NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
U.S. intelligence agencies have zeroed in on a bat coronavirus modified during experiments inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) as a possible “backbone” for the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic, according to American government officials.
The virus in question is called RaTG13 and was first mentioned in the State Department fact sheet on the Wuhan lab in January.
President Biden has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct a three-month inquiry into the virus origin after an earlier study revealed spy agencies are divided over the two competing origin theories — that the virus leaked from a Chinese laboratory or emerged naturally from an animal to infect humans.
According to the officials familiar with the intelligence, RaTG13 is not regarded as the immediate precursor of the virus behind SAR-CoV-2, the formal name for the coronavirus.
“RaTG13 is significant for other reasons having to do with its potential as a backbone for the creation of a parthenogenic chimeric virus,” one official said. “It is also significant given the suspect behavior of PRC scientists regarding disclosure of information about this virus and the clouded and questionable nature of previous disclosures about its origin, genomic structure and laboratory experimentation.”
Steven C. Quay, a prominent virologist who took part in a State Department study of the virus, revealed in a scientific analysis made public in January that RaTG13 “is not a pristine biological entity but shows evidence of genetic manipulation in the laboratory.”
According to the fact sheet, WIV researchers began conducting experiments with the RaTG13 virus in 2016, and there was no sign the experiments were halted prior to the outbreak of the pandemic in Wuhan in December 2019.
“WIV 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),” the State Department said. “The WIV became a focal point for international coronavirus research after the 2003 SARS outbreak and has since studied animals, including mice, bats, and pangolins.”
Significantly, the Wuhan institute has published reports about its work on “gain-of-function” research that involves modifying animal viruses found in nature to make them more infectious to humans. The institute conducted research on engineering these so-called chimeric viruses, the fact sheet said.
“But the WIV has not been transparent or consistent about its record of studying viruses most similar to the COVID-19 virus, including RaTG13, which it sampled from a cave in Yunnan Province in 2013 after several miners died of SARS-like illness,” the fact sheet contended.
Emails from Anthony Fauci, the Trump and Biden administrations’ doctor in charge of dealing with the pandemic, revealed he was informed in February 2020 that the virus may have been manipulated in a laboratory.
Emails made public this week include one sent to Dr. Fauci from Kristen G. Andersen, a virologist studying the COVID-19 virus, that states its genome does not appear to have evolved naturally and that some features “(potentially) look engineered.”
So far, China has denied the lab-leak theory and refused to provide international virus investigators with access to its records on bat and other coronaviruses being worked on before the pandemic outbreak.
One key to learning the origin of the outbreak will be to obtain records and data explaining why the WIV was engaged in laboratory alterations of RaTG13 and other viruses. According to the State Department, WIV officials altered and then removed online records of the lab work on RaTG13.
Chinese virologist Yan Li-meng, who fled China over fears of arrest, said she does not believe RaTG13 is the backbone virus for the COVID-19 virus.
Instead, Ms. Yan, who has conducted extensive research on the virus, identified a virus called ZC45/ZXC21 as the backbone of the COVID-19 virus, one that she believes was developed in a Chinese military lab on the other side of the country from a southern Yunnan cave. Ms. Yan believes the COVID-19 virus was developed as a biological warfare agent and released intentionally by the Chinese.
The theory that the virus was created by Chinese scientists gained momentum last month when two scientists, British oncology expert Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr. Birger Sorensen, published a study asserting that Chinese researchers hid the lab origin by “retro-engineering” versions of the virus to make them appear to have evolved naturally from animals.
The study, disclosed by Britain’s Daily Mail, states that in examining COVID-19 samples in pursuit of a vaccine, the scientists noticed unique fingerprints for the virus that can only be explained by laboratory manipulation.
The lab leak theory only a few months ago was dismissed by many scientists, intelligence analysts and reporters as a fringe conspiracy theory. That changed in April when Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress that, contrary to Chinese government claims, the lab-leak theory is one of two main hypotheses on the cause of the outbreak for U.S. intelligence investigators.
Washington Post national security reporter Shane Harris, for example, reported after Ms. Haines’ testimony that there was “no evidence” the virus came from a laboratory. This week Mr. Harris reported “circumstantial evidence” indicates a lab leak of the virus.
Since April, scientists who rejected the theory flip-flopped, notably Ralph S. Baric, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who worked closely with virus researchers at the WIV.
Dr. Baric was part of a State Department advisory group on the virus origin earlier this year and vehemently argued against a lab leak in favor of natural origin during meetings.
However, Dr. Baric joined a group of scientists who published a letter in the journal Science May 14 stating, “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously.”
China steps up virus disinformation
The Chinese government is stepping up its propaganda and disinformation regarding the origin of the COVID-19 virus, in an apparent bid to deflect mounting criticism of Beijing over the emerging international consensus that China is responsible for the pandemic.
The campaign has included repeated accusations that the U.S. developed biological weapons and calls for an international investigation of U.S. Army laboratories.
Beijing has sought unsuccessfully to discredit the laboratory leak theory of the virus origin through its influence within the World Health Organization and through its sophisticated propaganda networks, including state media and sympathetic supporters around the world.
The most aggressive of its propagandists, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, one of Beijing’s so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats, attacked the United States on May 28 for what he said was developing biological weapons with Japan.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told Inside the Ring he would not dignify the Chinese comments with a response.
“It’s important to note that China has not lived up to its obligations to the international community on this issue,” Mr. Price said.
“The pandemic began in China, yet China continues to obfuscate, not allow access to WHO scientists and experts, and now has said it will not participate in a WHO Phase 2 study,” he said.
China’s insistence that its role in the WHO study is complete “is disappointing, and at odds with the rest of the international community that is working collaboratively across the board to bring an end to this pandemic and improve global health security,” Mr. Price said.
“We will continue to work with international partners and the WHO on their study into the origins of the pandemic,” he said. “We and WHO leadership have been clear that sound and technically credible theories should be thoroughly evaluated by international experts.”
At two Chinese Foreign Ministry briefings this week, spokesman Wang Wenbin said Beijing wants an international probe of the biological research at the Army’s Fort Detrick laboratory, where Chinese state media have claimed the virus may have originated.
Mr. Wang accused the United States government of “safety issues and risks” at American virus labs.
“In the fall of 2019, just months before the onset of COVID-19, Fort Detrick was suspended due to serious risks, according to U.S. media, including The New York Times. While clamoring for an investigation in other countries, the U.S. has been refusing to open up its own bio-labs by citing national security as an excuse,” he said.
A day earlier Mr. Wang insisted China has cooperated with the WHO on virus origin tracing. He then stated that the virus “began in multiple locations around the world as early as the second half of 2019.”
“China firmly opposes the politicization of virus origin-tracing by some U.S. politicians,” Mr. Wang said. “Why is it that some in the U.S are so obsessed with the lab-leak theory when there no evidence to prove that the virus leaked from Chinese laboratories?”
NYT columnist on media groupthink
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens this week leveled a blistering attack on what he described as a media scandal surrounding news outlets — including his own newspaper — that failed to accept the possibility that the COVID-19 virus came from a Chinese laboratory for over a year.
Mr. Stephens wrote that if the pandemic was caused by a virus escaping a Wuhan lab, “it will rank among the greatest scientific scandals in history: dangerous research, possibly involving ethically dubious techniques that make viruses more dangerous, carried out in a poorly safeguarded facility, thuggishly covered up by a regime more interested in propaganda than human life, catastrophic for the entire world.”
The potential scientific scandal, however, obscures what he said was “an actual scandal” of the news media treatment of the issue.
“I mean the long refusal by too many media gatekeepers (social as well as mainstream) to take the lab-leak theory seriously,” Mr. Stephens said.
“The reasons for this — rank partisanship and credulous reporting — and the methods by which it was enforced — censorship and vilification — are reminders that sometimes the most destructive enemies of science can be those who claim to speak in its name.”
The column followed Facebook’s announcement last week that it would no longer censor posts on the lab-leak theory.
“Good journalism, like good science, should follow evidence, not narratives,” Mr. Stephens said. “It should pay as much heed to intelligent gadflies as it does to eminent authorities. And it should never treat honest disagreement as moral heresy.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.