July 19, 2021

COVID-19

#169 – Katherine Eban: COVID-19 Lab Leak: Examining all sides of the debate and discussing barriers to a full investigation

“There is no smoking gun per se. What there is is smoke coming out of a lot of windows. ... There is enough smoke coming out of enough windows that we cannot take the lab leak hypothesis off the table, and so for me, the most credible people on this, they're not saying it was a lab leak. What they're saying is, ‘Why can't we have a full investigation?’”  —Katherine Eban

Read Time 35 minutes

Katherine Eban is an award-winning investigative journalist who previously appeared on The Drive to discuss the widespread fraud in the generic drug industry. In this episode, she discusses the content of her recent Vanity Fair article, which examined the evidence for the theory that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted from a virus lab escape as opposed to a natural virus that came from an animal host. Katherine and Peter walk through the evidence for both theories as well as discuss the long and troubling history of dangerous lab leaks and safety concerns about the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  They also talk about the controversy surrounding gain-of-function research and its funding by the US government. Finally, they conclude with a discussion on the likelihood of definitively establishing the origins of the virus given the Chinese government’s lack of cooperation and highlight the fact that the many barriers to performing a full investigation may be the most troubling aspect of the controversy. This episode was originally recorded on July 6, 2021. 

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We discuss:

  • An overview of the lab leak controversy [1:30];
  • The troubling history of lab leaks of dangerous pathogens [8:30];
  • The zoonotic transmission theory: did SARS2 come from a bat? [11:45];
  • The debate about gain-of-function (GoF) research [26:15];
  • Questions about US funding of GoF research in China [33:45];
  • The uncertain significance of the furin cleavage site [51:30];
  • Discerning what’s most important about both the zoonotic transmission and lab leak theories [1:01:15];
  • Barriers to a full investigation [1:19:15]; and
  • More.

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Note: This podcast was recorded on July 6th, 2021. Because we want our subscribers to have access to comprehensive information about this controversial topic in a very quick time frame, these show notes differ in format from our usual approach. They are only loosely chronological and provide additional information not covered in the podcast.  Following the show notes there is an extensive list of links for those who desire to do more in-depth reading on this topic.

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An overview of the lab leak controversy [1:30]

  • There is a brewing controversy around the origins of the virus responsible for COVID-19
    • There is no information in the public domain either regarding the viral sequence or other circumstantial evidence that would help answer the question about the origins of the virus
    • At the time of the pandemic’s arrival, it was believed that this was a virus of zoonotic origin
      • Thought to be a virus that occurred naturally 
      • Likely originated from bats and transferred to an intermediary animal and then eventually humans in the wet markets of Wuhan, China
    • In early 2020, some critics began to question the zoonotic origin theory
      • they were met with the sharpest rebukes from both the scientific and political communities
      • The Lancet and Nature Medicine both published statements critical of the lab leak theory
      • Said such statements were xenophobic or otherwise ill-informed and conspiratorial
  • Since that time, however, there has been a push for greater transparency
    • Starting in March 2021, an international coalition of more than 20 scientists (organized by Jamie Metzl) published four open letters calling for an investigation into the lab leak theory
    • The call to investigate the lab leak theory is driven by two factors:
      • Unlike the cases of SARS-1 and MERS, which are very similar viruses, there has yet to be any identified species of origin and/or intermediary despite much effort
      • There has been an abject lack of transparency to date
        • In an autocratic nation like China, transparency is not a cultural norm, whether this was a lab leak or not
        • An inability to find the cause or discovery of a mistake would not have been acknowledged to the international scientific community
        • Why did we not take the lab leak theory seriously a year or 18 months ago when it might have been easier to gather information?
        • Robert Redfield, the former head of the CDC, offered to send in a team of experts to do widespread testing in Wuhan, especially the WIV
          • He thinks a lab leak could have been ruled out in a couple weeks if this had been done, but the Chinese government refused and destroyed records instead
          • It also blocked access to the mine where workers had been sickened months before the pandemic by a virus similar to SARS2
  • The lab leak theory is not a unitary theory
    • Could be that researchers collected samples of natural viruses, a lab worker contracted one in the lab via aerosol transmission, and then the infected worker exposed others in the community
    • Could also be that researchers had been manipulating viruses to see if they would become more infectious, known as “gain-of-function” (GoF) research, and then that genetically modified virus was accidentally leaked into the community through an exposed worker
  • Attention has focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)
    • Located near the Wuhan market where the first cases were identified
    • housed bat viral samples
    • had been doing the type of research that could create a virus like SARS2
    • The lead coronavirus researcher at WIV, Shi Zhengli, is known as “Bat woman” 
      • She has had a very successful career
      • is well-known for figuring out that the mechanism of transition for SARS1 was through the ACE-2 receptors in human lung cells
    • The Chinese CDC is also located in Wuhan right next to the market
      • Also had a collection of bat viruses
      • Fewer clues have pointed in its direction, and we know less about its work because it was not US-funded, but it cannot be definitively ruled out as a potential source of a lab leak
  • The Chinese government has impeded a full investigation of the pandemic from the beginning
    • Shut down the wet market, ordered laboratory samples destroyed, claimed the right to review any scientific research about COVID-19 ahead of publication, expelled journalists, blocked search terms, pulled papers offline, penalized citizens who spoke out or questioned what happened, limited access of WHO team
    • There is no information about 3 WIV lab workers who became ill in summer/fall 2019 in the public domain
    • By now it may not be possible to find out the true origin of the virus

The troubling history of lab leaks of dangerous pathogens [8:30]

“This is not like, ‘Oh, how could that ever happen?’ In a way it’s like, ‘How could it not happen?’ Because it’s happened over and over and over again.” —Katherine Eban

  • There are numerous examples of other infectious agents, especially SARS, escaping from labs before this pandemic
  • In May 2021, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that laboratory leaks “happen all the time”

SARS1

Since July 2003, there have been 4 incidents of SARS1 escaping from 3 different labs 

Of these, 3 were caused by breaches in laboratory biosafety and each resulted in at least one case of SARS:

  • In September 2003, a cross contamination in a Singapore lab caused one case of SARS
    • A PhD student became infected with SARS after his samples of West Nile virus were cross-contaminated with live SARS virus in a BSL-3 lab
    • The student used to working in BSL-2 labs was given only 20 minutes of training before being allowed to work in a BSL-3 lab
      • He was working at an institute because a BSL-3 lab was unavailable at his university
      • 3 days after his first day in the lab, he became ill with SARS
      • An investigation found multiple problems with both record keeping and lab practices and showed that there had been SARS contamination within the BSL-3
    • Though it was a serious safety breach, the government did a thorough and transparent investigation and “used it as an opportunity to fundamentally redesign its biosafety approach”
  • In December 2003, an accidental spill at a lab in Taipei, Taiwan caused one case of SARS
    • This second incident occurred at a military BSL-4 lab
    • Authorities were not notified in a timely manner
    • large epidemic potential because it involved international air travel shortly after infection
    • The infected researcher was a 44-year-old US-educated pathologist who found a rip in a bag in the negative-pressure transport cabinet of the laboratory 
      • He was in a rush and did not want to clean the spill using the necessary method of vaporized hydrogen peroxide, which would have taken hours, so instead he used a 70% ethanol spray
      • Wearing a regular mask and surgical gloves and no surgical gown, he stuck his head inside the cabinet to spray the spill
      • Ten minutes later, he wiped the spill and put the bag with the leak on the trash cart
      • He had lost his building access card and had used a borrowed one to get into the building
    • He flew to Singapore the next day with 6 colleagues but did not have a fever or seek medical care until he returned to Taiwan 3 days later
    • Aware that might have SARS but not wanting to disgrace the lab or Taiwan, he quarantined at home with his father and would not to go the hospital until his father threatened to commit suidcide
    • The lab did not have an incident-reporting procedure in place
    • There was no follow-up medical monitoring even though he missed 6 days of work
    • His family and colleagues were quarantined, as were fellow airline passengers from several countries after they were located
    • The Taiwanese government temporarily closed the lab and sanctioned the researcher, who was barred from seeking research project funding
    • There was an international investigation and all understood that it could have been a disaster; it was lucky that only the pathologist was infected
  • In February 2004, the third incident (technically two events) occurred in a BSL-3 lab at the Institute of Virology in Beijing and caused two cases of SARS 
    • It’s “a story of towering academic ego, shocking incompetence, obstruction of the truth and lack of accountability”
    • A senior researcher had “lost face” with his initial incorrect theory
      • Based on electron microscope results, virus expert Hong Tao identified chlamydia as the main pathogen in the atypical pneumonia that had started to be seen in Guangdong province
      • The pathogen turned out to be SARS, but because of Hong Tao’s senior status his theory was accepted, and China fell behind in research as exploring other hypotheses was banned or discouraged
    • Hong wanted to restore his reputation by making the CDC a leader in SARS research 
      • As the CDC’s research expanded, some SARS strains and potentially infectious materials began to be kept in two other BSL-3 labs, which were doing research on the diarrhea and prion viruses
      • The SARS BSL-3 laboratory was right next door to a BSL-2 electron microscope room
      • The lab was so overcrowded that SARS was kept in a locked fridge in the hall
      • Researchers carried the virus into the BSL-2 room to use the electron microscope, but the virus inactivation technology used by the lab was inadequate
    • Two researchers contracted SARS and became ill
      • Details were not shared by the government and are largely unknown
      • Both seem to have recovered without infecting anyone else
    • The Chinese government began to inspect labs around the country

In April 2004, the 4th incident (also technically two events, and also at the Institute of Virology in Beijing) resulted in 9 cases of SARS (7 from one chain of transmission / hospital spread), including one death

 

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Katherine Eban

Katherine Eban, an investigative journalist, is a Fortune magazine contributor and Andrew Carnegie fellow. Her articles on pharmaceutical counterfeiting, gun trafficking, and coercive interrogations by the CIA have won international attention and numerous awards. She has also written for Vanity Fair, the New York Times, Self, The Nation, the New York Observer and other publications. Her work has been featured on 60 Minutes, Nightline, NPR, and other national news programs. Her first book, Dangerous Doses: a True Story of Cops, Counterfeiters and the Contamination of America’s Drug Supply, was named one of the Best Books of 2005 by Kirkus Reviews and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. Her second book, Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom was named one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2019, the New York Public Library Best Books of 2019, the Kirkus Reviews Best Health and Science Books of 2019, and Science Friday Best Books of 2019. Katherine’s work has been awarded grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Alicia Patterson Foundation and the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Educated at Brown University and Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters. [katherineeban.com]

Disclaimer: This blog is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this blog or materials linked from this blog is at the user's own risk. The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.

14 Comments

  1. A good podcast but I feel you missed something really obvious about the cave where miners got sick with a virus that was kind of like Covid but very far from it.

    If bats had the virus in one cave, then it would be almost certain that bats all over China in thousands of caves had that virus circulating. Kind of silly to ask “how did it travel to Wuhan” It is almost certain the virus was all over the bat population for thousands of miles around.

    This creates a problem. If the lab was doing ‘gain of function’ research, then all over China people have been doing DIY ‘gain of function’ as every interaction between human and bat is a potential moment to ‘train’ the virus. People who are trying to set ‘odds’ on this are ignoring the fact that for every one interaction in the lab, there are thousands of interactions outside the lab.

    It’s a bit like someone killed at 2 AM by a hit and run driver. There’s an office building that has workers pulling late nights leaving very sleepy. There’s also a bunch of bars who let out. Odds are it is going to be someone from the bar.

  2. I thought it was a very informative podcast. However, I found it somewhat disappointing that she said or at least implied that she would have been reluctant to investigate the matter until Trump was out of office. The fact that COVID was immediately so readily transmissible human to human was pretty convincing evidence to me in the spring of 2020 that COVID was a lab leak after gain of function modifications. I first heard that argument from Brett Weinstein on Joe Rogan and it seemed pretty convincing to me. Weinstein is certainly not a Trump supporter or (to my knowledge) anti-Chinese. It seemed the only argument Ms. Egan made against it being a lab leak was simply that the lab leak hypothesis was not definitively proven.

    Again I really enjoyed the podcast, but it is disappointing the extent to which people’s opinions (though surely not my own) are skewed by political or other non-scientific considerations.

    • To me I feel that cuts against the theory. Note we’ve had multiple viruses that DID NOT transmit very easily. SARS I, for example, would have been much worse than Covid but we were saved that for the most part it didn’t transmit well between people (except for a handful of superspreading events). The case of the miners in China was yet another example of a virus that infected people but did not seem to transmit to others very well and petered out.

      So just consider a virus that made you sick, a bit like a bad cold or flu, but did not transmit well between people. Here and there people might get such a virus, get really sick. Most would get better and forget it without ever seeing a doctor. Even if they did see a doctor, the doctor would write it off as a flu or cold and forget about it when the patient recovered. An older person might have died but presented as pneumonia and would have passed unnoticed. Each even, though, was a chance for the virus to make that evolutionary leap to being able to transfer from human to human.

    • Yes, somehow investigating the possibilities of a lab leak while Trump was in office was somehow xenophobic and racist…and her comment about what Joe Biden asked for (seemingly a cogent investigative point) really showed her political bend. If one can’t keep covert political perversions from surfacing, please be overt at least, or use a disclaimer.

  3. Having been following this particular story here Canada since July 2019, I was surprised that in never came up during the conversation. A Chinese scientist and her team of students working in Canada’s only level 4 laboratory, not only had been sending samples of the most deadly viruses on the planet to the Wuhan lab, but also making regular trips to Wuhan in the months leading up to it to ‘train’ other scientists. These people were all ‘escorted out’ of the Winnipeg lab in July 2019 and there has been an ongoing investigation by the RCMP and others ever since. The scientist in question is nowhere to be found to this day. Google: Dr. Xiangguo Qiu…there are DOZENS of articles on this and it is incredibly disturbing that our own government is making every attempt to shut down any evidence related to the story.

    • What exactly do you mean? There were scientists from China in Canada. In July of 2019 they stopped working in Canada. Are they citizens of China or Canada? Did they go back to China or when you say ‘never seen again’ are you saying the Canadian gov’t is keeping them somewhere (one would expect the Chinese embassy to be screaming)? Or are you saying they left Canada to return to China and no one knows how to reach them? That would be a lot less sinister sounding.

  4. Interesting that she leaves out some of the most damning evidence against Kristian Andersen:

    1) In the Fauci emails obtained via FOIA requests Andersen was in a near panic claiming that the virus must have been engineered.
    2) Fauci sends an email to an associate indicating that responding to this is a very high priority.
    3) A few months later, Andreson’s piece in Nature is published saying that not only is a lab leak out of the question, but that to even bring up the subject is unforgivably racist (!).
    4) In a remarkable – one might say literally incredible – coincidence, Anderson’s lab gets a new grant from NIAID for roughly $1.8M per year over the next 5 years (approx $9M total).

    Fauci has been a staunch advocate of GoF research over the years and was noticeably upset when the Obama administration put restrictions on it. The EcoHealth alliance grant to WiV was only $600K total (that we know of). This is a connection, but it’s not really enough to pin the problem on Fauci. Any decent PR flack could dance around that.

    So the question is, what the heck are they covering up? Because this is a cover-up of something. Lab leak or deliberate release or other unknown involvement or ???

    • OK but the “it must be engineered” option seems to have the weakest amount of support. No one in history has ever provably engineered a virus to infect humans. There is no set of tools or RNA/DNA codes recognized to indicate ‘engineered’. The ‘lab leak’ theory advocates have pushed hard on the idea that a release could have happened by accident or the virus was not even realized to have existed in the lab from various experiments.

      “In a remarkable – one might say literally incredible – coincidence, Anderson’s lab gets a new grant from NIAID for roughly $1.8M per year over the next 5 years (approx $9M total).”

      Except this is a pretty big yawn. Kristian Andersen doesn’t have a ‘lab’. He is director at Scripps Research Translational Institute which is a multi-campus rather serious outfit with a lot of people. Quite frankly you would expect them to be getting millions in grants every year because that is what such organizations do, apply for grants.

  5. Thanks Peter for going the many extra miles to produce these notes – they provide starting points to make up for the podcast’s lack of answer re whether gain-of-function research has produced any benefits. It sounds like competent GoF debate will be essential to avoid future Covid-19-style disasters.

    The necessary competent GoF debate may be fatally hindered by:
    – habits of political reaction
    – lack of commitment to transparency
    – that the relevant experts risk closing down their life-long career.
    All of the above suggest that investigations by scientists/medicos trained in other fields will be essential.

  6. People commenting seem to omit the interview of Dr. David Martin by the lawyer Reiner Fuellmich. Or maybe they haven’t watched it. You maybe won’t find it on Twitter, YT or FB because mainstream social media don’t seem to want discussion that goes against the standard narrative peddled by the WHO, CDC, FDA, NIH, etc. Bitchute, Odysee, Brighteon and others usually seem to host them.

    Dr Martin, a patent and IP expert, cites 73 patents going back 20 years. He seems confident that SARS-CoV-1 was a man-made virus, i.e. a bioweapon, as were MERS and now SARS-CoV-2. He cites evidence that people were preparing to profit from a vaccine – well, at least, a genetic mRNA therapy – for the disease caused by the virus.

    Since March 2020, I sometimes wonder if I’m living through a computer simulation. Even a novel with this plot could be considered far-fetched.

  7. I listened to this podcast with great interest . Overall I felt you did a good job. I am a retired physician educated in Boston and born in China, who had a lot of time on my hands in March of 2020. And I followed what I could with great interest and learned a lot. A lot of what I learned was removed from the internet quickly. I couldn’t return to it back in March and April , 2020.
    Points of interest : Shi Zhengli was partly trained by Dr, Baric at Chapel Hill.She is a hard worker and dedicated to her mission.( Gain of Function ) Much of the actual work was done at the WIV was done in BSL-2 laboratories by workers were not necessarily well trained . 3 of the researchers were sick in October , 2019. The most important point is the Gain of Function. Why is this present Covid more and more infectious ? The most prevailing variant is the delta and it seems to be racing through USA and the world. Viruses are ubiquitous and generally attenuate as time passes . Lets hope this one will attenuate. Viruses do mutate using our genetic material for their own gain. We need to be able to talk to Shi Zhengli , because she is the one who really knows . Publicly she has denied there was a leak . It is important for us to know , not because we can point fingers , but it will help us understand and perhaps control the virus. Maybe it is too late. Presently it has been so disruptive and divisive that it has been politicalized . ( not just because of Trump ) There is so much polarization in many countries in the world ( not just here in the USA ) resulting in mass demonstrations. This virus is destroying the lives of the people in poorer countries in much greater numbers then here. The amounts of vaccines Pfizer/ Moderna is sending out to the world is nothing compared to the need. They need to be pressured to share the basic information of how to make the mRNA vaccines with the world . It is imperative , if we as Americans have any consciousness at all.

  8. Peter asked Katherine whether GoF research has ever actually lead to any beneficial discoveries; Katherine replied that the benefits were latgely theoretical. I would note that many of our most effective vaccines (measles, oral polio (OPV), smallpox) and also others (some influenza) are live-attenuated virus vaccines, which are created by serial passage of the virus that proceed until mutations arise that altered virus tropism, allowing the defanged virus to present true viral epitopes on whole pathogens without causing disease. While this is making the virus *less* harmful to humans rather than more, it still falls within the broad (and as Peter notes, somewhat squishy) ambit of GoF by using directed evolution to alter the virus’ properties toward some useful characteristic.

    Also, many animal models of human disease are produced by GoF to make human viruses able to infect mice or other organisms. This doesn’t *increase* its harmfulness *to humans* , it’s still GoF strictly speaking for the same reasons.

  9. Peter and Katherine brought up what they said was a high level of genomic stability in SARS-CoV-2 once it took hold in late 2019 as evidence that it was already highly adapted to humans, and said this was evidence that it would have come out of a lab after GoF. First, this is misses a critical intermediate stage: the strain that emerged in Wuhan and caused the early endemic emergency was rapidly outcompeted by the D614G variant (with an A-to-G nucleotide mutation at position 23,403 in the Spike, emerging in early March 2020 and rapidly becoming the dominant strain all over the world:

    https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092867420308205

    … and this mutation appeared to be more infectious:
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03361-1
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2020.09.032

    Second, IF the virus had indeed been produced (as Katherine speculated at this point in the discussion) by GoF to adapt it to infecting mice with human ACE2 receptors in their lung epithelia and then leaked out, you’d expect *lots* of further evolution once it leaked, because it would now have to adapt to the entire human physiology (including our different immune systems and the presence of ACE2 receptors elsewhere in the body) instead of to the bodies of mice with a single receptor in a single tissue having undergone humanization.

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