Sunday 6 June 2021

China's mutant monkeys: These are just two of the countless animals used in secret genetic engineering tests in labs – many with appalling biosecurity. No wonder so many experts say Covid DID leak from Wuhan research centre, writes JASPER BECKER

 Trees and wildflowers blossom during all four seasons in Kunming, which is known as The City of Eternal Spring because of its year-round mild temperatures. 

However, it is also home to something much less natural: a laboratory where scientists have been creating monkey embryos with a mutated gene so that, when born, they will age unusually fast.

Such experiments are done to study human diseases such as autism, cancer, Alzheimer's and muscular dystrophy.

In another Chinese city, Wuhan – where the Covid-19 pandemic originated – scientists have created more than 1,000 genetically engineered animals, including monkeys and rabbits. 

Lab animals are also injected with gene-altered viruses, some very similar to the organism that caused Covid-19.

The fact is that China has a reputation for recklessly encouraging, or at least tolerating, all kinds of experiments that are not permitted elsewhere in the world. 

And since the lucrative global biotech investment boom started, Chinese researchers seem to be taking even more daring risks with experiments on animals – and even humans – that would be deemed unethical in most Western countries.

Pushing the boundaries: Cloned macaques created in 2018 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Pushing the boundaries: Cloned macaques created in 2018 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences

The great secrecy behind such research is partly driven by China's determination to get a commercial advantage in the potentially very profitable field. But there is also a more sinister reason.

Much of the work is supervised by the People's Liberation Army, which closely monitors two areas – any gene modification that can create better soldiers, and micro-organisms that can be gene-edited to make new biological weapons to which people have no defences.

These laboratories are meant to be biosecure, but dealing with live animals poses unique safety challenges. After all, monkeys run about, bite and scratch, unlike a pathogen kept in a test tube. They also excrete, have parasites and shed skin and fur. All of this carries the risk of contamination.

An article by two Chinese academics, titled The Possible Origins Of 2019-nCoV Coronavirus, said the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention kept disease-ridden animals in its laboratories, including 605 bats. It also mentioned that bats once attacked a researcher and that 'blood of bat was on his skin'.

Other Chinese articles have described how a Wuhan researcher captured bats in a cave without protective measures and 'bat urine dripped from the top of his head like rain drops'.

As a result of countless stories about the possible origins of Covid-19, China's most well-known bat expert is the Wuhan virologist Shi Zhengli – nicknamed Bat Woman – who visited the remote caves. In 2015, she jointly published a paper in Nature Medicine about bat coronaviruses that 'showed potential for human emergence'.

It described her team's efforts to create a highly infectious virus which targeted the human upper respiratory tract from a horseshoe bat. Next, they tried to experiment with a live mouse to see if this man-made virus could enter the lungs of a mouse and infect it. And it did. They concluded that this proved that the SARS virus from a bat could infect humans.

So was it possible that Zhengli created Covid-19 in her lab? What else have she and her team been doing in Wuhan?

Dangerous work: Researchers in a laboratory at the now-infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology last year

Dangerous work: Researchers in a laboratory at the now-infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology last year

As a journalist who has written about China for more than 25 years, I found this raises disturbing questions and suggested a deeply worrying pattern of deceit.

Photographs have shown Zhengli at work in a white space suit attached to a flexible tube that is linked to a life-support system like an astronaut.

Her lab, originally a Sino-French collaboration, was built to the highest biosecurity levels, despite the deep unease of French secret services who warned the facility was dual-use. Namely that it could be used for the development of biological weapons, as well as more innocent research. Indeed, the Israeli expert on China's biological warfare programme, Dany Shoham, claims the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a dual-purpose military/civilian institution, and has even suggested the SARS epidemic of 2003 was an accidental product of China's secret biowarfare programme.

Despite the Beijing government's systemic culture of extreme secrecy, it's known that Zhengli experimented on viruses by gene-splicing bits of DNA. The rationale for this work is that they replicate the rapid mutation of viruses in the wild and research would give a head start in manufacturing effective vaccines.

Critics, however, say China (and similar laboratories in America and elsewhere) has risked creating a Frankenstein virus that the world has no protection against – producing a scenario much like the Covid-19 pandemic.

The potential to use such a virus as a devastating biological weapon is obvious, particularly if you have the only vaccine. But worryingly, most of this research – including all published work using live bat coronaviruses that were neither SARS nor Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) – was conducted in laboratories with far less stringent biosecurity. The consequences were predictable.

One lab accident in December 2019 caused 65 staff at the Veterinary Research Institute in the city of Lanzhou to be infected with brucellosis – a bacterial infection that causes fatigue, chills and joint pain, and can take months to treat.

In January last year, a renowned Chinese scientist, Li Ning, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for selling experimental animals to local food markets.

Such was the concern about lax biosecurity in China that Professor Yuan Zhiming, head of biosafety at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, wrote an article for the Journal Of Biosafety And Biosecurity saying that lab maintenance was 'generally neglected' and that 'part-time researchers' performed the work of skilled staff, which 'makes it difficult to identify and mitigate potential safety hazards'.

The Israeli expert on China’s biological warfare programme, Dany Shoham, claims the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a dual-purpose military/civilian institution, and has even suggested the SARS epidemic of 2003 was an accidental product of China’s secret biowarfare programme

The Israeli expert on China's biological warfare programme, Dany Shoham, claims the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a dual-purpose military/civilian institution, and has even suggested the SARS epidemic of 2003 was an accidental product of China's secret biowarfare programme

So great were safety concerns that Wuhan's French collaborators quit the lab project before it opened. There had been (unconfirmed) reports from France that staff used bleach in the decontamination showers which corroded some of the stainless-steel casing, that critical airlocks leaked, and that the sewage disposal system became blocked.

Nevertheless, it is far more likely that SARS or Covid-19 escaped from a biomedical lab with much lower levels of biosecurity.

Last year, nearly 90 such labs were operating in China – such as the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, just 300 yards from the city's 'wet' seafood market that has been touted as the epicentre of the pandemic.

The centre, where bat coronaviruses similar to Covid-19 were studied, is adjacent to the Union Hospital, where the first group of doctors were infected with Covid-19 and where a shrimp-seller from the wet market was identified as one of the first victims of coronavirus on December 16, 2019.

However, the truth is that science does not support the hypothesis that the pandemic started in the wet market. An investigation revealed the market's traders did not sell bats – the assumed source of the virus. Although a forensic search did find fragments of coronavirus throughout the market, which sold live hedgehogs, badgers, snakes and birds, no infected animal was ever found.

It is not clear whether the virus fragments were shed by animals no longer there or by humans moving through the busy market. Furthermore, only about 20 per cent of the first group of people who tested positive with Covid-19 had any exposure to the market.

It is, though, reasonable to assume that the only Covid-infected bats in Wuhan around the start of the pandemic were being kept at either the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention or at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It is also safe to say that safety standards at both institutions were not high.

ONE thing that is certain about the coronavirus pandemic is that the Chinese government has consistently told lies about the origin, spread and effect of the virus.

According to leaked documents, the Beijing authorities deliberately sought to hide what was going on. They said there were only 44 cases in 2019, but in truth had recorded 200. On February 10, 2020, they declared 2,478 new cases, whereas leaked data shows that 5,918 were logged. The deaths of six healthcare workers by February 10 were never publicly disclosed. Meanwhile, the Beijing government closed a hospital WeChat social media group which had warned of a new SARS-like virus.

Having shut the wet market after finding a cluster of cases there, the authorities tried to blame the outbreak on the market and then focused public campaigns on pointing the finger of responsibility at American troops who had been in Wuhan in autumn 2019 for an athletics event. So what exactly were the Chinese trying to hide?

In the wake of the SARS epidemic in 2003, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a previously obscure institution attached to the city's university, had been thrust into international prominence. Yet intelligence officials from countries such as France and America had been deeply suspicious of its real purpose for years. After the SARS outbreak, the institute set up a new department devoted to studying emerging infectious disease, headed by Shi Zhengli.

In addition to looking at bat viruses, the Chinese government developed a strong interest in studying the world's most dangerous infectious diseases, including ebola, nipah, marburg, lassa fever virus and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever viruses. Very few of these posed a threat to the health of the Chinese people, so was there another reason?

In response to an outbreak of ebola in West Africa, China sent hundreds of specialists to help stop it spreading. They set up hospitals and labs, distributed medical supplies and carried out tests and medical treatments.

Some of these specialists were from Wuhan, and the chief of the mission was Chen Wei, a People's Liberation Army major general who heads the Institute of Biotechnology at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences and is possibly in charge of its biological warfare division.

Naturally, suspicion grew about Wuhan's dual biological weapons/scientific research use.

Concerns escalated in July 2019 when Chinese-born scientist Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng were escorted out of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory where they worked. They were reported to have secretly smuggled samples of the ebola and nipah viruses back to China. Qiu had made at least five trips to Wuhan in 2017-18 alone.

It is puzzling what the motive would have been for smuggling the viruses to China, since its scientists already had samples of ebola. But China has often followed the example of the Soviet Union, which had a bioweapons programme called Biopreparat which used influenza research as a cover story.

The Soviet military hid what it was doing from the outside world – China could therefore conceivably be using an institution such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a front for carrying out biological weapons research.

The Wuhan institute is known to have built up a biobank of disease-causing pathogenic microbes with at least 1,500 viruses that has become a World Health Organisation 'reference laboratory': a key part in the global biosafety-lab network. It was also allowed to move out of the university campus to an industrial park outside the city. Inevitably, some believe the institute is linked to China's bioweapons programme.

Part of a policy to cover up dual-use could explain Beijing's keenness to push the theory of the transmission of SARS and Covid-19 through wet markets, with the virus carried by bats, civet cats and pangolins.

Significantly, the US State Department issued a fact-sheet on January 15 that showed it was convinced the Wuhan institute carried out both civilian and military research, and that staff could therefore be under military discipline. It said: 'Despite presenting itself as a civilian institution, the US has determined that the Wuhan institute has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China's military.

'It has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.'

When US embassy official Rick Switzer visited the lab, his memo, dated April 19, 2018, said its research 'strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like disease'.

Crucially, too, the memo observed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology's brochure highlighted a national security role, saying that it 'is an effective measure to improve China's availability in safeguarding national biosafety if [a] possible biological warfare or terrorist attack happens'.

It's a jarring irony that one of the Wuhan virus researchers' greatest international allies has been the US government, which, in 2009, created the Emerging Pandemics Threat programme with an annual budget of $500 million.

The programme was particularly keen on bat viruses, the top priority of an organisation called EcoHealth Alliance, based in New York. Originally named Wildlife Preservation Trust International, it had been set up in 1971 by Gerald Durrell, the naturalist and author.

The alliance is run by Dr Peter Daszak, a British scientist who promotes the idea that bats are a particularly significant host for viruses. He has obtained $100 million in US government grants (some from the Pentagon and nearly half donated by the US government's Emerging Pandemic Threats programme) and earns a salary of just over $400,000.

Dr Daszak's work, his supporters say, enabled the rapid identification and gene-sequencing of Covid-19 and facilitated the development of vaccines. But he has critics in the scientific community. They argue that virus spill-over from bats is extremely rare and that his research has produced nothing that could prevent a new pandemic or contribute to vaccine development. Furthermore, they say, the gene-splicing research in Wuhan on bat viruses is very dangerous, especially considering China's poor laboratory safety record.

Dr Daszak has a long history of collaborating with 'Bat Woman' Shi Zhengli, and is responsible for funnelling millions of dollars from the Pentagon into a facility that many suspect is a front for the People's Liberation Army.

The pair's first known collaboration was in 2004 when he helped fund and facilitate a virus-gathering trip to remote bat caves. EcoHealth Alliance also funded Zhengli's experiments to create a man-made virus from a horseshoe bat that was able to enter the human respiratory tract.

It is no surprise, then, that her Wuhan Institute of Virology immediately came under suspicion as the source of the Covid-19 virus.

To the Chinese Communist Party it was vital for this theory to be quashed. Zhengli did her best, announcing that she had compared the genetic make-up of Covid-19 to her own bat virus data and found no link. As she told Scientific American: 'That took a load off my mind. I had not slept a wink for days.'

She also said she had gone 'frantically through her own lab's records from the past few years to check for any mishandling of experimental materials, especially during disposal'. Her conclusion? An accident was out of the question, too.

How very convenient.

Later, in February, she muddied this story, saying she had discovered a new and previously unreported bat virus which bore a 96 per cent similarity to Covid-19, including the receptor which is the 'key' to allow the virus to enter human cells. It is, she has said, the most likely candidate to be Covid-19's direct ancestor.

However, the timing of her statement aroused great suspicion among experts around the world. Was the revelation supposed to support the theory that Covid-19 came from an animal rather than being made in a lab?

Another problem is that Beijing's official story of the virus's origin kept altering. Over the first half of 2020, it changed from saying the Wuhan wet market was central to the outbreak to the claim that the earliest people to be diagnosed with Covid-19 neither worked in the market nor had been near it.

So the world, consumed as it was by the worst pandemic in human memory, was left with the notion that bats in a remote cave in China's Yunnan province had infected an unknown person, either directly in some unknown way or through some unknown intermediate mammal. Then, this infected person had gone directly to Wuhan without infecting anyone else on the way but had then infected an unknown person in the central Chinese city who had started an epidemic.

The truth is that Beijing is never likely to accept responsibility for creating a new virus, allowing it to escape and unleashing a global pandemic that has so far killed more than 3.5 million people.

If it did own up, it would be liable for huge reparations. The national shame might spell the end of the Chinese Communist Party's 70-year rule. It would start a political earthquake which would begin in China and upend the world order.

Part of the opposition to the lab theory rested on antipathy to Donald Trump and his administration's campaign against China. Given a choice between supporting Trump or the Chinese Communist Party, most scientists openly sided with the Chinese. Now, though, Trump, the first American President in a generation to take a tough line on China, is gone and replaced by one who may return to past policies.

Even though the Chinese Communist Party openly did other shocking things, such as imprisoning Uighurs and democracy activists in Hong Kong, the leading scientific journals never took a stance against China, although the Lancet, Nature and Science magazine published scathing editorials against Trump.

Besides, even if Western leaders did impose their will, China's ability to frustrate any investigation is limitless. Take, for example, the story about the researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who might have been the first to catch Covid-19 and die from it. The Chinese government deleted all record of her existence. It said she had left the institute in 2015, even though she was in a 2018 photograph posted on the institute's website.

Beijing remains busy trying to spread the message that it was not in any way responsible for the origins of Covid-19.

In his 2021 New Year address, China's President Xi Jinping looked back at 2020 with an air of triumph. He said: 'Facing the sudden coronavirus pandemic, we put people and their lives first to interpret the great love among humans. With solidarity and resilience, we wrote the epic of our fight against the pandemic. We saw the heroic spirit of marching straight to the front lines, holding posts with tenacity, taking responsibility to get through thick and thin, sacrifices with bravery and touching moments of helping each other.'

China has made a complete return to normality, with a resurgent economy and strong exports. Wuhan was packed with revellers on New Year's Eve, while the streets of cities such as London were empty. 

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