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Op-Ed: Why we may never know if the coronavirus leaked from a Wuhan lab

Security personnel stand near the entrance of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Security personnel near the entrance of the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organization team in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 3.
(Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

Early in this century, post-SARS, and in a period when China started allowing more students and scientists to study abroad, collaboration and exchange between American and Chinese scientists blossomed.

Many of China’s top scientists today were educated in the West. These include George Gao, the head of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who trained and taught at Oxford and Harvard; and Shi Zhengli, who directs the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and received her PhD in France.

Many, like Dr. Gao, spent more than a decade abroad before returning to China for top jobs and, often, prestige positions and big salaries. They were great at their bench work, their science well-respected, and top American scientists got to know them well. They became friends with their American counterparts, as is clear from Anthony Fauci’s email correspondence with Dr. Gao throughout the early pandemic, recently released through a Freedom of Information Act request.

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But early on in what became a global pandemic, when limited and reassuring information was coming out of China about the transmissibility of the novel virus and the extent of its domestic outbreak, misplaced trust led some American scientists to think the spread of the new coronavirus probably wouldn’t be so bad.

Here’s the problem: Chinese scientists are great scientists, but they work for an authoritarian government where politics, not facts, always come first. If information they know or discover makes China look bad, it is dangerous to say it — especially to foreign colleagues, especially publicly, and, often, even to their friends or family.

That may sound familiar after the Trump years, when the president often mocked and sidelined experts like Fauci. But the risk for scientists in China is far worse: loss of your job and your kids’ career prospects, visits by the police, false accusations, even prison.

As the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, reminded his scientists in a speech last year. “Science has no borders, but scientists have a motherland.”

Every Chinese citizen knows how to interpret that statement, and I learned, too. When I was a reporter in Beijing, I got to know Dr. Gao Yaojie, who exposed an epidemic of HIV/AIDS in rural China that had resulted from unsanitary blood collection practices, some state-run.

She was a valued source for a series of articles I wrote on the unfolding tragedy in which the entire adult population of some poor farming villages was dying without any treatment and leaving AIDS orphans behind. Dr. Gao (no relation to Dr. George Gao) was feted by Bill and Hillary Clinton and won international human rights awards for saving perhaps tens of thousands of lives and ending dangerous practices. But in China, that work meant Dr. Gao spent her retirement under house arrest, often followed and threatened by local officials for embarrassing China. She fled China in 2009 and obtained political asylum in the U.S. And that was at a time when China was less autocratic and more open than it is today.

President Biden had instructed security agencies to investigate the lab leak theory to figure out if SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, emerged from the Wuhan lab or from nature. But if international scientific sleuths are hoping to see a lab log or find a whistleblower, that very likely won’t happen. That kind of information won’t be revealed by Chinese scientists, even to their American friends and scientific partners, which includes the U.S. The Wuhan lab has received more than $500,000 in funding that originated from the National Institutes of Health and has worked with many American scientists.

Mistakes happen in science. Pathogens leak out of good containment labs, and not because people are evil. It’s because, for example, the technician performing the bench work forgets an important step or, in a rush to go home, gets sloppy — it only takes a second. Or it could happen if scientists gathering bat samples in remote caves get a bit too comfortable in a dangerous environment — because they’ve been there dozens of times before and the biohazard suits and masks are suffocating. So they pull off the face mask a bit too early as they exit.

When that happens you have to acknowledge the error right away to contain the damage. But Chinese scientists can’t do that, at least publicly. When, in late December 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist working at one of Wuhan’s major hospitals, raised his concerns to colleagues about patients dying from a strange new virus, he was punished, and told by police to “stop making false comments” and investigated for “spreading rumors.” He died of COVID just a few weeks later.

In China today, it is dangerous to say what you know if it challenges the official government narrative. People who participated in the protests on June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square, which was violently put down by the Chinese army, don’t even tell their children about that bloody day when many hundreds, and possibly thousands, were killed.

Kai Strittmatter, a longtime China correspondent for one of Germany’s largest newspapers, told NPR’s Terry Gross: “Of course, this generation, they all know, but they were afraid to tell their children. Because, you know, what do you do when your child in school suddenly tells the teacher and asks the teacher about [the] Tiananmen massacre?”

We may never know if the novel coronavirus leaked from a lab or was spread from animal-to-human transmission at one of Wuhan’s wet markets, as the Chinese first suggested. And that’s exactly the knowledge we desperately need to prevent the next pandemic, because the solutions are so different.

If it’s the former scenario, American scientists need to ensure that collaborations with their Chinese partners involve full transparency — access to log books, internal reports, and much else. If it’s the latter, China must fully enforce its ban on the sale of exotic animals (the “intermediate hosts” who carry the virus) at its wet markets, a ban it promised after the 2003 SARS outbreak was linked to a coronavirus from a civet cat. But the Chinese government’s control over its scientists makes it unlikely we will learn the truth now — or even ever.

Elisabeth Rosenthal, a physician, is editor in chief of KHN (Kaiser Health News) and the author of “An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back.”


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