Josh Rogin: The sick researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology lost their sense of smell

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Bari Weiss hosted Washington Post foreign policy reporter Josh Rogin on her Honestly podcast to talk about the Chinese government and the origin of the coronavirus. You may recall that Rogin was the reporter who broke the story last year about diplomatic cables which warned that safety wasn’t being handled well at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

As you’re probably aware, there have been reports going all the way back to a Trump administration fact sheet that researchers working at the WIV became sick with an illness that had “symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

In May of this year the Wall Street Journal published a follow-up report which clarified there were three researchers who became ill in the fall of 2019, all of whom wound up being hospitalized. But there has been some pushback on those reports noting that China had a very bad flu season in 2019. So the fact that three people working at the WIV were hospitalized in the midst of that season doesn’t prove they had COVID-19.

However, in Weiss’ interview with Rogin, the first half of which was released today, he reveals some additional detail that I don’t think have been revealed previously about the still secret intelligence behind these reports.

“The unreleased intelligence is the stuff that, if you read John Ratcliffe’s op-ed recently, that he is talking about,” Rogin said. He added, “What he wrote is that the secret intelligence, the stuff that they didn’t release, it’s even more damning, has lots of specifics about the lab. Now I happen to know what some of that is and I’ll tell it to you right now, okay.”

“What it says is that the symptoms that these sick researchers had were not your everyday flu symptoms,” Rogin said. He continued, “In other words, they were COVID specific symptoms necessarily and these include no smell and what are called ground-glass opacities in the lungs.

“That doesn’t medically prove that they had COVID but that’s some pretty specific symptoms.”

The loss of smell seems like a pretty convincing link to COVID but that symptom can be caused by the common cold or flu. As for “ground glass opacities” in the lungs, that’s an older terminology that was applied to the reading of certain radiological images long before the advent of COVID. As this report from MedPage Today notes, there are lots of diseases that can cause these opacities but it’s not something that would be seen in healthy individuals. It does however have a specific appearance in people hospitalized with COVID:

Adam Bernheim, MD, of the Mount Sinai system in New York City, authored one of the early papers on chest CT findings in COVID-19. He and his colleagues studied images captured from 121 patients at four centers in China mostly in late January.

“There are a lot of diseases that can cause ground-glass opacities, but in COVID-19, there’s a distinct distribution, a preference for certain parts of the lung,” chiefly in the lower lobes and periphery, and it appears multifocally and bilaterally, Bernheim said.

COVID-related ground-glass opacities also have a very round shape that’s “really unusual compared with other ground-glass opacities,” he said.

“Influenza or other pneumonias don’t often have that pattern,” he said. “Patients with flu can have ground-glass opacities, but they won’t be in that distribution. It would be more in the middle parts of the lungs. And flu doesn’t have these round, circular shapes.”

So by itself this doesn’t prove someone had COVID, however if you could examine the actual diagnostic images a trained doctor would probably be able to tell. Do we have those images for these patients? I have no idea.

Rogin added an additional point. The WIV is a large facility that hosts a lot of different labs studying different viruses. According to the unreleased information our intelligence community has gathered, the researchers who got sick in 2019 “were the guys working at the bat coronavirus lab.”

Rogin is careful to say this doesn’t prove the lab leak theory is true, it’s just more circumstantial evidence. But if this intelligence is accurate, it certainly adds something to the case that this could have been the result of some kind of lab accident. If nothing else, it indicates why the intel community under both Trump and Biden have found the information at least somewhat credible. The Biden administration’s 90-day review of the origin data we’ve collected ends tomorrow.

There’s more to the interview, including Rogin’s claim that President Trump’s early statement that the virus would just go away when the weather got warmer came directly from President Xi Jinping who was lying to him in order to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic. Here’s part one of the podcast.