Coded messages hidden within reports from the Chinese lab at the centre of Covid origin theories may provide new evidence that the virus leaked before causing a global pandemic that has killed millions.
Toy Reid, an expert in ‘official speak’ used by Chinese elites, believes updates from the Wuhan Institute of Virology sent weeks before the first official case of Covid in China detail an ongoing crisis at the lab that Xi Jinping may have been overseeing.
Reid, who was part of the team that put together a US Senate report backing the ‘lab leak’ theory, uncovered documents from mid-November 2019 that contain cryptic references to a ‘grave situation’, ‘hidden dangers’ and ‘severe consequences’.
The same documents describe how a high-level Beijing official visited the lab bearing ‘important oral remarks and written instructions’ from Xi Jinping and China’s old premier, Li Keqiang.
While it is impossible to know exactly what was discussed, Reid and three other experts agreed the documents appear to reference an ongoing crisis that just so happened to take place before Wuhan was overrun by Covid.
It is just the latest piece in a growing body of evidence that disputes the official theory – pedaled by the WHO and some senior scientists – that the virus jumped from animals into humans in what is known as a ‘spillover event’.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology – which was involved in controversial ‘gain of function’ research on coronaviruses – is at the centre of theories about the origins of Covid
A week after officials first signalled a problem in their reports, a Beijing official arrived at the lab to give a safety briefing to high-level scientists (file image, Wuhan lab)
Experts studying reports sent from the lab to Beijing in the weeks before Covid emerged uncovered clues of a potential crisis there – including references to ‘opening Pandora’s Box’
Toy Reid, an expert in Chinese ‘official speak’, also uncovered references to a ‘grave situation’ at the lab and ‘hidden dangers’
Reid’s evidence forms part of a 500-plus page report put together by the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions – a 35-page summary of which was released last week.
The summary, which does not include much of the evidence the team gathered, concluded that Covid ‘most likely’ leaked from a lab and that evidence pointing to a natural spillover is ‘still missing’.
Pro Publica and Vanity Fair magazine obtained a copy of the full report, interviewed Reid, and then submitted his analysis to three independent experts who fact-checked his findings and came to largely the same conclusions.
Reid based his findings on reports uploaded from Chinese Communist Party officials based at the Wuhan Institute (WIV) which are sent to Beijing weekly.
Because the reports are supposed to prove loyalty to the party and the fulfillment of its aims, any problems are cloaked in a thick veil of legalese that can be hard to penetrate.
But Reid uncovered cryptic references to ‘opening Pandora’s Box’ in a report on November 12, as party official describe opening test tube samples.
The Covid pandemic was most likely the result of a lab leak, according to an explosive Senate report published last week
Policymakers said ‘substantial’ evidence pointing to a research accident has emerged while evidence for a natural spillover ‘is missing’
The question of whether the global outbreak began with a spillover from wildlife sold at the market or leaked out of the Wuhan lab just eight miles across the Yangtze River has given rise to fierce debate about how to prevent the next pandemic. New studies point to a natural spillover at the Huanan wildlife market. Positive swab samples of floors, cages and counters also track the virus back to stalls in the southwestern corner of the market (bottom left), where animals with the potential to harbor Covid were sold for meat or fur at the time (bottom right)
DID COVID LEAK FROM A WUHAN LAB? THE EVIDENCE FOR AND AGAINST
Evidence for Wuhan lab-leak theory
An article in the respected Science journal on May 14 2021 kick-started the surge in interest for the lab-leak theory.
Some 18 experts wrote in the journal that ‘we must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data’.
Later that month, a study by British Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr Birger Sørensen claimed it had ‘prima facie evidence of retro-engineering in China’ for a year.
The study included accusations of ‘deliberate destruction, concealment or contamination of data’ at Chinese labs.
It followed statements from the WHO Director General, US and EU that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve.
Previously, the theory had been dismissed as conspiracy by most experts, partly because of its association with President Donald Trump.
President Joe Biden in May 2021 ordered a full investigation into the origin of the pandemic virus and demanded scientists work out whether there is truth to the theory.
In December 2021, Harvard scientist Dr Alina Chan told the UK’s Science and Technology Select Committee that it is ‘reasonable’ to believe that Covid was genetically engineered in China.
She also said that the Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up of the initial outbreak in Wuhan two years ago and attempts to sabotage the World Health Organisation’s inquiry into the origins of the pandemic made the lab-leak theory likely.
The head of the World Health Organization insisted just a day earlier that the theory that Covid emerged from a Wuhan lab has not been ruled out — as he said China should help solve the mystery out of ‘respect’ for the dead.
The body’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, suggested that Beijing had not cooperated fully as he urged more ‘transparency’ in the continuing investigation.
And a senior Government source claimed in June 2022 that the WHO boss privately believes the pandemic kicked off following a leak from a Chinese lab.
In September 2022, leading medical journal the Lancet admitted the virus may have been leaked from a lab, including those in the US.
In October, a bombshell US Senate report concluded that the lab leak hypothesis was the most likely source of the pandemic.
Policymakers said there was ‘substantial’ evidence of an accident at a research facility — while evidence for a natural spillover is ‘still missing’.
The interim report concluded that China ‘s unwillingness to cooperate or open up the lab in question meant it ‘no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt’.
GOP members of the Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions reviewed hundreds of studies into the origins of Covid and interviewed ‘several dozen’ experts over the past 15 months.
Evidence against the theory
A series of papers point to the virus evolving in animals before being transmitted to humans, in the same way as all other previously discovered coronaviruses.
The first study, published in Scientific Reports, showed some 47,000 wild animals from 38 species were sold across four markets in Wuhan between May 2017 and November 2019.
The authors, including Dr Chris Newman, an evolutionary ecologist at Oxford University, claimed the evidence showed the conditions for animal-to-human transmission were in place in Wuhan.
But they acknowledged there was no proof Sars-CoV-2 was present or originated in any of these animals.
A joint World Health Organization-China investigation also concluded it was ‘very likely’ the virus jumped from bats to humans via an as-yet-unknown intermediary animal.
And a June 2022 report by the WHO sets out that Covid most likely originated in bats before infecting humans.
A series of studies published in July appeared to trace the first cluster of cases back to one specific corner of the wet market, where animals known to harbor Covid including raccoon dogs, hedgehogs, rats and squirrels were kept.
Chinese scientists also found positive samples of an ancestral Covid strain on floors, counters and equipment in the market.
The report adds: ‘These viruses come without a shadow and leave without a trace. Although [we have] various preventive and protective measures, it is nevertheless necessary for lab personnel to operate very cautiously to avoid operational errors that give rise to dangers.
‘Every time this has happened, the members of the Zhengdian Lab Party Branch have always run to the frontline, and they have taken real action to mobilize and motivate other research personnel.’
Reid concluded that these messages refer to an ongoing issue at the lab and pre-empted some kind of disciplinary action from Beijing, hence the reference to party officials ‘taking real action’.
Beijing does appear to have sent an official to deliver a stern warning the following week – Dr. Ji Changzheng, the director of safety and security at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
While his visit was billed as routine safety training, in fact the lab had already completed training in April that year.
A report dated November 19 chronicles the visit, and reveals Dr Ji met exclusively with senior members of the lab to deliver ‘important oral remarks and written instructions’ from Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.
Dr Ji spoke about ‘many large-scale cases of domestic and foreign safety incidents in recent years’ again referencing ‘hidden dangers’ which ‘revealed the complex and grave situation currently facing [bio]security work’, the report said.
Reid said officials also refer to ‘pishi’ – handwritten notes scrawled in the pages of official reports by higher-ups – which typically convey urgent actions for those lower down the chain to follow.
He believes the ‘pishi’ Dr Ji delivered may have be written by Xi himself, suggesting that whatever was going on at the lab was serious enough to require the attention and personal input of China’s all-powerful leader.
Three experts shown the same evidence all concluded that the reports appear to be referencing an ongoing crisis at the lab and that Dr Ji’s visit was not routine.
Two agreed that Xi seems to have personally written instructions for the lab’s managers. A third said it was not possible to tell what Xi may or may not have known, but that the wording implies ‘something really bad’ was going on.
While Reid and the three experts say it is impossible to know exactly what was discussed at the meeting, it came just weeks before the first officially recorded Covid infections.
Chinese government documents reported by the South China Morning Post but never made public also document a case of Covid in Hubei province – where Wuhan is located – on November 17, two days before the meeting.
Reid, the experts interviewed by Pro Publica and Vanity Fair, and the Senate committee which put the new report together, have not concluded that Covid leaked from a lab.
However, they have pointed to new evidence suggesting it could have leaked – a theory once dismissed by the WHO as ‘extremely unlikely’ and treated as a conspiracy by politicians – and say it is the ‘most likely’ explanation.
Crucial evidence to support the theory that Covid moved from animals into people remains missing, they wrote, while attempts by China to stymie investigations into the lab harm its credibility.
‘The hypothesis of a natural zoonotic origin no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt, or the presumption of accuracy,’ they add.
Scientists researching the ‘spillover’ theory of Covid’s origins argue that the virus likely originated in bats, but would probably have needed to move through a second animal to make it more infectious to humans before making the final jump.
While viruses that look similar to Covid have been found in the wild, researchers have never been able to identify that second host animal or explain how exactly the ‘spillover’ happened.
The leading theory is that an infected animal was sold as food at a Wuhan market because that is where the first cluster of cases was found.
However, scientists have been unable to rule out the possibility that the virus was brought into the market by an already-infected person before spreading.
Many of these riddles could be answered by discovering ‘patient zero’ – the first person to be infected – but scientists have been unable to track them down.
Theories that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute centre around highly controversial ‘gain of function’ research that the lab was engaged in.
Such research involves tinkering with viruses to make then more infectious or deadly, in order to study what the impact to society would be or to develop treatments before the scenario plays out for real.
However, many within the scientific community argue the risks of such research – releasing a highly infectious or deadly virus into the world – outweigh the benefits.
Proponents of this theory say it solves the problem of the intermediate host because, if scientists extracted the virus from a bat then modified it themselves, it would explain how it was so well-suited to spread in humans.
The Wuhan institute was well-known for studying bat coronaviruses, with one of its doctors – Shi Zhengli – dubbed ‘China’s batwoman’ due to her speciality.
China has denied being responsible for leaking the pathogen and has instead leaned heavily on the idea it was imported from outside the country on frozen meat – which would conveniently shift the blame beyond its borders.
Beijing has refused to allow an independent team of experts free reign to investigate the virus’s origins, including detailed examination of the Wuhan lab.
A WHO team was allowed into the country to conduct a heavily stage-managed investigation back in February 2021, which dismissed the lab leak theory in favour of natural spillover.
However, their report was panned as little more than a whitewashing of Chinese propaganda and the body has since backtracked slightly – insisting a lab leak remains a possible hypothesis.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to some 6.6million deaths worldwide according to official estimates, though the true toll is likely far higher, and has wreaked havoc on global markets which appear headed for a deep recession.