live (cultured) virus nor the progenitor of SARS-CoV-2.”

The Wuhan lab director also cited an article in Nature that “rebutted the idea of a bioengineered source.”

That March 2020 article contended that “SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” Emails from January 2020 between one of the authors, microbiologist Kristian Andersen, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who appeared to be working behind the scenes to push the natural origins hypothesis, showed Andersen suggested that “some of the features (potentially) look engineered."

“The laboratory director, responding to laboratory-leak theories, commented that from 2010, including the P3 laboratory, WIV has conducted experiments with more than 10,000 entries, and the P4 laboratory has conducted experiments with more than 3,000 entries in the last 3 years,” the WHO-China team wrote. “No infection was ever reported.”

The annex stated, “With regard to the matter of morbidity and mortality in miners in a mine in Mojiang, Yunnan Province, where bats were present ... Shi’s team went there in 2012-15 about seven times to look for novel viruses. ... Samples taken during subsequent visits to the cave were found to contain no viral sequence related to SARS-CoV-2 (like RaTG13).” The annex added that “illnesses associated with the miners, according to the WIV experts, were more likely explained by fungal infections.”

The Wall Street Journal reported in May that in April 2012, six miners “fell sick with a mysterious illness after entering the mine to clear bat guano” and “three of them died.” The outlet added, “Chinese scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were called in to investigate and ... identified several new coronaviruses.”

The annex included a section on “origins of virus” and stated that "WIV staff responded by noting a natural origin — close relatives of SARS-CoV-2 were found in bats and pangolins, and diverse genera of bats were distributed across the world and some bats could migrate.” It also claimed that “intermediate hosts may have an important role.” The WHO-China team did not find evidence of the original bat source nor intermediary host in China, however.

Peter Ben Embarek, head of the WHO’s international team, discussed the lab visit in February, saying, "Of course, they’re the best one to be able to dismiss any of these claims and provide answers to all the questions that are out there around it.”

Embarek admitted in late February that “we didn’t do an audit of any of these labs, so we don’t really have hard facts or detailed data on the work done."

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of WHO, said in March that the WHO-China team had not fully investigated the possibility of COVID-19 originating through an accidental leak from a Wuhan lab, a hypothesis he insisted still needed further study.

Daszak dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis during a 60 Minutes appearance in March, when he admitted he took Wuhan lab workers at their word and claimed their answers seemed convincing. He said he didn't see any evidence of a Chinese cover-up.

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Matthew Pottinger, a former Trump deputy national security adviser who said Tuesday that “a preponderance of the circumstantial evidence” points to a lab leak, stressed during his own 60 Minutes appearance that "there was a direct order from Beijing to destroy all viral samples — and they didn't volunteer to share the genetic sequences.”

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Original Author: Jerry Dunleavy

Original Location: WHO-China COVID-19 origins team labeled lab leak concerns 'conspiracy theories'

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