Where did COVID-19 come from? Part 2

Last week, I outlined genetic evidence that the present pandemic had its origin in a laboratory. In the segment below, I tell two stories of how this might have occurred, one as leak from an American lab and one from a Chinese lab. I was surprised to find that there is a history of collaborative work between American and Chinese bioweapons labs on exactly the kind of Coronavirus responsible for the current epidemic, in which a protein that binds with ACE2 was artificially spliced onto the genome of the bat virus ancestor.

After I posted this, Yuri Deigin, who is a frequent commenter on this page, posted this article on Medium. It is great background reading for anyone who wants to understand more deeply how viruses get inside cells, how they manipulate the cell chemistry, and how SARS-CoV2 is related to its ancestors. Spoiler: The virus seems to combine the backbone from a known bat virus genome with a spike protein (the part that binds to a target cell) from a pangolin virus. These two animals share no common habitat, so it is possible but unlikely that they could have combined in nature. Newly added to the SARS-CoV2 binding protein is a precisely placed insert that acts as an instruction to the cell, “cut here” making the virus a great deal more infective.

Here’s a puzzle worthy of Sherlock Holmes’s story of the dog who didn’t bark. The Chinese are eagerly promoting narratives about the SARS-CoV2 virus originating in America, while the Americans assume that, of course, the virus evolved where the first cases were identified, in Wuhan, China. But both sides agree, SARS-CoV2 had a natural origin, and had nothing to do with genetic engineering or breeding in a laboratory.  As we shall see below there are credible links to both the Wuhan Institute of Virology and to the US bioweapons HQ at Fort Detrick, MD and a university lab at Chapel Hill.

Why wouldn’t these two propaganda machines be eager to demonize one another by promoting stories about leaks from the other’s weapons lab? If one but not the other of these spin-control states were too eagerly dismissing the bioweapons meme, I know what I would suspect. But what does it mean that both these rivals are suppressing all discussion of the issue?

Two stories—they can’t both be true

There is a plausible story about a Chinese origin for COVID. There is another story, in my view equally plausible, about an American origin. The two stories are not easily reconciled, and that suggests to me that I have been suckered by disinformation, one way or the other. Some part of what I am about to report is not true. More confusion: there are hints that fall short of being a “story” about coordinated bioweapons development between China and the US. I like to think of it as a real-life mystery novel. I ask you, dear readers, to help figure out who is telling the truth, who is lying, and whodunnit. America? China? A cooperation between the two?

Or maybe it was Professor Pangolin*.

Outline of the Chinese story:

  • China’s main bioweapons research facility is right there in Wuhan, where the first patients were identified.
  • The laboratory has published papers in which they were doing closely-related research. [2007, 2013, 2015]
  • In fact, we know that they were harvesting bats from SW China, extracting SARS virus from them, genetically modifying the virus to enable “gain-of-fuinction” to infect human cells in vitro. (see 2015 link above)
  • Even the human ACE2 receptor used by SARS-CoV2 is mentioned in published articles from the Wuhan research facility.  (see 2015 link above)
  • Security at Chinese facilities is reported to be more lax than at comparable American facilities.
  • The Chinese government has reportedly silenced discussion of bioweapons research at the Wuhan facility, and of a possible leak. (Here’s an early complaint about lack of transparency. I offer this video as a source because it documents well the Chinese suppression of discussion of the bioweapon question. In other respects, the video is misleading, blaming the Chinese government as if the American government were not equally culpable.)

Outline of the American story:

  • The world’s most extensive bioweapons facility is at Fort Detrick, MD.
  • The Fort Detrick lab was closed by CDC for undisclosed security leaks last August.
  • I personally had a persistent cough for more than 2 months beginning in November. Other (American) friends have told me of similar unusual respiratory infections last fall and early in the winter. CDC reported in early December that “The U.S. winter flu season is off to its earliest start in more than 15 years.” [NBC news] Could this have been early cases of COVID-19, undetected as such?
  • The SF Chronicle reports today that an American who had not traveled recently died of COVID Feb 6, so he must have contracted the disease early January, a month earlier than the previous “first” American case which arrived in Seattle from Wuhan in February. It may be that we have not found even earlier examples because we have not been looking.
  • Late last October, there were military games, a kind of Olympic competition for the world’s armies, held in Wuhan. This was 6 weeks before the first COVID-19 cases were recognized by the Chinese, but only 3 weeks before the first Chinese case identified with hindsight.
  • Some of the American military personnel attending the Games in Wuhan were stationed in Maryland and had recently frequented Fort Detrick.
  • The entire American team, 300 strong, stayed at the Oriental Hotel, just a half mile from the infamous open-air market which has been blamed for the outbreak.
  • According to one report, the entire first cluster of 42 COVID patients were employees and their families of the Oriental Hotel.
  • Genetic diversity analysis can be used to estimate how long a virus has been mutating away from Patient Zero. One such analysis is consistent with an origin last fall.
  • Maximum Likelihood Analysis for the evolutionary tree of the SARS-CoV2 virus worldwide indicates that the “A” strain from which all other strains were derived is present only in America and Australia. The predominant strain in China is “B”. [ScienceDaily]
  • According to ABC News, “As far back as late November, U.S. intelligence officials were warning that a contagion was sweeping through China’s Wuhan region, changing the patterns of life and business and posing a threat to the population, according to four sources briefed on the secret reporting.” The Defense Intelligence Agency had already identified it as a coronavirus in November. But the “first 41 patients” in the Lancet article were admitted to Wuhan hospitals in December. Please stop and consider the implications of the fact that the US Dept of Defense knew that there was a dangerous coronavirus and knew it was in Wuhan before the first reported COVID patients. Pepe Escobar conjectures.
  • The only countries in the world where all known strains of COVID have been identified are China and USA.

Reports of bioweapon collaboration between USA and China

Exhibit A for this hypothesis is this Nature Medicine article from 2015. It describes a collaboration between University of North Carolina scientists and the Wuhan Virology Laboratory, funded jointly by American agencies, including Fauci’s NIAID, and the Chinese National Science Foundation. They describe modifying the bat coronavirus, the very one that is most closely related to the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. They use genetic engineering to add an ability to bind to the human (and mouse) ACE2 receptor, the very same modification that makes SARS-CoV2 so contagious.

The nominal justification for such research is to understand how such recombinations might occur in nature, so that we might be better prepared to defend against them if such a recombination should happen to take place. The number of such recombinations that could conceivably take place is enormous. But this group was lucky to anticipate the exact virus and the exact modifications that would make it a problem five years later. They had a jump on the competition. “Our work suggests a potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations.” Prophetic. And the research took place in the Chinese city where the current pandemic was first recognized. Coincidental.

It is morally outrageous that such research should be proceeding. It has been against International Law since 1975 (based on a 1969 treaty), and explicitly outlawed in the US since 1989. “Whoever knowingly develops, produces, stockpiles, transfers, acquires, retains, or possesses any biological agent, toxin, or delivery  system for use as a weapon, or knowingly assists a foreign state or any organization to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for  life or any term of years, or both.” The law singles out research in gain-of-function engineering, as described in the Nature Medicine article.

Layered on my moral outrage is a head scratch: Why would a government agency steeped in secrecy publish such research? Even if we grant that their intent was not to produce a bioweapon but to learn about what might, at some future date, happen in nature, the fact remains that the paper contains explicit instructions that anyone with hostile intent might use to create a bioweapon.

Earlier in my career, I had security clearance as part of my research at Physical Sciences, Inc in the 1970s. I saw just enough of the Defense Department’s security system to extrapolate that the CLASSIFIED stamp was used liberally on any finding that might conceivably be used as part of a weapon system, even if the work described basic physics that had been well known for a century or more. Contrast this institutional paranoia with treatment of the Nature Medicine article, which is published freely, though it includes explicit instructions with which a competent but malevolent biochemist might produce an artificial pandemic.

What were the authors thinking when put such research out for the world to read? I have written to two of the authors to ask them.

  • Luc Montagner, French national hero and Nobel laureate in medicine, worked in China for several years. He claims there is a cooperative bioweapons program between China and the West.
  • Francis Boyle, professor of international law and world expert on bioweapons law, claims to have first-hand knowledge of cooperation in developing weapons between China and USA. He also says that the original SARS virus from 2003 was an American bioweapon, and that the high-security facility within Wuhan Virology Lab was set up to study it [interview transcript]
  • Three Published papers on SARS-derived viruses that were authored by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology list sponsorship by American funding agencies, including NIAID, which has been directed by Anthony Fauci for 35 years. [20072013, 2015]
  • Last summer, the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg abruptly cut off a Chinese-Canadian researcher’s access to her own laboratory. Details of the reasons were not disclosed. “A number of observers have speculated that case involves concerns about the improper transfer of intellectual property to China,” according to Science Magazine. What the Science article omits to say is that NML Winnipeg is Canada’s primary bioweapons laboratory.
  • The chair of Harvard’s Chemistry Department is a specialist in the technology of microparticles. He has had long-standing contracts with the Wuhan University of Technology (not to be confused with the Virology Institute), and was recently dismissed by Harvard, where the Administration claimed to be ignorant until recently of his work with the Chinese university. [February news article from Nature] [EuroWeekly article] [Wall St Journal]

American work on bioweapons can be traced to Nazi scientists who had been experimenting with non-consenting human subjects, exempted from being charged as war criminals and imported to the US to continue their work under Operation Paperclip. The current wave of research sponsored not by the Defense Department but by civilian NIAID was begun in 2003, and protested widely in 2005.

More than 700 scientists sent a petition on Monday to the director of the National Institutes of Health protesting what they said was the shift of tens of millions of dollars in federal research money since 2001 away from pathogens that cause major public health problems to obscure germs the government fears might be used in a bioterrorist attack. [NYTimes]

Regardless of whether COVID-19 derived from a laboratory, let’s put an end to state-sponsored bioweapons research. It’s already illegal.

The case for the Wet Market origin has gained popular acceptance despite evidence that is thin to nonexistent. Pictures like this one are used to appeal to our lizard brains. Of course something so disgusting must be a breeding ground for germs.

Here’s how we do it in America. Is it any less distasteful?

Yes, the way in which animals are killed for food is disgusting, and we don’t like to look at it. But does it have anything to do with the way viruses mutate and acquire new functions?

Standard evolutionary theory tells us that mutations are random. (I’ve been a critic of standard evolutionary theory, but for reasons that I think are not relevant to the present discussion.) Occasionally, a random mutation makes it possible for a virus to jump from one species to another. But these mutations are rare enough that we don’t expect them to occur simultaneously with three other gain-of-function mutations that make a virus both more lethal and more contagious. Computer models based on the full SARS-CoV2 genome have trouble accounting for all the differences from the bat genome in a sufficiently short time frame. The wet market hypothesis is a politically convenient fallback, without a proposed mechanism. The bats that harbor SARS viruses live 1,000 miles from Wuhan and are not sold in the local meat market at Wuhan.

* The pangolin that has been proposed as an intermediate host is an endangered species. It cannot be sold legally in China, and the idea that there were underground pangolin vendors in the Wuhan wet market has not even been alleged, let alone researched. This Guardian article is appropriately skeptical. The Nature article which is the original source of the pangolin theory does not claim there were pangolins at the Wuhan market. A follow-up Nature article points to further weaknesses in the pangolin hypothesis, and clarifies that the pangolin virus genome is not closer than the bat virus to SARS-CoV2.

33 thoughts on “Where did COVID-19 come from? Part 2

  1. “The only country in the world where all known strains of COVID have been identified is USA.”
    Actually it is both China and USA

    ” “A” strain from which all other strains were derived is present only in America and Australia”
    check your science daily link it says type ‘A’, the “original human virus genome” — was present in Wuhan!

  2. Although, has the same look as Ron Fouchier’s 2011H5N1 paper which was initially blocked but then in April 2012, the US suddenly withdrew objections. Did they just skip the “block” step this time? Is this an application of the same policy rationale that OKed the resumption of deadly flu research in 2019?

  3. “The U.S. winter flu season is off to its earliest start in more than 15 years.” [NBC news] Could this have been early cases of COVID-19, undetected as such?”

    There’s no way that’s possible. The virus would have spread out and people would get seriously ill, that wouldn’t be undetected for long. Even China couldn’t stop the information.

    • I think it’s totally plausible that Covid-19 arrived in the USA as early as November.

      Once wide spread antibody testing is done, we may have a clearer picture by pairing the antibody test result with the timing of a person’s flu like illness.

      I know many people who were reporting odd symptoms as early as November and December that somewhat resembled the flu, but were also totally unusual for the flu.

  4. Let’s just say that a virus strain with dangerous characteristics was let loose, engineered or not, accidentally or not, by the Chinese, Americans or Canadians, at the games, wet market, hotel, or ???. Do you, in your wildest dreams, imagine that a full and frank description of its provenance would ever be forthcoming? Do you think that, if even a principal were to cough up a deathbed confession, that everyone would believe him/her, that the responsible governments would pay reparations, and that responsible individuals in their employ would forfeit their assets and freedom?

  5. Your LiveScience link to the Chinese bioweapons facility contains no statement or evidence that the facility is a bioweapons facility.

    The US bioweapons program was closed in 1969.

    But your persistent cough is really great evidence. Keep up the good work.

    • “The US bioweapons program was closed in 1969.


      This particular virus isn’t a weapon. But you might want to drop by “Fort Marilyn” and let them know that they’re closed 😉

  6. I have friends who have personally seen pangolins in Chinese markets.

    BTW, this virus is no kind of “weapon”… the weapon viruses could kill 100% of the targets even 30 years ago.

    If this had been a weapon, everyone but the sub crews would be dead, thanks largely to FDA’s ban on test kits.

    • I agree that a bioweapon, designed to kill the masses, would likely have been more successful at accomplishing the designated task.

      Still, perhaps sometimes bioweapons are not designed to kill the masses. Perhaps they are sometimes designed to simply cause disruption and distraction and fear.

  7. The SF Chronicle reports today that an American who had not traveled recently died of COVID Feb 6, so he must have contracted the disease early January, a month earlier than the previous “first” American case which arrived in Seattle from Wuhan in February. It may be that we have not found even earlier examples because we have not been looking. 

    • It doesn’t mention how they decided the death was due to covid-19. From what I’ve read many deaths are being attributed to covid-19 without a test, and even if a test was used, it seems to have a high false positive rate.

      • Also, conversely, many people who were diagnosed as dying from the flu or viral Pneumonia, may have actually died of Covid 19, due to lack of testing.

        • But as I said, we can’t verify that without an accurate test, which we don’t have. We can only look at all-cause mortality over period of time to assess Covid-19’s true impact.

          • And the symptoms of covid-19 seem to vary widely, making a Doctor’s diagnosis likewise unreliable.

          • …and even then, all-cause mortality is problematic. For how do we know that hospitalisation and more specifically, ventilation, is not causing deaths? In fact we DO know ventilators kill a lot of people and for covid-19 numerous doctors have expressed the concern that the standard ventilator settings are inappropriate and leading to deaths.

            Also, the lock down will contribute to all cause mortality due to lack of normal care and medication, particularly for the elderly and vulnerable, as well as later on, when people die of conditions that would otherwise have been caught early.

            Untangling all of this and getting the true figures will take a long time.

  8. 160 samples are too small. They need to look at how lethal is Type A. If type A isn’t very lethal, then they could circulate un-detected for a long time as just another flu. On the other hand, the diagnostic curiosity is just not that high for the respiratory infection in the West. So they could circle around for awhile even if people were dying. People are dying from influenza anyway. The bats that carry the virus are not that far from Southeast Asia countries. Villagers walk back and forth across the border without ever having to go through customs. So western tourists could bring them home from Southeast Asian countries to Europe and US. Blaming China is a popular thing to do. Imagine the possibility that China’a guilty is only because some doctors over there were diagnostically curious.

  9. @Josh

    as usual, fantistic article. Looking at this type of evil science, probably is better do boring research that interests nobody and gets zero grants.

    There’s something I don’t get. If the virus was running in US so early, how it can be possible that Italy reached that extremely high rate of infection much earlier?.

    The epidemy should have peaked in US even sooner than in China, and of course much before than in Italy. In Italy, there were biologic bombs in form soccer games, and I’m sure than in US there were also huge concentrations of people in November, December and January.

  10. According to news stories online the Ft. Detrick lab was closed last august and reopened this march. The fact that they were closed would seem to eliminate the possibility that this pandemic originated there. Also, the fact that they were closed would also seem to demonstrate that the research done on dangerous viruses it tightly regulated. This is good news rather than fodder for conspiracy theories. I understand a lot of people seem to get very excited over this type of speculation but whenever I pull the thread on any of the supposedly supporting information there never seems to be anything there. I think the question of why humans are so attracted to conspiracy theories bears studying. Certainly there have been cases when “the government” has done terrible things. I use quotes here because as everyone should know, there is ultimately no such thing as “the” government, there are only millions of people all of whom have their own motivations for doing certain things. With regard to the legality of research, the various laws and treaties proscribing weapons research are aimed at development and stockpiling of bioweapons, not peaceful uses. This may seem an enormous loophole, but it doesn’t help to simply declare everything illegal because it has some intersection with research on viruses. It isn’t that simple. There are always possibilities for dual use, but there is also the very real need to try to develop vaccines or other treatments against deadly diseases. The devil is in the details.
    Go to the literature, search on coronaviruses in bats, there is no shortage of papers warning of the imminent threat of these viruses to humans. Certainly we should do everything to ensure that research is justified and safe, but let’s not pretend we can simply ignore the problem for fear of someone misusing knowledge.

    • In the interest of maximum accuracy…
      The CDC revisited USAMRIID multiple times since July, allowing the laboratory to resume partial operations in November. Each follow-up visit allowed a little more work.
      No info on what operations existed from November onwards, conspiracy theorists will no doubt argue that a partial closure allowed them to keep secret their dastardly deeds.

    • Yes – my American story was premised on the August leak being connected to COVID. I think it’s possible that it infected too few people to have a noticeable epidemiological footprint through the fall.

      • The reports say that there was no evidence of contamination outside the facility or human exposure. The closure was due to their use of a new sterilization system, and the event involved BSL 3 and 4 labs. My understanding is that coronavirus can be handled at BSL 2. And it wasn’t mentioned in any of the reports. Willful suppression of this information would have required an actual conspiracy. If people are of the mind to embrace conspiracy theories, there is no amount of reason that can convince them otherwise. Any set of facts can be marshaled to support any theory. The fact that even China was unable to suppress information about the outbreak should be a strong indication that such an operation simply couldn’t be kept secret in a western society. But again, people can say that they intended those leaks to happen as cover. It never ends. There almost seems to be some sort of uncertainty principle at work here, doesn’t there? Personally unless someone credible and connected were to come forward alleging that a leak from a lab occurred I would remain extremely skeptical and even cynical of these kind of claims. Viruses are everywhere in nature, it isn’t hard to believe that occasionally one will emerge that has major consequences to human society. Certainly I am glad that people are able to entertain free thought but I do think that in the minds of some these kinds of speculations can do real and lasting damage. That is chiefly what concerns me.
        Incidentally, new information on antibody testing of a cohort of 3,000 people in New York indicates that the virus has an overall fatality rate of about 0.5%. A lower rate was expected, but this is still quite significant…many times higher than an average flu season. 14% of those tested had antibodies to the virus. The flu can infect upwards of half the population on any given year, so we may be far from any natural peak. Hopefully the longer days and increased vitamin D will help. The previous SARS outbreak appeared to wither during the May timeframe. There is still an enormous amount of uncertainty about how this crisis will evolve going forward. Personally, I’m in favor of a universal basic income (even before this happened), this terrible event only strengthens the arguments for a more humane economic policy. Perhaps institutions will be able and willing to adapt in such a way as to achieve the best possible outcome. And we can go back to thinking about aging research, aging after all has a probability of 1, there’s no uncertainty about that.

        • Perhaps you should revisit the arguments for/against this virus being naturally emergent. That is the detail that seems to fundamentally support the idea that the virus was the result of some sort of research –

          For: The virus displays 3 major “gain-of-function” mutations. This aspect is extremely unlikely to emerge naturally.
          Against: The virus does not perfectly fit the ACE-2 receptor. Really, what kind of argument is this? This simply argues AGAINST that the research was bioweapon focused. And it is not even a good one – perhaps the research was still in progress when the virus leaked.

          We certainly know this sort of research is ongoing and not just in the US and China. You just have to look back to Ron Fouchier’s 2011H5N1 paper. The virus’s existence is not direct evidence of a grand international conspiracy. But if we believe it is the result of a research effort, we must conclude it leaked – intentionally or not.

  11. According to ABC News, “As far back as late November, U.S. intelligence officials were warning that a contagion was sweeping through China’s Wuhan region, changing the patterns of life and business and posing a threat to the population, according to four sources briefed on the secret reporting.” The Defense Intelligence Agency had already identified it as a coronavirus in November. But the “first 41 patients” in the Lancet article were admitted to Wuhan hospitals in December. Please stop and consider the implications of the fact that the US Dept of Defense knew that there was a dangerous coronavirus and knew it was in Wuhan before the first reported COVID patients. Pepe Escobar conjectures.

    • I don’t see anything in the original ABC news report that this article references that says Intel knew the contagion in November was a coronavirus. What it says:

      “Concerns about what is now known to be the novel coronavirus pandemic were detailed in a November intelligence report by the military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), according to two officials familiar with the document’s contents.”

      See the words “what is now known”.

      That Intelligence could pick up signs of a epidemic before it comes to attention of authorities is not at all surprising. I believe trend analyses on Google searches can often provide warning of normal flu outbreaks. There is also the Kinsa thermometer which has been used to track trends here in the United States.


      In a country like China, likely all or most Internet and phone traffic is tracked. So Chinese Intelligence would likely have known about it from key words in emails and chats and, if they knew about it, most likely we would have known about if our Intelligence is any good.

    • WOW!

      This completely changed my position on whether SARS-2 is most likely an engineered virus from the Wuhan lab. It’s a very long but thorough exploration. Nothing “Tin Foil Hat” or even Bioweapons related. Tons of falsifiable information.
      Lots of previously published research text from the current suspects at hand.
      For me, it puts all the pieces together.

      • Yes, it certainly COULD have been a leak.

        Even if not, to my mind there is no justification for this sort of work being done.

  12. Natural or artificial origin, it’s clear who is responsible for the full scale of death and economic disaster across the world. Hiding how dangerous the virus is on purpose is a crime.

    I’ve been listenned to an interview of a Dr., who has coordinated the construction of a huge emergency hospital in my country. He mentioned that the clinical data they had from the Chinese were false. He commented on how they have been learning about the virus, basically from zero, having more and more deaths in the meanwhile.

    Is there any indication of fake articles of Chinese in medical journals?.

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