A key member of the World Health Organization team that investigated COVID-19’s origins in China in early 2021 defended a Wuhan lab’s removal of a viral sample database from public view and said it was the fault of “anti-China political rhetoric” that resulted in the Chinese Communist Party blocking an investigation for a year.
Officials from both the Trump and Biden administrations have said the Chinese government worked to thwart investigations into the origins of the virus, which has killed 2.63 million worldwide, and the WHO-China report is slated to be released next week. Both administrations said China was not transparent and is still concealing key data. Congressional reports blamed China’s duplicity and the WHO’s incompetence for an outbreak becoming a pandemic.
Peter Daszak, leader of the EcoHealth Alliance, which steered at least $600,000 in National Institutes of Health funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for bat coronavirus research, called the lab’s decision to take down a public database containing thousands of viral samples “absolutely reasonable” during a Chatham House discussion Wednesday, claiming the lab did so because it was hit by hackers. The discussion seemed to preview the WHO’s impending report, and Daszak attempted to justify the Chinese government’s yearlong intransigence by pointing to alleged anti-China sloganeering, without placing blame on China.
Daszak previously criticized the Biden administration for appearing skeptical of the WHO’s preliminary findings and defended China to CCP-linked outlets. U.S. Embassy officials in China raised concerns in 2018 about biosecurity at the lab led by “bat woman” Shi Zhengli.
“I asked the question in front of the whole team, both sides, while we were at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, about the so-called missing database. What we were told by Shi Zhengli was that there had been hacking attempts on it, about 3,000 hacking attempts, and they took down this Excel spreadsheet database. Absolutely reasonable,” Daszak said Wednesday. “We did not ask to see the data, and, as you know, a lot of this work is work that’s been conducted with EcoHealth Alliance. I’m also part of those data, and we do basically know what’s in those databases. I gave a talk to both sides about the work we’ve done with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and I explained what’s there. There is no evidence of viruses closer to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13 in those databases.”
In February, NBC News reported “intelligence officials” pointed to the fact the Wuhan lab “removed from public view a database of 22,000 virus samples for security reasons, and has not allowed a detailed look at the lab’s notes or other records.” The outlet said the officials “say it’s suspicious that the virus outbreak arose in Wuhan, a hub of virus research in China, while the bats that commonly carry coronaviruses are typically found in caves a thousand miles from that city.”
A State Department fact sheet released in mid-January contended Wuhan lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar)” and that the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.” The fact sheet added that the lab “has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military.”
“The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses,” the State Department fact sheet said, arguing that “this raises questions about the credibility of WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s public claim that there was ‘zero infection’ among the WIV’s staff and students of SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses.”
Daszak claimed, “We sent a list of sites and people we wanted to talk to, and none were refused.” He said that “in its essence that theory” — of COVID-19 escaping from a lab — “is not a conspiracy theory, but many many people have put that forward as a conspiracy theory in that the Chinese side conspired to cover up evidence of that.” Daszak lamented his previous work with the lab had been criticized, calling it “quite ironic.”
He also blamed former President Donald Trump; former Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon, who runs the War Room: Pandemic podcast; Bannon ally and exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui; and the Falun Gong, a religious movement that is persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party and funds the Epoch Times, for why China hadn’t allowed an investigation sooner, citing their “anti-China political rhetoric.”
“Science has been, to some extent, caught up in that, to other extents absolutely crushed by it,” Daszak claimed. “We’ve not had access to work in China on the origins for the last 12 months, which is ironic because we could’ve been on the ground there working with our Chinese colleagues, and by now we may have had some really important answers as to how it emerged, and the rhetoric has held that up. These politics are not there to help find the origins. They’re simply there to help one political party win.”
Daszak said China swabbed 900 samples from the Huanan seafood market and said Zhengli went into Hubei province and looked at over 1,100 bat samples, concluding it wasn’t a local virus carried by bats into the market.
“That a bat or other wildlife species carried a virus that is a progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, it got into domestic animals, wildlife, bred in farms, perhaps, or people associated with that, and got into the Wuhan market that way, I think that’s the most likely scenario,” Daszak said.
Daszak said that “within the next few years, we’re going to have real significant data on where this came from.”
During a February interview on Face the Nation on CBS, Matthew Pottinger, Trump’s deputy national security adviser, said that “the ledger on the side of an explanation that says that this resulted from some kind of human error, it far outweighs the side of the scale that says this was some natural outbreak.” Pottinger said in January that the WHO investigation was a “Potemkin exercise.”
Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan criticized China for blocking data on the origins of COVID-19 but declined to stand by declassified U.S. intelligence.
Peter Ben Embarek, head of the WHO group that investigated the origins, said in late February that “we didn’t do an audit of any of these labs, so we don’t really have hard facts or detailed data on the work done” at the Wuhan lab. In early February, Embarek said the possibility that the coronavirus might have escaped from the Wuhan lab was “extremely unlikely” and didn’t merit further inquiry, but WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said more study was needed.
Two other WHO investigative team members, Marion Koopmans, head of the Department of Viroscience at Erasmus University Medical Center, and John Watson, senior medical adviser at Public Health England, also weighed in Wednesday.
Koopmans said it is a “misunderstanding” to think of the WHO investigation as an “inspection.” She said that “we see it is a starting point, not the mission that will get the answers.” She admitted the WHO team had the “handicap” of being in “full-blown quarantine” for its first two weeks in China and then had “restrictions in the second half of our visit.”
Watson repeatedly stressed that it was a “joint study” with “our Chinese counterparts” and said the WHO team members were independent. He claimed that “it was slow, but despite that, we were shown a great deal. … So I was not at all disappointed.”
“What this was not set up as was an external group coming in to investigate and to point fingers with the hope of identifying a smoking gun,” Watson said, adding that there was “a popular perception about a group of Sherlock Holmes going in with magnifying glasses and swabs to identify something.”
Koopmans said that “China has done … something like 30,000, a lot of testing of animals across the country, not finding such evidence” of the virus in domesticated animals. She said they were told, “Around 1,000 people have worked to get the data to the point where we could discuss and scrutinize and review them” and said they spoke with staff from Wuhan CDC, Hubei CDC, China’s national CDC, and Wuhan labs.
“So we have visited the three laboratories that have been actively working, including the laboratory sitting close to the market, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Koopmans said. “We have discussed their research programs, their routine testing programs, the way they work, what they had done in terms of health monitoring and testing of staff, and based on that, we concluded that it’s extremely unlikely that there was a lab incident.”
Trump officials such as former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have pointed to evidence suggesting COVID-19 might have originated in a Wuhan lab. The Chinese government denies this and has cast doubt on it originating in China.
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