A Chinese Communist Party-affiliated newspaper has published the first semi-official response to reports the deadly Wuhan coronavirus may have been produced in a government laboratory and was not caused by the natural transmission of an animal virus to humans.
Global Times, considered the editorial voice of the party, in an in-depth report Monday quoted Chinese experts who insisted that the coronavirus epidemic could not have been engineered in a laboratory.
China’s government officially has been silent on an international debate over whether the Wuhan virus may have come from a laboratory, or was the result of an animal virus that probably originated in bats and was transferred to humans through another animal.
A third theory is that the virus may have been under study at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses China’s sole Level-4 secure laboratory for conducting research on deadly viruses, and was spread through an infected worker or a test animal that was stolen or sold to a wild animal market in the city.
“The 2019 novel coronavirus is a punishment by nature to humans’ unsanitary lifestyle. I promise with my life that the virus has nothing to do with the lab,” declared Shi Zhengli, a research fellow at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on her WeChat account Sunday.
China’s government said last month that a preliminary assessment found that a wild animal market was the source of the outbreak.
The deadly virus as claimed nearly 500 lives and infected some 20,000 people so far on several continents.
“People should think twice when faced with conspiracy theories at the moment, experts suggest,” the Global Times said.
Excessive Chinese government secrecy — a doctor who tried to sound the alarm on the outbreak early on was silenced by authorities for allegedly spreading rumors — and attempts by the Beijing government to hide the severity of the outbreak have triggered a vigorous debate over the source of the virus.
According to the Global Times report, Chinese virologists asserted that humans are unable to create the coronavirus and “the allegation suggesting otherwise is groundless.” The article dismissed scientific and other reports of a human origin as conspiracy theories.
“In front of conspiracy theory, we should all think twice and think about ourselves, instead of blaming others,” Yang Gonghuan, a former vice director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told the newspaper.
China’s embassy in Washington, responding to previous articles in The Washington Times, is also strongly disputing the theory of a link between the lab and the virus.
“The spread of disinformation is destructive and risks creating panic and thwarting the global community’s coordinated effort to contain the outbreak and treat the victims of the coronavirus,” embassy Minister Counselor Fang Hong wrote in a letter to The Times to be published this week.
Former Israeli military intelligence officer Dany Shoham, who has studied Chinese biological warfare, said the Wuhan virology institute is linked to Beijing’s covert bio-weapons program.
“In principle, outward virus infiltration might take place either as leakage or as an indoor unnoticed infection of a person that normally went out of the concerned facility,” Dr. Shoham said. “This could have been the case with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but so far there isn’t evidence or indication for such an incident.”
The Chinese newspaper said the Wuhan Institute of Virology was involved in analyzing the Wuhan virus.
The fact that the institute’s high-security laboratory, the National Biosafety Laboratory, is located in Wuhan has prompted speculation that the highly-contagious coronavirus may have been produced by the Chinese as part of civilian research or as part of China’s covert biological weapons program.
Hard case to prove
Dr. Mark Kortepeter, a biological warfare expert, said it would be difficult to prove any coronavirus was released because of a laboratory accident.
“Containment laboratories have multiple redundant safety mechanisms and procedures to guard against human error,” said Dr. Kortepeter, professor of epidemiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“If something were to be released from a containment laboratory, one would have to assume there was a breach in laboratory protocol. The most likely such event would be a worker who was accidentally exposed and then inadvertently exposed others,” said Dr. Kortepeter, author of “Inside the Hot Zone: A Soldier on the Front Lines of Biological Warfare.’”
Disease detectives searching for clues to human-created disease outbreaks seek smoking guns such as a genetic fingerprinting link of laboratory samples to samples obtained from diseased patients. But doing so requires gaining access to the laboratory to find samples that existed before the virus outbreak.
While it is working with the UN’s World Health Organization, China first blocked and then agreed to allow U.S. experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from traveling to China, but has still yet to give formal approval for American researchers to come. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said this week that arrangements for sending U.S. experts are still being worked out.
Dr. Kortepeter noted that, “whenever we identify a new or re-emerging disease, it is tempting to find someone to blame; however, Mother Nature is often the most efficient ‘bioterrorist.’ She plays upon human nature and our interactions with each other and with animals to cook up new diseases.”
One key to identifying the origin of a coronavirus is locating and identifying the first person to be infected, known by medical sleuths as “patient zero.”
The origins of two earlier coronavirus outbreaks, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012 were not conclusively traced to a single origin. Both coronaviruses are believed to have originated in bats that passed on the virus to another animal and then to humans. The intermediary animal for SARS was suspected of being a civet cat and for MERS it was a camel.
China has not disclosed who the first person to contract the viral disease.
However, a Chinese government-funded study published Jan. 24 in the medical journal The Lancet by 29 Chinese scientists found that 13 of 41 victims surveyed had no connection to the wild animal market. Significantly, the first patient identified with the coronavirus was a man who reported pneumonia-like symptoms on Dec. 1 had no connection to the market.
” No epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases,” the report said.
Chinese authorities hid the outbreak for nearly two months and only confirmed it publicly in state media on Jan. 23.
The weeks of inaction contributed to the rapid spread of the virus which has now expanded around the world. Eleven cases have been identified in the United States and scores more are under examination.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, joined the debate last week, questioning China’s claim for nearly two months that the virus originated from a wild animal market and that “locals had contracted it from animals in say bat soup or snake tartar.”
“That is not the case,” he said, referring to The Lancet study.
As one epidemiologist said, ‘That virus went into the seafood market before it came out of the seafood market.’ We still don’t know where it originated,” the senator, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. “I would note that Wuhan also has China’s only biosafety Level-Four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus.”
Chinese state media also have accused the United States of overreacting the global epidemic by restricting travel.
The CDC’s Dr. Messonnier said Monday that the spread of the new virus has been unprecedented.
“A couple of weeks ago there were 41 cases in China,” Dr. Messonnier said. “This morning [Monday] the numbers are 17,000 — 17,000 cases with a novel virus, novel coronavirus that the population doesn’t have immunity to, and for which, because things have been moving so quickly, we don’t have the information base that we want.”
“I think that we at CDC have incredibly strong scientists who have a lot of technical experience in really similar diseases as well as in these kinds of diseases,” she said. “And our presence on the ground in China would be a help to folks in China who are trying to unravel the thing and make the best recommendations possible for their country and the world.”