After seeing a risky lab, they wrote a cable warning to Washington. But it was ignored.
On January 15, in its last days, President Donald Trump’s State Department put out a statement with serious claims about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. The statement said the U.S. intelligence community had evidence that several researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory were sick with Covid-like symptoms in autumn 2019—implying the Chinese government had hidden crucial information about the outbreak for months—and that the WIV lab, despite “presenting itself as a civilian institution,” was conducting secret research projects with the Chinese military. The State Department alleged a Chinese government cover-up and asserted that “Beijing continues today to withhold vital information that scientists need to protect the world from this deadly virus, and the next one.”
The exact origin of the new coronavirus remains a mystery to this day, but the search for answers is not just about assigning blame. Unless the source is located, the true path of the virus can’t be traced, and scientists can’t properly study the best ways to prevent future outbreaks.
The original Chinese government story, that the pandemic spread from a seafood market in Wuhan, was the first and therefore most widely accepted theory. But cracks in that theory slowly emerged throughout the late winter and spring of 2020. The first known case of Covid-19 in Wuhan, it was revealed in February, had no connection to the market. The Chinese government closed the market in January and sanitized it before proper samples could be taken. It wouldn’t be until May that the Chinese Centers for Disease Control disavowed the market theory, admitting it had no idea how the outbreak began, but by then it had become the story of record, in China and internationally.
In the spring of 2020, inside the U.S. government, some officials began to see and collect evidence of a different, perhaps more troubling theory—that the outbreak had a connection to one of the laboratories in Wuhan, among them the WIV, a world leading center of research on bat coronaviruses. To some inside the government, the name of the laboratory was familiar. Its research on bat viruses had already drawn the attention of U.S. diplomats and officials at the Beijing Embassy in late 2017, prompting them to alert Washington that the lab’s own scientists had reported “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” But their cables to Washington were ignored. When I published the warnings from these cables in April 2020, they added fuel to a debate that had already gone from a scientific and forensic question to a hot-button political issue, as the previously internal U.S. government debate over the lab’s possible connection spilled into public view. The next day, Trump said he was “investigating,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Beijing to “come clean” about the origin of the outbreak. Two weeks later, Pompeo said there was “enormous evidence” pointing to the lab, but he didn’t provide any of said evidence. As Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping's relationship unraveled and administration officials openly blamed the Wuhan lab, the U.S.-China relationship only went further downhill.
As the pandemic set in worldwide, the origin story was largely set aside in the public coverage of the crisis. But the internal government debate continued, now over whether the United States should release more information about what it knew about the lab and its possible connection to the outbreak. The January 15 statement was cleared by the intelligence community, but the underlying data was still held secret. Likely changing no minds, it was meant as a signal—showing that circumstantial evidence did exist, and that the theory deserved further investigation.
Now, the new Joe Biden team is walking a tightrope, calling on Beijing to release more data, while declining to endorse or dispute the Trump administration’s controversial claims. The origin story remains entangled both in domestic politics and U.S.-China relations. Last month, National security adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement expressing “deep concerns” about a forthcoming report from a team assembled by the World Health Organization that toured Wuhan—even visiting the lab—but was denied crucial data by the Chinese authorities.
But more than four years ago, long before this question blew up into an international point of tension between China and the United States, the story started with a simple warning.
In late 2017, top health and science officials at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing attended a conference in the Chinese capital. There, they saw a presentation on a new study put out by a group of Chinese scientists, including several from the Wuhan lab, in conjunction with the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Since the 2002 outbreak of SARS—the deadly disease caused by a coronavirus transmitted by bats in China—scientists around the world had been looking for ways to predict and limit future outbreaks of similar diseases. To aid the effort, the NIH had funded a number of projects that involved the WIV scientists, including much of the Wuhan lab’s work with bat coronaviruses. The new study was entitled “Discovery of a Rich Gene Pool of Bat SARS-Related Coronaviruses Provides New Insights into the Origin of SARS Coronavirus.”
These researchers, the American officials learned, had found a population of bats from caves in Yunnan province that gave them insight into how SARS coronaviruses originated and spread. The researchers boasted that they may have found the cave where the original SARS coronavirus originated. But all the U.S. diplomats cared about was that these scientists had discovered three new viruses that had a unique characteristic: they contained a "spike protein” that was particularly good at grabbing on to a specific receptor in human lung cells known as an ACE2 receptor. That means the viruses were potentially very dangerous for humans—and that these viruses were now in a lab with which they, the U.S. diplomats, were largely unfamiliar.
Knowing the significance of the Wuhan virologists’ discovery, and knowing that the WIV’s top-level biosafety laboratory (BSL-4) was relatively new, the U.S. Embassy health and science officials in Beijing decided to go to Wuhan and check it out. In total, the embassy sent three teams of experts in late 2017 and early 2018 to meet with the WIV scientists, among them Shi Zhengli, often referred to as the “bat woman” because of her extensive experience studying coronaviruses found in bats.
When they sat down with the scientists at the WIV, the American diplomats were shocked by what they heard. The Chinese researchers told them they didn’t have enough properly trained technicians to safely operate their BSL-4 lab. The Wuhan scientists were asking for more support to get the lab up to top standards.
The diplomats wrote two cables to Washington reporting on their visits to the Wuhan lab. More should be done to help the lab meet top safety standards, they said, and they urged Washington to get on it. They also warned that the WIV researchers had found new bat coronaviruses could easily infect human cells, and which used the same cellular route that had been used by the original SARS coronavirus.
Taken together, those two points—a particularly dangerous groups of viruses being studied in a lab with real safety problems—were intended as a warning about a potential public-health crisis, one of the cable writers told me. They kept the cables unclassified because they wanted more people back home to be able to read and share them, according to the cable writer. But there was no response from State Department headquarters and they were never made public. And as U.S.-China tensions rose over the course of 2018, American diplomats lost access to labs such as the one at the WIV.
“The cable was a warning shot,” one U.S. official said. “They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.” The world would be paying attention soon enough—but by then, it would be too late. The cables were not leaked to me by any Trump administration political official, as many in the media wrongly assumed. In fact, Secretary of State Pompeo was angry when he found out about the leak. He needed to keep up the veneer of good relations with China, and these revelations would make that job more difficult. Trump and President Xi had agreed during their March 26 phone call to halt the war of words that had erupted when a Chinese diplomat alleged on Twitter that the outbreak might have been caused by the U.S. Army. That had prompted Trump to start calling it the “China virus,” deliberately blaming Beijing in a racist way. Xi had warned Trump in that call that China’s level of cooperation on releasing critical equipment in America’s darkest moment would be jeopardized by continued accusations. 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. Shi, in her March interview, said that when she was first told about the virus outbreak in her town, she thought the officials had gotten it wrong, because she would have guessed that such a virus would break out in southern China, where most of the bats live. “I had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China,” she said.
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. But the officials couldn’t say that out loud because there wasn’t firm proof either way. And if the U.S. government accused China of lying about the outbreak without firm evidence, Beijing would surely escalate tensions even more, which meant that Americans might not get the medical supplies that were desperately needed to combat the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States.
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton seemed not to have been concerned about any of those considerations. On February 16, he had offered a totally unfounded theory of his own, claiming on Fox News that the virus might have come from China’s biowarfare program—suggesting, in other words, that it had been engineered deliberately to kill humans. This wasn’t supported by any known research: To this day, scientists largely agree that the virus was not “engineered” to be deadly; SARS-CoV-2 showed no evidence of direct genetic manipulation. Furthermore, the WIV lab had published some of its research about bat coronaviruses that can infect humans—not exactly the level of secrecy you would expect for a clandestine weapons program.
As Cotton’s speculation vaulted the origin story into the news in an incendiary new way, he undermined the ongoing effort in other parts of the U.S. government to pinpoint the exact origins and nature of the coronavirus pandemic. From then on, journalists and politicians alike would conflate the false idea of the coronavirus being a Chinese bioweapon with the plausible idea that the virus had accidentally been released from the WIV lab, making it a far more politically loaded question to pursue.
After I published a Washington Post column on the Wuhan cables on April 14, Pompeo publicly called on Beijing to “come clean” about the origin of the outbreak and weeks later declared there was “enormous evidence” to that effect beyond the Wuhan cables themselves. But he refused to produce any other proof.
Story Credit: Josh Rogin and Politico News