The appearance of COVID in the same city as China's only level-4 virus lab is still a hell of a coincidence

Last April, the Washington Post published a column which revealed that back in 2018 officials from the U.S. Embassy in China had visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology and were very concerned about what they’d seen there.

What the U.S. officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.

“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” states the Jan. 19, 2018, cable, which was drafted by two officials from the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with the WIV scientists.

The author of that column has now published a follow up of sorts at Politico. Josh Rogin looks back on his report on the diplomatic cables about the Wuhan lab and some of the follow up work he did on the story. He reports the lab leak theory was already pretty common within our government just a few months into the pandemic:

After receiving the cables from a source, I called around to get reactions from other American officials I trusted. What I found was that, just months into the pandemic, a large swath of the government already believed the virus had escaped from the WIV lab, rather than having leaped from an animal to a human at the Wuhan seafood market or some other random natural setting, as the Chinese government had claimed.

Any theory of the pandemic’s origins had to account for the fact that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus—or, by its official name, SARS-CoV-2—first appeared in Wuhan, on the doorstep of the lab that possessed one of the world’s largest collections of bat coronaviruses and that possessed the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2, a virus known as RaTG13 that Shi identified in her lab…

By April, U.S. officials at the NSC and the State Department had begun to compile circumstantial evidence that the WIV lab, rather than the seafood market, was actually the source of the virus. The former explanation for the outbreak was entirely plausible, they felt, whereas the latter would be an extreme coincidence.

Of course coincidences do happen and the central problem with conspiracy theories is that they assume significant events must have significant origins. But sometimes they don’t. Still, while there isn’t solid proof of a lab leak, it’s noteworthy that the initial explanation of the outbreak, that it happened naturally at the Wuhan wet market, turned out not to be true. The first people identified with the virus hadn’t been to the market and had no clear connection to it.

During the recent WHO sponsored trip to Wuhan to look into the origin of the virus, investigators complained that China hadn’t been very forthcoming when searching for possible patients who might have had the virus earlier than December 2019. Instead, China was interested in pushing the idea that the virus may have started somewhere else and been transferred to China via frozen food.

But Rogin reports there may be more to this story, including some evidence that labs in Wuhan were performing gain-of-function research with bat coronaviruses on a larger scale than has been admitted publicly.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology had openly participated in gain-of-function research in partnership with U.S. universities and institutions. But the official told me the U.S. government had evidence that Chinese labs were performing gain-of-function research on a much larger scale than was publicly disclosed, meaning they were taking more risks in more labs than anyone outside China was aware of. This insight, in turn, fed into the lab-accident hypothesis in a new and troubling way.

A little-noticed study was released in early July 2020 by a group of Chinese researchers in Beijing, including several affiliated with the Academy of Military Medical Science. These scientists said they had created a new model for studying SARS-CoV-2 by creating mice with human-like lung characteristics by using the CRISPR gene-editing technology to give the mice lung cells with the human ACE2 receptor — the cell receptor that allowed coronaviruses to so easily infect human lungs.

After consultations with experts, some U.S. officials came to believe this Beijing lab was likely conducting coronavirus experiments on mice fitted with ACE2 receptors well before the coronavirus outbreak—research they hadn’t disclosed and continued not to admit to.

To be clear, no one is saying China did this intentionally or that it was designing bio-weapons, only that it still seems possible it was doing some dangerous, off-book research and there was an accident. But even that is something China would desperately like to avoid admitting. “If there was a smoking gun, the CCP [Communist Party of China] buried it along with anyone who would dare speak up about it,” one unnamed official told Rogin.

So we’re still stuck in this situation where all of this really could have happened naturally, i.e. it could be a big coincidence that the outbreak happened where the lab studying viruses just like COVID is located. Maybe the CCP’s denials of the lab leak theory are completely true. Maybe their frustration at being accused of sloppy lab work is genuine. Unfortunately one thing we know for certain is that the CCP can’t be trusted when it’s public image is at issue. If this was a lab leak, there’s a 100% chance they would lie about it and try to cover it up rather than admit to it. The fact that China still seems to be dragging its feet on investigating the origin of the virus more than a year later does look a bit suspicious.