News Update


Top Chinese researcher Covid: Don’t rule out lab leak

According to a former senior scientist for the Chinese government, it should not be ruled out that the Covid virus may have spilled from a lab.

Prof. George Gao, the director of China’s Center for Disease Control (CDC), was instrumental in the reaction to the epidemic and the search for its causes.

Any theory that the sickness may have started in a Wuhan laboratory is rejected by the Chinese authorities.

Prof. Gao, however, is less honest.


You can always suspect anything, according to Prof. Gao, who spoke with BBC Radio 4 for the podcast Fever: The Hunt for Covid’s Origin. Science is that. Don’t rule anything out.

Prof. Gao, a renowned immunologist and virologist who retired from the CDC last year, is now vice president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

Prof. Gao also informs the BBC that some sort of formal investigation into the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was conducted, which may be a clue that the Chinese government may have taken the lab leak idea more seriously than its official comments suggest.

He claims that “the government organised something,” but he clarifies that his own organization, the China CDC, was not a part of it.

We questioned him about if this implied that another part of government had conducted an official investigation into the WIV, one of China’s premier national laboratories known for having spent years researching coronaviruses.

He responds, “Yeah, that lab was double-checked by the professionals in the field.

It’s the first time that an official investigation has been acknowledged to have taken place, but despite Prof. Gao’s claim that he hasn’t seen the findings, he has “heard” that the lab received a clean bill of health.

“I believe they came to the conclusion that they were following all the procedures. There was no misconduct discovered.

More on Covid from John Sudworth
2020 July: Wuhan, the Silent City
Dec 2020: Wuhan scientists would ‘welcome’ a visit to test the possibility of a lab leak
March 2023: Search hampered by toxic debate over lab leak theory
It is almost clear that the virus that causes Covid originally originated in bats.

The topic of how it got from bats to us, however, is far more contentious, and there were initially two main options.

One is that the virus naturally passed from bats to people, possibly through other animals. According to many scientists, the preponderance of the data points to that as the most likely outcome.

However, other scientists claim that the data is insufficient to completely rule out the main alternative theory, which is that the virus infected someone who was taking part in studies intended to better understand the danger of viruses originating from nature.

These two options are currently at the center of a geopolitical standoff, a tumultuous web of conspiracies, and one of the most politicized and poisonous scientific discussions of our time.

Through interviews with some of the top scientists from both sides of the issue and on-the-ground reporting from Wuhan’s streets to the interior of a high-security laboratory in the US, the new BBC podcast clarifies this challenging but crucial question.

Image source: Prof. Shi Zhengli, Getty Images
Prof. Shi Zhengli in the Wuhan laboratory, from the image caption
In January 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to spread, a scientist from Singapore named Prof. Wang Linfa paid a visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where he has an honorary professorship.

He told the BBC that a WIV coworker had been concerned about the potential for a lab leak but was able to brush it off.

Prof. Shi Zhengli, a professor with the same specialty at the WIV, and Prof. Wang, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, frequently collaborate on research projects.

They have been friends for a long time and are two of the best authorities on bat coronaviruses, earning themselves the moniker Batman and Batwoman.

According to Prof. Wang, Prof. Shi admitted to him that she “lost sleep for a day or two” due to her concern that “there may be a sample in her lab that she is unaware of, but has a virus, contaminated something, and escaped.”

However, he claims that when she reviewed her samples, she discovered that neither the virus that causes Covid nor any other virus near enough to have started the outbreak was present.

He adds that there is “zero chance” that Prof. Shi or any member of her staff would have concealed the fact that they had discovered proof of a lab leak because they were acting normally, going out to dinner and organizing a karaoke session.

According to now-declassified US information, numerous researchers at the WIV fell ill in the fall of 2019 with symptoms “consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses”.

But according to Prof. Wang, he recommended that Prof. Shi collect blood samples from her team in January 2020 to check for the presence of Covid antibodies. He claims that when she took his advise, all the tests came back negative.

Huanan Seafood Market GETTY IMAGES as Image Source
Huanan Seafood Market, caption
Prof. Wang is one of a group of researchers who thinks the virus likely infected humans in a Wuhan market based on the weight of the evidence.

Many of the early incidents involved persons who worked or bought at the Huanan Seafood Market, which sold much more than its name implies, including wild creatures.

The statistics on those early instances and the environmental monitoring in that market, among other pieces of information, imply there is currently enough information—despite China’s glaring lack of transparency—to rule out a lab leak.

In actuality, these assertions of certainty have existed since the beginning, most notably in an article published in March 2020 that has since become one of the most read and contentious scientific papers of the internet era.

Some of the most distinguished researchers in the fields of virology and emerging diseases wrote a paper titled “The Proximal Origin of Sars-Cov-2” and stated in their conclusion that “We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

It supported the notion that the lab leak was a conspiracy hypothesis, which immediately gained traction in much of the media coverage.

However, one of the paper’s authors admitted to the podcast that he is now unsure of how strong the original finding was.

Professor of epidemiology at Columbia University in New York, Ian Lipkin, has a wealth of expertise monitoring diseases all across the world, including China, where he has developed close relationships.

Additionally, he served as the movie Contagion’s scientific advisor.

Prof. Lipkin now claims that excluding any lab-based scenario in the study was overstating the case.

While he still thinks the market is the most likely source of Covid and doesn’t think the virus was purposefully created, he doesn’t think all lab or research situations can be completely ruled out.

He also offers forth a theory of his own, citing a different facility in Wuhan that is operated by the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and is within a few hundred meters from the Huanan Seafood Market.

Ian Lipkin, Ph.D.
Professor Ian Lipkin, image caption
According to Chinese press sources, it was well known to be involved in the collecting of thousands of blood and feces samples from wild bats for study that was occasionally conducted without wearing appropriate protective equipment, clearly posing an infection risk.

Prof. Lipkin claims that when he co-wrote the March 2020 study, he was unaware of the facility and its operations. “The people who work there could have become infected while they’re in a cave collecting bats,” he adds.

Prof. Lipkin claims that additional data pointing to the Huanan Seafood Market as the virus’s origin, particularly new studies focusing on raccoon dog evidence at the market, does not answer the origin issue.

According to him, the infection “may have originated outside of the market and been amplified there.”

brief grey presentation line
Prof. Gao’s remarks that a lab leak cannot be ruled out initially seem to be severely at odds with China’s viewpoint as it has been made public.

hazard even.

“The ‘lab leak’ narrative is a fabrication by anti-China elements. It is politically driven and unsupported by science, according to a statement from the Chinese embassy in the UK.

However, when viewed from a different angle, there can be more things in common.

The Chinese government has been promoting a bizarre, unsupported third theory of its own in its propaganda.

According to the report, the virus may have entered the country on frozen food packaging rather than from a lab or store.

Prof. Gao’s remarks could be viewed as the more scientific version of the Chinese government’s claim that it excludes both the lab and the market because he excludes neither. Both are founded on the notion that there isn’t enough evidence.

“We have no idea where the virus originated… The answer is still up in the air, Professor Gao tells the BBC.

brief grey presentation line
Scientists argue vehemently over whether the question is actually still open.

However, there is broad agreement on one point, at least outside of China: China hasn’t done enough to hunt for or disclose evidence.

Though it might appear to be a straightforward question, it’s anything but.

From where did Covid originate?

The answer counts for every life lost, for everyone who has suffered, and for those who still experience suffering.


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