Scientist who worked at Wuhan lab in November 2019: I didn't know or hear of anyone who worked there getting sick

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Notably, the scientist in question isn’t Chinese and therefore answerable to Beijing. She’s Australian, the only foreigner working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in November 2019 when COVID began circulating in the city. And she’s open to the possibility of a lab leak, she told Bloomberg. After all, outbreaks caused by lab accidents have happened before.

What’s newsy about this interview is the cold water she throws on the possibility, though. She’s deeply skeptical that SARS-CoV-2 could have been engineered via “gain of function” research. She claims that the lab did follow rigorous safety protocols, contrary to its reputation. And most notably, she says she’s never heard of employees at the facility coming down with a mysterious illness at the start of the pandemic. That possibility has been a key point among lab-leak proponents, a potential smoking gun of how the virus escaped its laboratory confines. I never heard a thing about it, claims Danielle Anderson, not even through the grapevine among scientists.

But does it matter? For purposes of public debate, I mean. No one who’s all-in on the lab-leak theory is going to adjust their probabilities because of what Anderson has to say. Either she’ll be dismissed as oblivious to what was happening around her in 2019 or she’ll be accused of participating in the vast conspiracy of silence among scientists to cover for China and their profession by insisting upon a zoonotic origin for the virus.

From her first visit before it formally opened in 2018, Anderson was impressed with the institute’s maximum biocontainment lab. The concrete, bunker-style building has the highest biosafety designation, and requires air, water and waste to be filtered and sterilized before it leaves the facility. There were strict protocols and requirements aimed at containing the pathogens being studied, Anderson said, and researchers underwent 45 hours of training to be certified to work independently in the lab.

The induction process required scientists to demonstrate their knowledge of containment procedures and their competency in wearing air-pressured suits. “It’s very, very extensive,” Anderson said.

Entering and exiting the facility was a carefully choreographed endeavor, she said. Departures were made especially intricate by a requirement to take both a chemical shower and a personal shower—the timings of which were precisely planned.

That contradicts — sort of — Josh Rogin’s famous report in WaPo that U.S. diplomats sent cables to the State Department warning of substandard safety measures being taken by the WIV. I say “sort of” because those cables were sent in early 2018; Anderson worked at the Wuhan lab until November 2019, when COVID erupted. Conceivably the WIV got its act together on precautions in the interim. “[I]t was a regular lab that worked in the same way as any other high-containment lab,” she told Bloomberg. “What people are saying is just not how it is.”

That doesn’t mean an accident didn’t happen, just that it wasn’t as likely as we may have assumed.

As for sick researchers, she claims she didn’t hear of any at the time or afterward, when she and her former colleagues at the lab reunited:

Anderson said no one she knew at the Wuhan institute was ill toward the end of 2019. Moreover, there is a procedure for reporting symptoms that correspond with the pathogens handled in high-risk containment labs.

“If people were sick, I assume that I would have been sick—and I wasn’t,” she said. “I was tested for coronavirus in Singapore before I was vaccinated, and had never had it.”

Not only that, many of Anderson’s collaborators in Wuhan came to Singapore at the end of December for a gathering on Nipah virus. There was no word of any illness sweeping the laboratory, she said.

“There was no chatter,” Anderson said. “Scientists are gossipy and excited. There was nothing strange from my point of view going on at that point that would make you think something is going on here.”

On the one hand, it doesn’t seem strange to me that Chinese scientists would be extra careful not to be “gossipy” about a lab accident involving a virus that was threatening to overrun China and then the planet. That’s the sort of loose talk that a totalitarian government might be inclined to punish if it got wind of it, either by ending a scientist’s career or their life or their family’s lives. On the other hand, it does seem strange to me that the CCP would allow Wuhan researchers to travel to Singapore if it had any reason to suspect a lab leak at the time. They wouldn’t want to risk the researchers spreading the virus internationally. And they really wouldn’t want to risk putting them in a situation with westerners where some of that forbidden loose talk about the virus might occur.

In spite of all that, Anderson remains open to a scenario where someone got infected via negligence and then carried the virus into the population. What she’s not open to is a scenario where SARS-CoV-2 was deliberately engineered:

It’s really, really hard to engineer a virus even when you know what you’re doing, she told Bloomberg — although she admitted that the WIV “is large enough that Anderson said she didn’t know what everyone was working on at the end of 2019.” A lab accident involving a virus harvested outside and brought within the lab’s confines is much easier to imagine. “Nearly every SARS case since the original epidemic has been due to lab leaks — six incidents in three countries, including twice in a single month from a lab in Beijing. In one instance, the mother of a lab worker died,” wrote Zeynep Tufekci a few days ago in considering the lab-leak theory.

The most important outstanding question about how COVID began is whether the WIV had any virus on the premises that resembled SARS-CoV-2. But the answer remains elusive, as the lab took its database of viral samples offline last year allegedly due to attempts to hack it. When an international panel of experts investigating the origin of the virus was invited to the WIV earlier this year, they didn’t even ask to see the missing data. There was no need, said the head of the panel, as the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been working alongside his own nonprofit and therefore he already basically knew what it had on its premises.

The head of that panel was Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, who had sent U.S. taxpayer grant money from NIH to the WIV to fund research on bat viruses. Daszak also organized the notorious letter in The Lancet last February dismissing the lab-leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory and calling on scientists to stand with the heroic researchers of China in their mission to contain the virus. Daszak didn’t disclose his relationship with the WIV when that letter was published and he’s since recused himself from the investigative expert panel due to his massive conflict of interest. Which brings us to an interesting coincidence: Another member of that panel is … Danielle Anderson, the scientist who worked at the WIV in November 2019 and who spoke to Bloomberg for today’s report. I can understand wanting her on the team since she knows the Wuhan lab better than anyone and its weak points better than any outsider. But if you’re inclined to dismiss all scientific skepticism of a lab leak as part of an industry conspiracy, there’s your angle in Anderson’s case. She was working with Daszak, who’s been trying to whitewash the lab’s possible culpability from the start.