Why was the Chinese military engineering mice with "humanized" lungs in the summer of 2019?

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Ed grabbed the big takeaway from the splashy new Vanity Fair piece this morning, that federal efforts to investigate the lab-leak theory were hamstrung by numerous conflicts of interest within the public-health bureaucracy.

But here’s a provocative bit of news buried deeper in the story that’s worth some attention.

There’s no smoking gun of wrongdoing, just an … interesting coincidence.

As the NSC tracked these disparate clues, U.S. government virologists advising them flagged one study first submitted in April 2020. Eleven of its 23 coauthors worked for the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, the Chinese army’s medical research institute. Using the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, the researchers had engineered mice with humanized lungs, then studied their susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2. As the NSC officials worked backward from the date of publication to establish a timeline for the study, it became clear that the mice had been engineered sometime in the summer of 2019, before the pandemic even started. The NSC officials were left wondering: Had the Chinese military been running viruses through humanized mouse models, to see which might be infectious to humans?

Believing they had uncovered important evidence in favor of the lab-leak hypothesis, the NSC investigators began reaching out to other agencies. That’s when the hammer came down. “We were dismissed,” said Anthony Ruggiero, the NSC’s senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense. “The response was very negative.”

If I understand that timeline correctly, the mice were engineered a few months before the coronavirus emerged and it’s unclear when researchers began testing SARS-CoV-2 on those mice. Hmmmm.

There’s an innocent possibility, a damning possibility, and a deeply sinister possibility to explain the coincidence of timing, that China’s military happened to have mice with “humanized” lungs onhand practically at the very moment they might need to test the effect of a novel respiratory virus on human beings. The innocent explanation: There are lots of respiratory viruses out there, and lots of coronaviruses. Being able to test any virus you like on “humanized” lungs would be useful to scientists whether or not SARS-CoV-2 existed. The timing could be a true coincidence.

The damning possibility is that Chinese scientists were doing gain-of-function research on the “humanized” mice, ultimately producing what we now know as SARS-CoV-2. Maybe experiments with those mice led to the lab accident that unleashed the pandemic on the world. In this scenario the lab was negligent but basically well intended: The point of gain-of-function research, after all, is to “get ahead” of evolution by trying to predict how a virus might become dangerous to humans in the wild by seeing how it evolves in a lab.

The sinister possibility, per the involvement of Chinese military scientists, is that they were doing bioweapons research to see if they could cook something up that would be dangerous to humans. I read a story a few days ago quoting a U.S. scientist who’s skeptical of the lab-leak theory for the simple reason that the Wuhan Institute of Virology routinely published data on which viruses they were studying. None of the viruses described in their research prior to fall 2019 look anything like SARS-CoV-2, he said. So if it came from that lab, where’s the evidence that they had a virus like that onhand?

Okay, but … what if they weren’t publishing data on every virus they were studying? Another nugget from Vanity Fair:

The inflammatory idea of SARS-CoV-2-as-bioweapon has gained traction as an alt-right conspiracy theory, but civilian research under Shi’s supervision that has yet to be made public raises more realistic concerns. Shi’s own comments to a science journal, and grant information available on a Chinese government database, suggest that in the past three years her team has tested two novel but undisclosed bat coronaviruses on humanized mice, to gauge their infectiousness.

“Undisclosed.” Which is what we’d expect if the Chinese military were involved.

I continue to think it’s goofy to believe China deliberately released the virus into their own country, not knowing how it might devastate the Chinese population once it took off. (A lot of Americans do believe that, though, per yesterday’s YouGov poll, including 39 percent of Republicans.) But if Vanity Fair’s information is accurate, it seems not so far-fetched that they were experimenting with viruses with an eye to deliberately engineering something lethal. Maybe they had developed or were developing SARS-CoV-2 as a weapons possibility, wanted to know how much damage it would do to human lungs, and undertook to develop mice with lung similarities. Then the fateful lab accident happened.

In other words, under VF’s timeline, the COVID research done by Chinese military scientists on the mice might have been the thing that caused the pandemic.

Or, of course, it could all be a big coincidence.

Here’s an interesting exchange from yesterday, though, between Hugh Hewitt and Francis Collins, the head of NIH and Anthony Fauci’s boss:

HH: Well now, Dr., this is where I’m not a scientist. I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn, but I do know government, and I’ve been confirmed by the Senate. When I went up there, I had to answer every question when I got confirmed. And when I was a general counsel of agencies, and my agency got asked questions, we had to answer every sub-paragraph. Why would the NIH not go to the effort of being fully responsive, because it does give off the appearance of evasion?

FC: Well, I sure don’t want to create that appearance, Hugh. I think we want to be as transparent as possible. NIH has always been in favor of that, and of being responsive regardless of who the questions are coming from. But this is an incredibly complicated story. Much of the information they’re asking for, we don’t have the answers to. Some of it is pretty sensitive, not quite classified, but getting close to that. So it just didn’t seem like this was going to be well-served by having a very, very detailed exchange of letters. And again, in our response, we offered to have a chance to simply get into a secure space and have a conversation.

Why does the head of NIH need to answer questions about a Chinese lab leak in a SCIF? That should be public testimony. What sort of national security implications could be involved?

Fauci is doing the media rounds this morning to defend himself after his emails were released yesterday under FOIA. He’s being ripped for the answer he gave below, in which he scoffs at the possibility that the Chinese engineered and then deliberately released the virus to cripple the planet. “That’s a straw man!” some of his critics on social media are claiming this morning. “No one’s saying they deliberately released it.” But some people are saying that. A lot of people, per the YouGov poll I linked. The interesting question isn’t whether they released it, it’s whether they developed the virus — accidentally or otherwise.