Lab accident ‘most likely but least probed’ COVID origin, says State Department memo

Wuchang Railway Station in Wuhan, China, is pictured in 2013. (Tauno Tõhk)

State Department officials considered a lab accident the most likely cause of COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic and feared international virologists could help cover up, according to a memo 2020 obtained by US Right to Know.

“Origin of the outbreak: Wuhan labs remained most likely but least probed,” reads the first line.

The memo is written in the form of a BLUF – “bottom line up front” – a style of communication used in the military. The identity of the author or authors is unknown.

In response to a reporter’s questions, a State Department spokesperson referred US Right to Know to an inconclusive 90-day review by the intelligence community in 2021.

“BLUF: There is no direct, compelling evidence to prove that a leak from Wuhan labs caused the pandemic, but there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that it did,” the memo reads.

Apparently written in the spring of 2020, the memo details circumstantial evidence for the “lab leak” theory – the idea that COVID-19 originated in one of the labs in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the pandemic.

The memo raises concerns about the “massive amount” of novel coronavirus research apparently being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control lab.

“The central issue concerns the WCDC and WIV’s obsession with collecting and testing massive numbers of virus-carrying bats,” the memo reads.

An ancestor of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is thought to have circulated in bats.

The memo also points to biosecurity shortcomings at both labs, calling the “handling of deadly viruses and virus-carrying laboratory animals by the Wuhan Institute of Virology…poor and neglectful.” appalling”.

The memo offers an extraordinary window into behind-the-scenes concerns about a lab accident among U.S. foreign policy officials, even as this investigative lead was seen as a conspiracy theory by international virologists, some of whom had undisclosed conflicts of interest.

The note also calls into question the impartiality of these virologists.

Shi Zhengli, a coronavirus researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology nicknamed the “Bat Woman”, has forged high-profile international collaborations, including with prestigious Western virologists, the memo notes.

“It is suspected that Shi holds an important and powerful position on the ground in China and has extensive cooperation with many [international] virologists who could do him a favor, ”we read.

Although perhaps unknown to State Department officials at the time, one of the most influential scientists “debunking” the lab leak theory in the media, the chairman of the EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak, had undisclosed links at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Chinese repression

The memos lament that “the most logical place to investigate the origin of the virus has been completely isolated from investigation by the [Chinese Communist Party].”

“A gag order in both places was issued on [January 1, 2020]and a major general [People’s Liberation Army] has taken over the WIV since the beginning of January,” he says.

China has strictly controlled information about the origins of the pandemic, including deny access at the mine shaft where one of the viruses most closely linked to SARS-CoV-2 was discovered, and pressuring investigators preparing a 2021 World Health Organization report.

The memo even suggests that other hypotheses could have distracted from an investigation into the city’s extensive research into novel coronaviruses.

“All other theories are likely to be a decoy to prevent an investigation [into] the WCDC and the WIV,” he says.

Although parts of the memo have already been flagged in the washington time, many details, including the depth of concerns about a cover-up, were not previously known. The note was never published in full.

Circumstantial evidence

The circumstantial evidence presented in the note appears to come from public sources.

Some of this evidence has been substantiated over the past two years.

For example, he notes the so-called “gain-of-function” research Shi collaborated on that made coronaviruses more virulent and transmissible in the lab.

“[The Wuhan Institute of Virology]Shi Zhengli, chief coronavirus scientist, conducted genetic engineering of the bat virus to make it easily transmissible to humans,” the memo reads.

This has since been verified by media reportsin peer-reviewed articles and U.S. Federal Grant Reports.

The note cites a paper 2015 co-authored by Shi titled “A group of circulating SARS-like bat coronaviruses show potential for human emergence” which describes the creation of a “chimera”, or engineered virus, with the spike protein of a coronavirus from a Chinese horseshoe bat.

Editors at natural medicine added a note in March 2020 warning that the article was “used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered”.

“There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus,” the warning further read.

But the memo shows that the State Department did indeed consider the document relevant to the origins of the pandemic.

The memo also describes lapses in security oversight at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and China’s Wuhan CDC lab. United States Embassy telegrams describing poor security oversight at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were also reported by the Washington Post.

And some hypotheses were also verified as decoys, according to another State Department cable published by US Right to Know last year.

A November 2020 Cable said the speculation that SARS-CoV-2 might be linked to imported seafood was intended to “deflect responsibility from the PRC.”

Other pieces of information cited in the memo have not been verified.

The memo describes online posts by a Chinese national with the username Wu Xiaohua who accused Wuhan scientists of ‘playing God’, making coronaviruses more dangerous through animal vectors in the lab and not properly incinerate laboratory animals carrying the virus. Wu even claimed that lab animals were sold as pets and lab eggs were eaten by lab staff.

“Wu’s accusations…are specific and have not been convincingly refuted by WIV,” the memo reads.

The memo also raises concerns about Huang Yanlin, a former employee of the Wuhan Institute of Virology whose profile was deleted from his website, “fueling speculation of foul play”, it notes.

“WIV has failed to convince the world of the whereabouts of its former employee Huang Yanlin, who is said to be patient zero,” it read. “Huang herself has never appeared in public and has since ‘disappeared’.”

Further evidence of a crackdown at the Wuhan Institute of Virology surfaced in a State Department cable first reported by US Right to Know Last year. The cable said lab workers were instructed not to talk about COVID-19 in January 2020, according to a Guangzhou-based blogger’s social media post, before it was censored.

The memo also cites a controversial study by Indian researchers comparing the SARS-CoV-2 genome to HIV that was removed from a preprint server after other researchers said he had serious flaws.

Chinese CDC

The memo also describes circumstantial evidence suggesting the possibility of an accident at the China Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab located near the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where most of the first cases of COVID- 19 would have been grouped together.

The lab houses up to 10,000 virus-carrying bats, he claims, citing Chinese state media.

The lab is a BSL-2 lab, lower than the BSL-4 lab required for the highest-risk pathogens.

“The WCDC is a level 2 virus security facility which is weak. The large amount of experimental bats pose [a] serious security problem,” he said.

The laboratory’s interest in the viruses that circulate in bats is corroborated by a Chinese documentary in which famed virologist Tian Junhua tells the filmmakers that bat caves “have become our main battleground.”

The memo alleges that Tian once described being “rained” by bat droppings and quarantined for 14 days, and notes that 14 days is the same quarantine period recommended for exposure to COVID-19.

American right to know obtained the memo on March 24 through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department in connection with investigation on possible links between risky viral research and the COVID-19 pandemic.

All documents on the origins of COVID-19 that the USRTK has obtained through public records requests are available here while the full tranche of State Department documents can be found here.

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