The Wuhan 'lab leak' theory in Westminster

The Review

Hello,

As Parliament is currently on Whitsun Recess this week your writer decided to take take a look at the coverage of the ‘Wuhan lab leak theory’. In short, most proponents of this theory believe Covid-19 leaked from a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan (a small minority believe deliberately), rather than through zoonosis (an infectious disease that has jumped from a non-human animal to humans.) It’s worth reading this piece on the science behind this claim. This leak theory is quickly gaining currency in Parliament, Fleet Street and, if rumours are to be believed, throughout the intelligence community.

Coverage spiked last weekend following reports that British spooks believed the theory credible, with the Sunday Times reporting:

Western intelligence, including in Britain, at first considered there was only a “remote” chance that it had leaked from the laboratory, where research is conducted into bat-derived coronaviruses, including one closely associated with Covid-19. Now, however, there had been a reassessment, and a lab escape is thought “feasible”, sources revealed.

The paper’s report followed days after President Biden publicly gave his own spooks 90 days to report back to him on Covid origins concerning Wuhan.

Normal service resumes next weekend, just in time for G7. If you enjoy this Brief, please do share it on your social media. Thanks.

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Introduction and background

Readers of this Briefing will likely be familiar with the theory that Covid-19 may have ‘leaked’ from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) - the concept has been floating around the internet and social media sites almost as long as the virus has existed. It’s worth noting from the offset that very little new information has publicly come to light since then - but with the Biden Administration’s recent rhetoric, British media and politicians have decided to take a second look.

The Economist, which examined this theory in great detail in its 29 May 2021 edition, explains:

The first flutterings of lab-leak concern were prompted by simple geography. That market is just 12km away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a global centre for coronavirus research. The Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which also worked on bat coronaviruses, is closer still: a mere 500 metres. A worker or workers in one of these labs could have been infected with a coronavirus being used in research, thus providing that virus with passage to the outside world. A related idea is that the virus came directly from a bat, or another animal, either inside a lab or as part of research-associated field work. An avid collector of wild bat viruses works for the cdc.

If one of these possibilities were to prove true it would be deeply and disturbingly ironic. Ever since the outbreak of SARS, a respiratory disease caused by another coronavirus, in the early 2000s, coronaviruses have been seen as having a worrying propensity for pandemics. That is what made them of particular interest to the researchers in Wuhan; their work on coronaviruses was carried out in the name of reducing the threat they posed.

Pathogens escape from institutions working on them with depressing frequency. The last known death from smallpox was the result of a laboratory leak in Britain in 1978. SARS-COV-1, the virus which causes SARS, escaped from labs twice as it spread round the world in 2003, once in Singapore and once in Taiwan; it leaked out of a Beijing lab on two separate occasions in 2004. In December 2019 more than 100 students and staff at two agricultural research centres in Lanzhou were struck with an outbreak of brucellosis, a bacterial disease usually caught from livestock.

Most alarmingly, the h1n1 strain of influenza which started spreading around the world in 1977 is now known to have been released from a north-east Asian lab—possibly in China, possibly in Russia. Some Western observers suspected this at the time, but they made little fuss about it, perhaps afraid that doing so would lead to China and/or Russia pulling out of international flu-surveillance efforts, or spark a backlash against virology.

Biosecurity at the WIV was known to be spotty. American diplomats who visited it in 2018 reportedly flagged issues of concern, making specific mention of coronaviruses and pandemic risk. In February 2020 the Chinese ministry of science and technology issued new rules requiring laboratories to improve their biosafety, indicating unease with the status quo.

For most of 2020, the idea that Covid-19 may have leaked from the WIV was viewed as a conspiracy by the media in London and the States. This was in part because two of the public figures championing it were politically divisive; President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The Financial Times notes:

A crucial factor was that critics were more open to the lab-leak theory now that Trump, who was viewed as wanting to vilify China to deflect blame for his handling of the pandemic, was out of office.

Days before Biden was sworn in, the state department issued a fact sheet on the Wuhan institute which said that several researchers had fallen ill with Covid-like symptoms before the first publicly known case. It also said that the institute had worked secretly with the Chinese military. Critics did not take the claim seriously because of the view that Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, tended to politicise intelligence.

In the background, various researchers, scientists and analysts had been discussing for months the possibility that Covid-19 had leaked from the WIV. Many of them took to Twitter to discuss the theory further. A core number of them formed a group, DRASTIC, a "Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19."

CNET continues:

On Twitter, where access to world-renowned scientists is just a click away, members of Drastic have targeted virologists and epidemiologists who refuse to engage with the lab leak theory, and they've even falsely accused some of working for the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, some scientists have understandably dismissed Drastic's findings and investigation out of hand.

But over the past year the group's discoveries have proven too important to ignore. 

Despite undertaking a significant amount of the research on this theory, DRASTIC is rarely credited in media reports examining the Covid-19 origins. Your writer hears from sources that their attempts to bring the data before politicians often fell on deaf ears too.

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Westminster

Across SW1, pickup of the ‘lab leak’ theory has been slow. When the World Health Organisation (WHO) was denied proper access to investigate Covid-19 at the beginning of the year, some backbenchers began to speculate publicly that China may be hiding something.

Three things to note:

  1. No senior Government official has explicitly backed the leak theory yet.

  2. It appears to be widely acknowledged around Westminster and Fleet Street that it’s incredibly unlikely we will ever know with certainty if Covid-19 spilled from the WIV.

  3. Should more credible evidence emerge (or Biden’s Administration provides a more concrete view on the theory in the coming months), your writer is expecting to see some furious historical revisionism from politicians claiming to have always thought it was a leak.


In Government

In April 2020, COBRA (the emergency committee chaired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson) was shown evidence that the virus may have leaked from the WIV. One of those present at the meeting then anonymously briefed the Mail on Sunday, stating:

'There is a credible alternative view [to the zoonotic theory] based on the nature of the virus. Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is that laboratory in Wuhan. It is not discounted.'

Following the report, Downing Street said it 'did not recognise' claims the virus came from a Chinese laboratory. A month later, a spokesperson for Prime Minister issued a statement in response to President Trump’s claim to have seen evidence confirming the theory. They stated:

'There are clearly questions that need to be answered about the origin and spread of the virus.”

The Prime Minister has not publicly ruled out the lab leak theory. In January, he told a conference of world leaders:

“The coronavirus pandemic was the product of an imbalance in man’s relationship with the natural world. Like the original plague which struck the Greeks I seem to remember in book one of the Iliad, it is a zoonotic disease. It originates from bats or pangolins, from the demented belief that if you grind up the scales of a pangolin you will somehow become more potent or whatever it is people believe.

It originates from this collision between mankind and the natural world and we’ve got to stop it.”

Then a fortnight ago Johnson told CBC:

"I've got an open mind on this, but I'll be clear with you — so far, the stuff I've seen does not suggest that the ... number one candidate for this is a lab leak”

"So the stuff I've seen suggests that at the moment, the number one suspect for the origin of this disease is still a zoonotic disease that occurred as a result of the farming of wild animals in some way."

Johnson said that while the theory that the virus came from the slaughter of wild animals is shared by British epidemiologists and the World Health Organization, he is "not going to exclude any possibility."

"I'm reading a lot of interesting stuff at the moment about the possibility that there was some, you know, virus escaping from a lab. I think we've got to keep an open mind.”

Labour has been critical of the CCP denying full access to WHO investigators. In January, Shadow Minister for Asia & the Pacific Stephen Kinnock issued a statement on behalf of the party:

“To defeat this virus and ensure our preparedness for future pandemics it is vital that scientists have the opportunity to develop our understanding of Covid-19 and its origins.

“Scientists from the World Health Organisation who are currently being denied entry to Wuhan must be granted urgent access. Any further delay risks undermining the global fight against Covid-19, as well as hindering the progress needed to protect the world from the threat of future pandemics.

“The Chinese government must take all necessary steps to facilitate the immediate and unrestricted access of WHO officials to Wuhan, and play its part in the global effort to overcome this crisis.”

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In Parliament

A couple of influential politicians have caught our eye when it comes to adding credibility to the WIV leak theory. The first is Chair of the Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood, who has been tweeting angrily over an alleged CCP coverup since January. He appeared on LBC on Valentines Day to rubbish the WHO investigation:

"Have the World Health Organisation found out and gone places they've needed to go with their investigation?" Andrew asked.

He wondered if the Conservative MP trusts the findings of the WHO in Wuhan.

"I don't have any trust whatsoever," Mr Ellwood admitted.

"This entire investigation has been a complete farce."

 "Never again should we allow the outbreak of a pandemic to -- the investigation to be delayed by an entire year."

"We don't even know who patient zero was."

Second, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and China Research Group co-founder Tom Tugendhat. In April 2020, his Committee published a report, ‘Viral Immunity—The FCO’s role in building a coalition against COVID-19’, which chastised the CCP for their lack of transparency around the source of the virus:

As the country in which the virus originated, China should have played a central role in collecting data on its spread and enabling scientists around the world to develop a fast and effective response. Yet according to detailed reports in the Washington Post, New York Times and South China Morning Post, from the outset China has sought to obfuscate the data.

Recently in response to British spooks believing there is a feasible chance of a lab leak, he told the Sunday Times:

The silence coming from Wuhan is troubling. We need to open the crypt and see what happened to be able to protect ourselves in the future. That means starting an investigation, along with partners around the world and in the WHO.

Both Ellwood and Tugendhat’s seniority as Chairs of influential Committees means their tacit endorsement of this theory should not be taken lightly.

Third, former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith. Extremely hawkish on China, IDS has been sharing articles on the lab coverup theory since early January 2021. His voice holds weight among a certain sect of backbench Tory MPs, and through his role as an IPAC co-chair, he has access to a wide range of politicians in other democracies.

Another voice worth having on your radar; Matt Ridley, aka Viscount Ridley, who has been active over the last six months in adding credibility to the lab leak theory.

Worth noting too that former head of MI6 Richard Dearlove has been backing the theory since July 2020. He told Sky News:

“I subscribe to the theory… that it’s an engineered escapee from the Wuhan Institute [of Virology].”

“I am not saying anything other than it was the result of an accident and that the virus is the consequence of gain-of-function experiments that were being conducted in Wuhan, which I don’t think are particularly sinister.”

The former spy chief urged officials to investigate the theory, adding: “There is an accumulation of evidence that this is something that has to be openly discussed in the scientific community.”

“If we are going to have an inquiry in the UK — which I’m sure will happen — about the pandemic and government policy, it will have to start with the science. Where did this virus actually come from?”

Anecdotally, your writer increasingly hears the lab leak theory discussed between journalists and politicians. James Forsyth of the Spectator also notesIn recent days, it has been striking how many people in Westminster and Whitehall now think the lab leak theory is the most plausible explanation.” The mood music is changing.

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Chinese Embassy

In line with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Embassy in London has issued a statement discrediting the lab leak theory. It states:

Study of virus origins is a scientific issue that should not be politicized. We stand for a scientists-led study of origins featuring solidarity and cooperation, not stoking confrontation and sowing division.

Between January 14 and February 10 this year, with China’s strong support, 17 international experts independently selected by WHO overcame the various difficulties caused by COVID-19 and formed a joint mission with Chinese experts to conduct a nearly month-long field research in Wuhan, China. In the spirit of openness, transparency and cooperation and at the request of the joint team, the Chinese side arranged for visits to the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The joint team visited bio-safety laboratories, had in-depth and candid exchanges with experts there, and gained thorough knowledge of the management, standard operating procedures and recent virology research. On this basis and through prudent science-based discussion, the joint team arrived at the conclusion that the hypothesis of “a laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be extremely unlikely”. This conclusion, and the process of the study, is clearly recorded in the joint WHO-China study mission report. This is an authoritative and official conclusion based on science.

As for those who turned a blind eye to facts, science and their botched pandemic response at home, and kept fabricating the lie that the virus was leaked from the WIV and unreasonably asking China to pay for their own inaction, it is clear that they don’t care about facts or truth and have zero interest in a serious science-based study of origins. Their aim is to use the pandemic to pursue stigmatization and political manipulation. They are being disrespectful to science, irresponsible to the safety of lives and counter-productive to concerted global efforts to fight the virus.

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Twitter timeline

A chronological timeline of MPs publicly casting doubt over the origins of the virus or accusing China of blocking investigations. Note the significant uptick in January this year.

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Fleet Street

The relationship between Fleet Street and Westminster is often symbiotic, although the former led the latter in pushing the lab leak theory publicly. With a smattering of articles over the last year suggesting a lab leak may have been behind Covid19, the Mail on Sunday has perhaps been the most consistent champion of this theory. David Cameron’s former speechwriter Ian Birrell has been writing about it for months, and a mention must go to Charles Moore of the Telegraph for his June 2020 piece, ‘Was Covid-19 created in a lab? China has some urgent questions to answer’.

Since the end days of May, the Guardian, Independent, Mirror, Sky, BBC, Financial Times, Times, Telegraph and Daily Mail have all run stories concerning a possible lab leak theory. The headlines sum up the mood:

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What next?

That’s the multibillion pound question. The realpolitik is that, despite having an independent foreign policy towards China, any British movement on this topic will be influenced by whatever findings the Biden Administration chooses to release in the coming months. Britain may not go as far as the USA in terms of punitive action or fully subscribing to the theory. The second point to note is that no one expects the WIV leak theory to ever be fully confirmed, due to the limited access to on-the-ground information and analysis.

In terms of outcomes, three areas are worth considering:

  1. Political

  2. Economic

  3. Societal


Political

Two scenarios from a Westminster perspective.

  1. The Biden Administration finds the evidence of a leak convincing enough that it forms new policy towards China. This would place immense pressure on the Johnson Government and will likely come up privately in US-UK diplomatic conversations going forward. Westminster will feel that China’s global reputation is going to take a significant hit, and Johnson may be pushed to capitalise in some capacity. Expect to see all opposition parties and a significant number of Tory backbenchers call for some form of official investigation. We will likely see calls for China to be ejected from international health organisations and initiatives, and perhaps further calls to boycott Chinese events such as the Beijing Olympics. Certain politicians and commentators will call for reparations - theirs will be a minority voice not taken seriously by most.

  2. The Johnson Government is told by its intelligence community that the evidence of a leak is convincing. If this scenario plays out, we are most likely to hear of it through leaks to the media. When this happens the pressure will be on Johnson to take a proactive policy change towards China and put any inkling of trade deals or agreements on ice. Backbenchers, opposition parties and Nigel Farage will turn the screws, and we may see ‘make China pay for it’ become a useful political tool for winning votes at the next election.

James Forsyth of the Spectator offers a novel take:

“Sanctions are not realistic either — China has a veto on the UN security council. Instead, the most likely response from the West would be tougher international standards for laboratory security and biological research. If China refused to sign up to these and accept international inspections, then the country would be subject to something like a research blockade, which would mean that the credibility of the academic work coming out of its laboratories would be downgraded.”

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Economic

The economic reverberations will likely be governed by how individual countries choose to react, if at all. Should it become the accepted wisdom in Western countries that the CCP led a state-coverup of the WIV leak, it’s plausible that the push for decoupling will gain momentum. Again, charges will be levied against China that its Government is incapable of not meddling in all walks of life. Should the cries for decoupling grow louder, it may lead to British companies that operate between the two countries to face more ‘us or them’ calls.

In his slightly alarmist piece for the Telegraph, Matthew Lynn writes:

“Chinese goods might suddenly be locked out of the global market, creating shortages and sparking a vicious cycle of inflation. Global trade would collapse. And the financial markets would crash as Chinese money was pulled out. Even without full-scale retaliation, confidence in China would collapse. Paradoxically, it would cause far more damage than even Covid itself - and that makes it the biggest threat to economic stability right now.”

On a local level, it’s probable that we will see boycotts of Chinese restaurants. As Covid-19 began to enter the mainstream conversation in February 2020, some restaurant managers in London’s Chinatown reported a 50% drop in bookings. Various shock jocks will call for boycotts of Chinese products too - off the back of this, more of the public may pick up a passing interest in supply chain links to China.

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Societal

In the immediate term, it’s possible that we may see a depressing and sharp rise in anti-Asian racism in the UK. For many of those in the science community who have been championing this theory, it will be a resounding and well deserved victory. However, there are many conspiracy theorists who will also feel vindicated by this outcome. We may well see the WIV lab leak theory become the benchmark ‘we were right’ example among conspiracy theorists across the internet - serving as ammunition for groups such as Qanon as they look to attract more people to their ideology. Societies will need to be alive and proactive in combatting this threat.

On the macro level, Thomas Frank speculates in the Guardian:

Should it turn out that scientists and experts and NGOs, etc. are villains rather than heroes of this story, we may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger.

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That’s it for this week’s bonus Brief. Normal service will resume next week. If you have found it a valuable read, please do share it on your social media.

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