Members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team at the Wuhan Institute of Virology | Photographer: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images via Bloomberg
Members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team at the Wuhan Institute of Virology | Photographer: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images via Bloomberg
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It’s been nearly eighteen months since the coronavirus brought the world on its knees, with India in the middle of a deadly second wave that is claiming 4,000 lives daily on an average. No one can tell when this will end. But it is possible to probe how this catastrophe began, and China’s role in it. Fortunately, even as cover ups go on. Several reports are out in the public domain and anybody who isn’t afraid of speaking the truth should be able to connect the dots.

One report out is that of the Independent Panel, set up by a resolution of the 73rd World Health Assembly. The specific mission of the committee was to review the response of the World Health Organization (WHO) to the Covid outbreak and the timelines relevant. In other words, it was never meant to be an inquisition on China. And it wasn’t. Not by a long chalk. It went around the core question of the origin of the virus, even while indulging in what seems to be pure speculation. Then there are two recent publications investigating the origin of the virus, which are worthy of note. Neither are written by sage scientists, but by analysts viewing the whole sequence of events through the prism of intelligence. Which means that these efforts skip the big words, and get to the facts. Collate all these different sources, add a little more of the background colour, and you start to get the big picture.

Also read: ‘Spreading outright lies’: China dismisses reports on weaponising coronaviruses in 2015

Is this biological warfare?

The need to find out the truth becomes urgent as the situation worsens, for instance with dangerously high death rates in Aligarh Muslim University, where there is now speculation whether the deaths could be linked to a separate strain. There are arguments that India’s second wave could be a deliberate one, especially since the ‘double mutant’ has not hit any of its neighbours. Such speculation is likely to rise, given that China has now effectively closed any possibility of withdrawal from Ladakh, and the Chinese economy goes from strength to strength, growing a record 18.3 per cent in the first quarter of the new financial year. Unsurprisingly, even world leaders, like Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, have linked the pandemic to biological warfare.

Arising from this is the biggest potential danger: someone may decide to respond in kind in a bid to fix Beijing. That’s how intelligence operations work. After all, major countries haven’t been funding their top secret labs for nothing. In any scenario, there’s some serious trouble ahead, especially since the Narendra Modi government seems to be more intent on playing down the crisis than addressing it.

Also read: India’s Covid tragedy is a propaganda tool for Chinese State. Not even dead are spared

The Independent Panel 

The panel’s mandate is set out clearly in the May 2020 resolution, which calls for “a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation…to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19…” and thereafter provide recommendations. This the panel undoubtedly did.

The 13-member panel included former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark, former President of Liberia who has core expertise in setting up health care after Ebola, an award winning feminist, a former WHO bureaucrat, and a former Indian health secretary, who had six months experience in handling the first Covid wave, was on innumerable panels on health, and in the manner of civil servants in this country, also did a stint in the Ministry of Defence, not to mention the World Bank. The Indian representative certainly gives the whole exercise the imprimatur of legality, given hostile India-China relations. And finally, Zhong Nanshan who was advisor to the Chinese government during the Wuhan outbreak, and who received the highest State honour of the Medal of the Republic from his President—Xinhua describes him as a “brave and outspoken” doctor.

The WHO also lists Peng Liyuan as a Goodwill Ambassador, describing her as a famous opera singer. She is the wife of President Xi Jinping. It’s,therefore, entirely unsurprising that while the panel diligently shows WHO the sources of early warning, it makes a vague case on the origins of the virus, noting that while a species of bat was “probably” the host, the intermediate cycle is unknown. Most astonishingly, the committee states that the virus “may already have been in circulation outside China in the last months of 2019”. No evidence for that either. The overall tenor of the report is that it would take years to sort all this out.

There is only one paragraph of note from the point of view of those seeking the truth.

The panel’s report states that less than 55–60 per cent of early cases had been exposed to the wet markets, and that the area merely “amplified” the virus. In other words, the market, with its hundreds of exotic wildlife, could not have been the source. It, however, carefully notes that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) sequenced the entire genome of the virus almost within weeks, and later provided this to a public access source. The report praises the diligence of clinicians who managed to isolate the virus within a short time. That’s wonderful all right. No question. But it doesn’t at all address the question whether those diligent researchers were also experimenting on the virus.

Also read: Global Times attacking India on Covid mismanagement should first investigate Wuhan, CCP

That troubling question

These assessments by the Independent Panel are now, however, being questioned, leading to bits of intelligence being pieced together from within a country that would put the term ‘Iron curtain’ to shame. An earlier WHO study on the virus’ origin was roundly condemned by a group of countries,including the US, Australia, Canada and others (not India) as being duplicitous in the extreme.

In January 2021, the US Department of State released a Fact Sheet on activity of WIV, which is entirely based on intelligence. That factsheet is damning, indicating that several researchers at the institute had fallen ill with characteristics of the Covid virus, thus showing up senior Chinese researcher Shi Zhengli’s claim that there was “zero infection” in the lab. The lab was the centre of research of the SARS virus since its first outbreak, including on ‘RaTG13’ virus found in bats, and which is 96 per cent similar to the present virus SARS-COV-2. Worst, it also pointed out that “the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017”.

That’s intelligence. Now for the analysis — the two recent publications probing the virus’ origin.

Also read: WHO and China probed coronavirus origin. And neither of them liked the results

Disaggregating the facts 

One analytical article is published in the prestigious Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Another is a paper by the equally reputed Begin Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies. Both are a careful collation of facts, and establish the following.

The paper by Begin Sadat Centre brings out additional information that bolsters the US Fact Sheet. It appears that the US had been able to get a ‘source’ from WIV directly, and that another Chinese scientist had defected to an unknown European country. That led directly to information on the military side of the programme. The study also quotes David Asher, who led the Department of State investigation. Asher observes that the WIV had two campuses, not one, as popularly believed. This was known by the Indian authorities for years, but does not seem to have been put about. Asher also adds that all mention of the SARS virus was dropped from the institute’s publicly admitted biological “defence programmes” by 2017 at the same time when the Level 4 lab kicked off operations.

Even more surprising was that an adjacent facility had already administered vaccines to its senior faculty in March 2020 itself. That doesn’t suggest an accident. That suggests a program that was designed to kill, and for which vaccines were already under research. Then there damning studies stated: “There are plenty of indications in the sequence itself that [the initial pandemic virus] may have been synthetically altered. It has the backbone of a bat [coronavirus], combined with a pangolin receptor binder, combined with some sort of humanized mice transceptor. These things don’t actually make sense (and) …..the odds this could be natural are very low… [but this is attainable] through deliberate scientific ‘gain of function research” that was going on at the WIV.

There is no doubt that ‘gain of function’ research is practised in biological research labs world over, resulting in, sometimes, dangerous incidents. This type of research involves in-crossing viruses, ostensibly to gain knowledge on how to battle the disease from within. In these cases, it’s almost impossible to decide where the ‘defence’ aspect leaches into an offensive capability. That these findings were from US scientists who were ‘fearful’ of being quoted shows not just the extent of Beijing’s clout in university research and funding, but also a high degree of restraint. Biological research is almost never talked about.

Also read: WHO’s report on origins of Covid-19: Highlights, reactions and criticism by world leaders

The denials begin

Biological research and the secrecy around it is the aspect of focus in Nicholas Wade’s article published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. As he writes, from the beginning, there was denial at the highest levels from some unexpected quarters. The first was in The Lancet— one of the oldest journals of medical research—by a group of authors in March 2020, when the pandemic had just broken out. Even to a layman, it would have seemed that it was far too early for the group of authors to contemptuously dismiss ‘conspiracy theories’ that the virus was not of a natural origin.

It turns out that The Lancet letter was drafted by Peter Daszak, President of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York, who’s organisation funded corona virus research at the Wuhan lab. As is pointed out in Wade’s article, any revelation of such a connection would have been criminal to say the least, if it was proved that the virus did escape from the lab. Unsurprisingly, Daszak was also part of the WHO team investigating the origins of the virus.

Another burst of outrage came from a group of professors who also hurried to disprove, in an article, the ‘lab created’ theory on the grounds – simply put – that it was not of the most probably calculated design. The lead author Kristian G Anderson is from the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, which specialises in biomedical research. It also has partnerships with Chinese labs and pharma companies. None of that is criminal. Especially when Scrippsis already in financial distress at the time.  Besides, such collaborations are not restricted to just US labs. See, for instance, an account of Australian doctor Dominic Dwyer, who was part of the first WHO study, and who dismissed without any evidence presented that the virus had leaked from a lab.

Dwyer’s claim that the Wuhan lab seems to have been run well, and that nobody from the facility seemed to have fallen sick has now been disputed. Evidence of a dangerous virus escaping a lab – as it has in the past on what he calls “rare” occasions – would mean a death blow to labs everywhere. Funding is, after all, hard to come by. Then there is the nice hard cash involved. The Harvard professor Dr Charles Leiber who was arrested, together with two other Chinese, for collaborating quietly with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT), was being paid roughly $50,000 per month, living expenses of up to 1,000,000 Chinese Yuan (approximately $158,000) and awarded $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT.  He was also asked to ‘cultivate’ young teachers and Ph.D. students by organising international conferences.

It’s all very pally and friendly, and a lot of money is involved. The end result? A virus out of hell, that seems not to affect the Chinese as its economy powers ahead and shifts its weight more comfortably into its rising position in the global order.

The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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