What You Should Know About the Origin of Coronavirus, the Claims, and Media Manipulation

Biden, in a statement, told the U.S. intelligence community “to report back to me in 90 days. Let's look at what we know and what has happened so far.

White House Orders Intelligence to Redouble Efforts

Amid growing speculation that COVID-19 might have leaked from a Chinese laboratory, U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday instructed federal agencies “to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion.” Biden, in a statement, told the U.S. intelligence community “to report back to me in 90 days” after he had received a report this month that had no definitive conclusion.

In a statement, Biden told the U.S. intelligence community “to report back to me in 90 days” after he had received a report this month that had no definitive conclusion.

“It will be another whole of government of effort … by our national labs and other agencies,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters shortly after the president’s statement was released.

Key Points

  • First, no evidence suggests this is man-made. That’s off the table.

  • Second, reports of sick workers haven’t changed since we heard about them months ago. No one knows if it’s true, who they are, or whether they had a Covid like illness.

    • Acting on unverified intelligence is how you end up falling for false reports generated by adversaries. If we act on them, we will be in the wrong. If I were a disinformant and I wanted to send the US down a path that backfires, I would leak evidence people at the lab were sick because it feeds into American preconceived notions and claims have already primed us to believe it.

    • China won’t confirm that —we know that, so it will appear like guilt to the western mind.

  • Third, a lab leak does not mean the virus has been edited.

  • Fourth, editing does not indicate nefarious aims.

  • Fifth, nothing has changed about the probability of a lab leak—only that it’s being amplified by coordinated efforts. Obviously, it worked.

  • Sixth, China being secretive says nothing about guilt. The CCP is an authoritarian regime. That’s par for the course and it’s why American scientists told the White House to ignore what they’re saying and to pay attention to the math. They did not.

  • Seventh, a lab leak would not make China responsible for what happened in the US. Had we performed at the level we were able as much as 90% of the deaths could have been prevented.

    • See Covid, the US, and China, Timeline

    • Viruses emerge from that part of the world with greater frequency and it is not something specific to Chinese society. That is why it is absolutely critical for the world to cooperate in preventing the next pandemic. It is also why the US had funded research there—along with dozens of other countries. Infectious diseases do not respect borders.

  • The origins of most Ebola outbreaks remain mysterious, for example, and researchers spent 14 years nailing down evidence that the 2002-2004 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was caused by a virus transmitted from bats to civets to humans.1

  • What appears to be coordinated activity on platforms was amplifying “Wuhan” and “China Joe.”

  • It is also noteworthy that in April of 2020 a strategy guide distributed by the Republican National Senatorial Committee instructed candidates to make statements that were misleading or inaccurate in an effort to deflect from the early pandemic missteps. The document stresses invoking China as at fault, to say “public health officials acted late,” and to suggest that the virus is a “bioweapon.”

  • The false claims led to a disinformation narrative arms race between the US, Russia, and China, with unsubstantiated claims going back and forth. Prominent American elected officials’ false claims likely hurt the US pandemic response by triggering disinformation from foreign governments in response.

Some of these key points are discussed in more detail below.

Share

Stone-Walled in China

U.S. officials have stressed for months that a lack of cooperation from the government in Beijing hinders outside efforts to learn more about the origins of the coronavirus that has killed at least 3.4 million people worldwide, including nearly 600,000 in the United States.

  • The rhetoric around the issue has begun to be an obstacle to the very thing it claims to want to achieve. Ultimately without China’s cooperation, we will never know the virus’s origin.

  • At the World Health Assembly this week, for example, health officials from nearly 200 countries are discussing how can ramp up vaccine manufacturing and reform the WHO. Consensus with a US-China divide will be hard.

  • Highly charged statements by elected officials are likely to provoke hate crimes against Asian Americans. Elected officials can say what they feel they must but should condemn crimes against Asian Americans in the homeland at the same time, every time.

Lab Theory Craze That Came Out of Nowhere

The Wall Street Journal on May 24th cited a U.S. intelligence report that researchers at a Wuhan, China, lab fell ill in November 2019, a month before the Chinese government reported to the World Health Organization the first cases of the illness that would be designated as COVID-19. This has changed from a story in April of 2020 when it was one lab intern. Now it is three workers who were sick enough to seek care. Why did it change? Is this a different account?

Either way, the claims are unverified and may be false. Even if the details were confirmed they could not definitively show a lab leak, only reason for further investigation, which the White House was already in favor of before public calls.

“The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of COVID-19,” Biden said in his statement. Little pressure was applied in the early months.

“It is most likely that this is a virus that arose naturally, but we cannot exclude the possibility of some kind of a lab accident.”

—Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director, told Senate lawmakers at a hearing on Wednesday.

The WHO, which is to conduct the second phase of an inquiry into the virus’s origins, has faced mounting criticism for dismissing the possibility that the new coronavirus escaped from the Chinese scientific facility, an assumption that officials in Beijing have repeatedly rejected as untrue.

Two months ago, the organization concluded in a report that it was “extremely unlikely” that COVID-19 had escaped from the Wuhan lab. Collins told senators that the report “satisfied nobody” and “this time we need a really expert-driven, no-holds-barred collection of information, which is how we’re mostly really going to find out what happened.”

Some Republican lawmakers in Washington contend the WHO is not up to the task of determining the origin of the virus, in part because China has undue influence over the organization.

“Can we agree that if you took [Chinese] President Xi Jinping and turned him upside and shook him, the World Health Organization would fall out of his pocket?” Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during Wednesday’s hearing.

“I don’t think I can answer that, sir,” Fauci replied. Fauci would not be privy to what would have to be illicit dealings between the WHO and China, so it’s unclear why he would be asked.

“Phase two of the COVID origins study must be launched with terms of reference that are transparent, science-based and give international experts the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak.”

— U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told the annual meeting of the WHO on Tuesday.

Australia, Germany, and Japan are among the other countries that have also this week called for the WHO to conduct a more comprehensive investigation. One reason the United States rejoined the WHO was to hold it accountable, said Jean-Pierre, the deputy press secretary, during Wednesday’s White House briefing.

“We’ve been very clear with the WHO to get to the bottom of this,” she told reporters.

During his administration, then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the WHO over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The WHO does not have the authority to make China do anything is not a law enforcement body.

May 18
President of the US sends a letter to WHO threatening to permanently withdraw funding and involvement, spurring concern about the factual errors within the letter.

May 19
The Lancet publishes a statement responding to the US President’s May 18 letter to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization. This letter addresses one of the inaccuracies.

Inaccurate Claims

In a statement on Tuesday amid growing suspicion that the virus may have escaped a Chinese laboratory, Trump said: “Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus. To me, it was obvious from the beginning, but I was badly criticized, as usual.”

President Trump made claims about the origins of the virus without evidence, and those claims were rightly condemned. This also came at a time when the homeland required extraordinary leadership and focus.

Data from Congress member’s tweets in the early pandemic show data show that Democrats mentioned business more often, discussed the pandemic as a public health crisis, and stressed the need for worker aid.

Republican tweets centered on China, business, and framing the crisis as a war. National identity also comes across strongly, especially concerning the coronavirus. Republicans reference Wuhan and China three times as often as Democrats, showing “China” strongly polarized Republicans away from the center.

We were not polarized on this issue from the outset. Polarization fluctuates over time, like the weather. People follow political elites, especially in crises like war. The consequence of this is if politicians divideso too will the public. Once people’s opinions form, especially in times of crisis, evidence may not be enough to change minds.

Dr. Skyler Cranmer, a seasoned political scientist and author on the study of Congressional tweets, highlighted a key find:

“At the outset of the pandemic, COVID-19 was not a political issue. It was not a foregone conclusion that it would become one. There was a moment when a unified bipartisan or nonpartisan consensus could have emerged.

Cranmer continued. In an alternate reality where leaders had united,

“The result would almost certainly have been a less fractured response — both in terms of the government and individual citizens — that would have more effectively controlled the spread of the virus, saving lives, and minimizing economic damage. Given that possibility, the speed at which political polarization happened was quite disheartening.”

When a building is on fire, we must get people out of the building before we find out who is responsible. To do it in reverse means many more people die in the fire.

If China is responsible, then there would be few who would oppose holding them accountable. The issue with the focus on China at that was that we had a crisis. The time to push was before the crisis started. We chose not to do so.

Experts were clear that China was likely not being forthcoming and we should operate under that assumption. We did not.

Now, this issue must go through international agreements as this affects far more than the US. There is no pressing issue like a possible pandemic looming as there was before. This is no longer an urgent issue and as a consequence, it may take far longer to get answers.

Finding the origin will require the cooperation of China, and the current rhetoric may ensure that we never find the truth.

Origins of the Bioweapons Theory in the US

On Jan 26 the Washington Times published the unsubstantiated story Coronavirus may have originated in a lab linked to China's biowarfare program.1 Written by Bill Gertz, the article cited a single source, an Israeli intelligence officer Dany Shoham. The article quoted Shoham as saying the virus “may have originated in a lab linked to China’s biowarfare program.” 

Shoham would not corroborate the claim, according to Foreign Policy, though even with corroboration the quote could hardly be called strong evidence. Gertz's man-made virus story was flanked by appearances on Steve Bannon’s podcast to discuss the article on Jan 25 and 27, 2020, where the two publicized the claims.

At the same time all of this discussion of the bioweapons story was happening, virologists had already looked and found nothing suspicious or abnormal about the virus. 

Elected officials, exclusively Republicans, made unsubstantiated claims that were against the Emergency and Risk Communication Manual intended to help leaders and officials speak in a way that reflects the mental changes people experience during a crisis.

Enter Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Yan flew to the United States with support from Steve Bannon and Guo Wengui in April 2020. Guo is a billionaire member, a member of the Mar-a-Lago club, and a controversial Chinese dissident in command of a powerful disinformation network comprised of real people.

Yan authored the much-discussed Sept 2020 paper that asserted the Chinese government “intentionally” released the virus. The paper had not been peer-reviewed, and the scientific community expressed near disbelief in the quality of the study and its conclusion.

Yan’s affiliations for the study are puzzling as they were not scientific institutions, something that should have led credible news outlets to query subject matter experts before publishing the claims. Both the Rule of Law Society and Rule of Law Foundation were listed on the study and both were founded by Bannon and G News owner Guo Wengui.

Despite the problems with the story, the New York Post ran it on Sept 11, 2020.

For What Can We Hold China to Account?

Without question, China was not forthcoming and withheld information that could have helped the situation. Still, it not true that we did not have enough information to act sooner. We did and that detail warrants context.

On April 17, 2020, the Republican National Senatorial Committee issued a strategy guide instructing candidates to make statements that were misleading or inaccurate concerning the pandemic.

The document stresses emphasizing China’s fault.

“That delay from Jan. 14 to Jan. 20 was neither the first mistake made by Chinese officials at all levels in confronting the outbreak, nor the longest lag, as governments around the world have dragged their feet for weeks and even months in addressing the virus.”

The book also advises candidates to say that “public health officials acted late” and to suggest that the virus is a “bioweapon.”

Public health officials didn’t act late. They couldn’t act because testing guidelines prevented them from proving community spread until Mar 4, 2020, but many warned it was spreading.

All information needed to act came no later than Feb 5, but it took nearly six weeks for the federal government to take action capable of curtailing the spread. It took over a month for us to open testing broadly enough to even detect the cases we knew were spreading.

Chinese scientists reached out to Australian virologists by Jan 10th to share the genome. By January 12th, every virologist with a functional lab and internet access had the information needed to do three things:

  1. Ascertain whether this was a natural virus by looking for signs of manipulation. The virus showed no signs of manipulation, something that would be evident in a man-made virus.

  2. Design a test and start making them. Germany had finished and shared its design by Jan 13, 2020, although the US declined to use it. 

  3. Perform a molecular timeclock analysis to understand how long this had been spreading in humansthis particular detail may have mattered most of all.

Despite this, the US did not take action for nearly two months after we learned it had been spreading in people for took long to control with a travel ban.

Jan 24

Jasper Fuk-Woo Chan and colleagues submitted a paper published in The Lancet confirming human-to-human transmission had and was happening.

Also Jan 24

Four senators, three Republicans, and one Democrat sold off investments after a classified briefing about Coronavirus.

“According to financial disclosure forms, Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) each sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in stocks within days of the Senate holding a classified briefing on Jan. 24 with Trump administration officials on the threat of the coronavirus outbreak.”

— The Hill

Muddying the Waters is a Public Influence Technique

Claims made on the basis of the Yan study, referenced above, were rightly condemned as dangerous and counterproductive. Yan et al. was a textbook example of “Muddying the waters,” a technique used by large industries to avoid accountability and regulation. We have seen this from the lead lobby, big tobacco, fossil fuel industries, and in the form of the Great Barrington Declaration, an effort funded by many in the Fossil Fuel industry.

These groups don’t have to disprove decades of sound science—they need only cast doubt on how certain it is. The field in uneven and largely in the favor of those who mislead the public.

Muddying the waters around the origin of the virus contributed to the confusing information ecosystem in the US over the pandemic. We know the claims made by American officials led China to respond with disinformation about the US, all of which hurt the pandemic response in the US.

Globally, the US making unsubstantiated claims were not received well. On May 5, 2020, international headlines read: US blocks UN Security Council’s resolution to establish a global cease-fire for the duration of the pandemic.

The US government claimed China blocked it, but international headlines show that was not the impression other countries had. The insistence that the virus is a bioweapon increased global tension, and the payoff for the continual focus on the origin while the pandemic was still unfolding, something that had no ability to improve pandemic response.

Timeline from May 5 to May 19, 2020

May 5
US blocks UN Security Council’s resolution to establish a global cease-fire for the duration of the pandemic.

May 5
Dr. Rick Bright files a whistleblower complaint [see here] following dismissal from his position after raising concerns about hydroxychloroquine from facilities the FDA had not inspected.

  • “Dr. Bright opposed the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as lacking scientific merit, even though the Administration promoted it...and demanded that New York and New Jersey be “ flooded” with these drugs, which were imported from factories in Pakistan India that had not been inspected by the FDA.” 

- Excerpt from whistleblower complaint

May 6
Virus origin theories promoted in the US spark Beijing backlash. The administration keeps pushing unverified accusations that the coronavirus came from a Chinese research laboratory. It is a lie or evidence those promoting it poorly understand science and should not be interpreting it.

May 7
Elected US politicians announce a task force to investigate the virus’s originsThe international community strongly disapproves. Given the disaster unfolding in the US, the laser focus on a possible origin of the virus, made little sense. Leadership was critically needed in the homeland.

Researchers found the virus in 17/25 pangolins sampled. The worrying finding means it could spill into humans again.

May 8

The US shows signs of agreeing to a re-written resolution. Russia then stated it needed more time to consider the draft.

May 11
China counters U.S. accusations of starting the coronavirus by saying the US started it. Not true, but neither is there evidence to suggest China created it.

The current interest in the lab theory is puzzling given that no new information could be found, and there was little interest at the time when it was most critical.

Share

Further Reading:

This article includes work from an article originally published in Voice of America (VOA). Texts unique to this piece are from Novel Science.
1

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01383-3