The Biden administration has missed the June 18 statutory deadline for delivering U.S. intelligence information on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic to Congress. Despite the missed deadline, the information about its origins is becoming clearer. This is due, in large part, to vigorous congressional oversight and the outstanding work of independent journalists in search of the truth.
In March, President Joe Biden signed into law Sen. Josh Hawley’s, R-Mo., COVID-19 Origins Act. The act requires the administration to “declassify any and all information” relating to the outbreak and to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology within 90 days of the law’s passage.
Regardless of the administration’s stalling, here are the key questions about the outbreak’s origins and the mounting evidence that can answer them.
First, Were Chinese Researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology Among the First Persons Infected by COVID-19?
Credit the excellent work of independent journalists Michael Shellenberger, Matt Taibbi, and Alex Gutentag, who, with the help of multiple government sources, identified three “patients zero”: Ben Hu, Yu Ping, and Yan Zhu—all Chinese researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Hu was a close associate of Shi Zhengli, the director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the institute (also known as “the Bat Lady”), and worked in gain-of-function research on coronaviruses—the research designed to increase a pathogen’s lethality and transmissibility.
If the institute’s researchers were the first, or among the first, infected with COVID-19, that fact would lend further credence to the argument that the deadly pandemic originated from a Chinese laboratory leak.
Shellenberger and his colleagues also reinforce the conclusion of the most detailed examination of the topic yet: the exhaustive January 2023 Senate Republican staff report compiled by Dr. Robert Kadlec and a multidisciplinary team of scientists and analysts. After conducting 18 months of painstaking research into the topic, they concluded: “The preponderance of circumstantial evidence supports an unintentional research-related incident.”
While Chinese Communist officials and several prominent Western virologists funded by the National Institutes of Health insisted that COVID-19 had a natural origin, other American officials expressed concerns about China’s lab safety well before the outbreak.
As noted in the Senate report, Shi herself admitted in an interview in Science (published in July 2020) that some of the institute’s coronavirus research was being conducted under substandard safety conditions.
Again, according to the Senate report:
At least until the COVID-19 pandemic, it is apparent that researchers at the WIV were working with SARS-related coronaviruses in inappropriate biosafety levels. One goal of this research was to identify and evaluate SARS-related viruses that were more capable of infecting human cells. In the two years leading up to the pandemic, publications by and interviews with WIV’s researchers attest to increasingly sophisticated coronavirus experiments using humanized mice, bats, and palm civets to achieve this goal.
In other words, “gain of function” research.
Second, When Did the First COVID-19 Outbreaks Occur?
The timing of the first COVID-19 infections is a crucial piece of the origins puzzle. Communist China’s regime insists that Dec. 8, 2019, was the date of the outbreak, and Shi publicly declared that there was no COVID-19 infection among the staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan reported during the fall of 2019 that residents in Wuhan were suffering from a particularly bad “flu” season, visiting athletes were getting sick, and there was a spike in hospital admissions of patients with COVID-19-like symptoms.
Based on their analysis of the epidemiological data, the authors of the Senate staff report concluded that COVID-19 infections emerged in China between early October and mid-November of 2019, a discovery that comports with the finding of Shellenberger and his colleagues that scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had developed the “COVID-19-like” illness in November 2019.
The Senate report concludes:
Based on Chinese presentations, there is no evidence of SARS-CoV-2 circulation in people prior to December 2019. These findings are inconsistent with COVID-19 outbreak modeling, reports from U.S. Consulate officials in Wuhan, leaked PRC [People’s Republic of China] government documents identifying cases in November 2019, and other media reports of COVID-19 cases prior to December 2019.
Third, How Did the Outbreak Happen, and How Was the Virus Transmitted?
The assumption underlying a natural (zoonotic) origin for the outbreak is that the “bat” coronavirus probably jumped to a susceptible animal—an “intermediate” host to a human. Human infection, proponents of zoonotic origin posited, resulted from contact with some animal species in the Huanan Seafood Market in densely populated Wuhan. A curious fact, however, is that only 28% of the “earliest known cases” had direct exposure to the Huanan market.
Over the past three years, certain candidates for the intermediate host have been suggested, such as pangolins and raccoon dogs, but thus far, none have been identified. Given the “party line” that the pandemic had a natural origin, this failure to identify an intermediate host is unexpected. Historically, China’s public health authorities demonstrated a rapid capacity to identify the zoonotic origins of previous viral infections.
But as the authors of the Senate staff report observe:
To date, China has not acknowledged the infection or positive serological sample(s) of any susceptible animal prior to the recognized outbreak. Genetic analysis of published SARS-CoV-2 sequences from the early outbreak does not show evidence of genetic adaptation reflecting passage through a susceptible animal species such as a palm civet raccoon dog or mink. To this end, no intermediate host has been identified.
They further note, “The failure to find any animal infected with a SARS-CoV-2 variant or closely related virus that lacks mutations found in human SARS-CoV-2 viral isolates is a significant evidentiary gap in the natural zoonotic hypothesis.”
A Deeper Probe
This evidence is further bolstered by analysts with the Department of Energy and the FBI. Their assessments conclude, with different degrees of confidence, that the deadly virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory.
In April of 2020, State Department personnel had determined that the likely origin of COVID-19 was the Wuhan lab and that research staff had gotten sick and one sick employee “disappeared.”
Shellenberger and his colleagues note, “It is unclear who in the U.S. government had access to the intelligence about the sick WIV (Wuhan Institute of Virology) workers, how long they had it, and why it was not shared with the public.”
Many of these answers should come from the Biden administration, and Congress should hold the administration responsible to deliver—in full—all of the intelligence information that the COVID-19 Origins Act requires to be released.
Congressional investigators must continue to follow up on the stellar work of these independent journalists, secure sworn testimony from the anonymous federal officials, collect the hard evidence, and finally get to the bottom of the origins of COVID-19.
The deadly pandemic has thus far killed more than 1.1 million Americans and nearly 7 million persons worldwide. Determining the true origins of COVID-19 is non-negotiable. It is a crucial piece of information we need to avoid a replay of this tragedy, to avoid repetition of our mistakes in responding to it, and to ensure that our country is better prepared to respond to the next global pandemic.
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