With 4.55 million deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic so far, the hunt for its origins has turned into something akin to an inquest on a mass scale. Are we dealing essentially with a terrible accident, negligence or even something more sinister?
The Australian journalist Sharri Markson’s conclusions fall somewhere close to the latter. She has established a crime scene around the Wuhan Institute of Virology in central China, with the murder weapon a virus called Sars-CoV-2.
It’s a plausible line of inquiry. Just a few kilometres from the Wuhan food market, where the first big cluster of virus infections was discovered, the institute has perhaps the world’s biggest collection of the type of bat coronavirus from which Sars-CoV-2 looks to be derived. In its top biosecurity-level laboratory, WIV scientists do “gain of function” gene editing on bat viruses to increase infectivity to humans.
Could an institute staffer have been accidentally infected with such an enhanced virus and carried it outside? In her new book, built on reporting for News Corp papers and Sky television, Markson says yes.
She goes even further, playing up the WIV’s collaborative work with People’s Liberation Army medical researchers, to entertain, and not entirely dismiss, the possibility that gain-of-function research is not just to “stay ahead” of possible future pandemics, but to engineer viruses as potential bioweapons.
So how does her argument stack up?
It doesn’t start well. Its first paragraph claims Wei Jingsheng, the leader of Beijing’s “democracy wall” movement in 1978-79 was “one of the biggest defection coups the US had pulled off from inside communist China”. The term usually applies to regime insiders who escape with valuable secrets. But Wei was willingly deported in 1997 by Beijing, after spending most of the previous 18 years in jail.
It may seem a small point, but the credibility of Markson’s thesis relies on a nuanced understanding of how China and its ruling party works, so details matter.
Her antennae were up as soon as reports of an outbreak in Wuhan of pneumonia of unknown origin emerged in late 2019, an illness soon sourced to a new coronavirus similar to the Sars virus that erupted in 2002-03. Why was Beijing throwing up layers of secrecy about the outbreak?
That suspicion was shared by Mike Pompeo, the hawkish US Republican secretary of state. In October 2019 he had announced a new combative stance towards China. He insulated himself from State Department nuance with advisers Miles Yu, a columnist in the fiercely anti-communist Washington Times (founded by Sun Myung Moon), and Mary Kissel from the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal.
On Covid-19, “Pompeo understood there would only be a cover-up if there was something nefarious to keep quiet,” Markson writes. In late January 2020 Pompeo asked Yu to investigate the possibility of a leak from the WIV. Yu’s report, dated 26 April 2020, found there was “no direct, smoking-gun evidence” but “persuasive circumstantial evidence” for a “possible leak”.
Trump went public about this possibility on 30 April, and by 3 May Pompeo was claiming “enormous evidence” pointing to the virus beginning in a laboratory in Wuhan. Possibly Australia’s foreign affairs minister Marise Payne had had a sneak preview when she called for an independent inquiry into the pandemic on 19 April.
Scott Morrison and Pompeo hold the same view of China’s culpability for the Covid-19 outbreak, Markson says, and “the US was happy to let one of the Five Eyes allies take the lead; it would be taken more seriously by the international community, whereas if Trump had made the call it would have been dismissed as racist.”
Another case of muggins Australia, attracting some $20bn in trade punishment, others might say. Markson says Australia’s intelligence community was worried by Yu’s report, seeing it as potentially comparable to the case made by US and British intelligence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be wrong.
Trump’s administration was divided between ex-bankers trying to wrangle a big trade deal with China and security hawks. After taking us through this internal debate, with a strong leaning to the hawks, Markson’s book moves into the truly fascinating and alarming world of virology.
The scientists she quotes make a strong case for suspecting the Sars-CoV-2 virus came into being by human intervention, by enhancing the spike protein on a horseshoe bat virus from southern China to better lock with the Ace2 receptors on human cells in our body’s air passages.
Nikolai Petrovsky, an endocrinologist at Flinders University in South Australia, started running simulations on a supercomputer to test how the Sars-CoV-2 spike proteins fitted the Ace2 receptors on cells from a dozen animal species including bats as well as humans. He found it best worked on human receptors. “The virus spike protein looked like it couldn’t have been better designed to fit the human Ace2,” he tells Markson. “Go figure.”
The next most receptive host was the pangolin, the scaly anteater found in southern China and south-east Asia, discovered after years of research to have been the intermediate host for Sars. Petrovsky says this is unlikely to have incubated this new virus, though Markson doesn’t explore why. No evidence has yet emerged of an outbreak among pangolins – their habitat is some 1500km from Wuhan and it doesn’t seem any pangolins were traded in Wuhan’s market.
Other scientists make much of the presence of a feature called a furin cleavage site on the Sars-CoV-2 spike proteins, not seen in other bat viruses, which they say in other cases has been used to engineer greater infectivity. David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology says this was a “smoking gun for the origin of the virus” pointing to laboratory origin. The University of California’s Richard Muller says it was “like finding a fingerprint at a crime scene”.
But conjecture about human intervention was struggling to get a run in scientific journals, Markson says, because editors were sold the “official line” of a naturally occurring virus. The World Health Organization was complicit with China, she alleges. Many in the scientific community were compromised by collaboration with Chinese counterparts including the US chief health officer, Anthony Fauci, whom one of her scientific sources calls “the father of gain-of-function research.” Brave journalists who raised it got trolled, she claims.
The science Markson cites needs more expert evaluation than this article can wield, but there are many who do not support it. In an interview with her local paper in Sydney, the Wentworth Courier, Markson says that for every scientist who agreed to talk to her, three refused.
One who refused was Prof Dominic Dwyer, the University of Sydney virologist who was part of the WHO team that went to Wuhan in February to investigate the virus origins. His public account of preliminary findings came down strongly for a natural origin.
“I’m surprised it is only three-quarters that declined,” Dwyer says. He has not read Markson’s book, but has seen her articles in the Australian and part of her Sky documentary.
“The science is complex, but the science interpretation in her articles is so bad it is risible,” he says. “I understand such theories arising in the very early stages of the pandemic, but even since the WHO visit to Wuhan early this year there has been continuing emerging evidence for animal links and none for biowarfare.
“People confuse investigations into the origins of the outbreak with assessment of the responses to the pandemic,” Dwyer says. “Many countries can be roundly criticised for their responses to the pandemic, both very early in the piece or even now.”
One who can’t recall any approach from Markson is the Australian virologist Danielle Anderson, now at Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, who from 2016 until November 2019 worked with the WIV on bat viruses. She has spoken highly of the professionalism in the high-containment laboratory, and of its director, Shi Zhengli – someone who evidently also did not speak to Markson.
Anderson was at the Wuhan institute, the only foreign scientist there, when Covid-19 first appeared in the city. If, as Markson writes from unspecified intelligence sources, several WIV staff came down with Covid-19 in November 2019, the cellphone network was shut down mysteriously around the WIV and road access blocked off for several days in October 2019, this all passed Anderson by.
China’s communist leaders are often their own worst enemy, putting secrecy around things no one can really blame them for, and even good things. It makes them sitting ducks for critics such as Markson to put the worst possible interpretation on what they do.
Notably in this book she cites a discussion paper by the Chinese delegation to the UN convention on biological and toxin weapons, warning about the future danger of bioweapons using synthetic pathogens with race-specific infectivity, as a sign that China could be working on such weapons at Wuhan and other places.
Perversely, from the viewpoint of those who endorse Markson’s suspicions, the lesson of the book is that the world’s ideological divides mustn’t stop scientists working together against the frightening possibilities of viruses.
As for the origins of Covid-19, the title of Markson’s book needs a question mark attached.
What Really Happened in Wuhan by Sharri Markson is out through HarperCollins (RRP$34.99)