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Genesis: the mystery of where Covid began | Between the science and politics, the truth may have disappeared

Slow Newscast

Genesis: The mystery of where Covid began

Genesis: The mystery of where Covid began

The truth of an origin story has never mattered more: did Covid cross to humans from an animal, or did it escape from a laboratory? The arguments between science, politics and, now, the intelligence services have only grown fiercer. And in the fog of war, the World Health Organisation lost its way


Transcript

Ceri Thomas, narrating: There’s no great prize for figuring out what is the single most important unknown fact in the world today. I looked at the numbers this morning – one hundred and eighty five million cases around the world and four million dead – so far – from Covid-19. 

So there’s no ‘battle for truth’ which matters nearly as much as finding out where that virus came from. Obviously, so we can stop the next one, or deal with it better.

And I guess we all know the battleground: did Covid cross over to human beings from an animal, or did it escape from a lab?

One of the reasons the fight in that argument is so fierce is because – for now anyway – all the evidence, on both sides, is circumstantial.. 

On the animal transfer side of the debate, they’ve got the history of pandemics. AIDS, SARS, MERS, Ebola: they all started out in one animal or another. 

Literally, every single virus that you, or I, or any one of our ancestors has ever been infected with – has come from an animal. And that’s no small thing.

On the lab leak side. Well, laboratory accidents do happen – there’s plenty of evidence of that – and maybe this one has been waiting to. On top of that, in China, a dreadful lack of transparency, some troubling safety standards – and a little mountain made up of suspicious scraps.

Like these: Why was an important Chinese scientific dataset taken down? Why was a significant virus renamed? Were there roadblocks around the place called the Wuhan Institute of Virology in October 2019?

And why did a woman called Huang Yanling disappear?

Huang Yanling. For some people – politicians more than scientists – people who are determined to keep the lab leak theory alive, she’s a cause celebre. A key piece of the jigsaw. 

For them, she’s a symbol of the possibility that China knows all too well that Covid escaped from a lab, and then used all its terrifying state power to wipe that fact from the face of the earth.

I’m Ceri Thomas and in this week’s Slow Newscast we’re going looking for Huang Yanling – en route to a bigger story. About how politics bullied science; how science turned political; and how the WHO – the world’s public health watchdog – let us down when we needed it most.

The whole business of finding the origin of Covid is about going backwards. Back from that estimate of 185 million Covid cases in the world so far. To the 10 million by June 28th last year, 2020; the 1 million in April 2020; the 30,000 in February; the 557 on the 22 of January.

Back and back. To the 174 cases the Chinese authorities said there were in Wuhan in December 2019 when the whole thing started. And from there – maybe – to the first person to catch the virus and – possibly – an answer to the question of where Covid came from. 

Back, perhaps, to Huang Yanling. 

Because in February last year – February 2020 – she was named on social media in China as Patient Zero. The first person in China to catch Covid. The first person in the world. 

[Clip: News clip montage: “It starts with the tragic tale of a young woman named Huang Yanling.” 

“Huang Yanlin was a researcher in the lab working on the virology of bats with Shin Jung Lee.”

“However Huang’s photo, CV and thesis were all removed from the institute’s official website.”] 

There’s an argument about how much Patient Zero matters in Covid when not everyone who catches the disease knows they’ve got it. Some people don’t have symptoms, so how sure can you be that you’ve reached the beginning?

But really, I got interested in Huang Yanling because I was fascinated by the bigger story.

[Clip: News Clip montages – “Well the issue of where the pandemic began and how it began has never really gone away, but’s back.” 

“The virus may have jumped from animals to humans.”

“The growing evidence that it may have originated through the Wuhan Institute of Virology, through an accidental leak.”

“Calls are growing to investigate whether the Covid-19 virus originated in a lab in Wuhan, China where the outbreak began.”]

You don’t need to be an expert to notice that the front line in that argument has been shifting. 

When I started talking two or three months ago to scientists who took the idea of a lab leak seriously they were right out there on the fringes. Some of them were fearful about damaging their careers if they said what they thought too clearly.

I wouldn’t remotely say they’re in the majority now – that wouldn’t be true, I think – but they’ve definitely moved closer to the mainstream. 

And that’s why it makes sense to do two things now: to look back at the case of Huang Yanling because she’s become a kind of trophy for a mostly political view of how Covid might have emerged from a lab. 

And at the same time to look back at the way science has behaved, especially when the spotlight was really on it – when a team of scientists from the WHO – the World Health Organisation – was finally allowed into Wuhan to study the origins of Covid. 

So that’s what we’re going to do. The story of Huang Yanling and the story of the WHO mission. In the end – brilliantly – each of them helps make sense of the other.

Let’s start with Huang Yanling.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore: I was investigating and it’s about to drive me totally mad. 

Ceri, narrating: That’s my colleague Poppy. Poppy Sebag Montefiore. She worked in China for years, she speaks Mandarin, and she’s got a much better feel for the way the place works than someone like me who’s only ever visited. Which matters.

The other thing that matters here is the timeline. So let’s begin in February 2020. 

It’s just over a month since China told the world it had uncovered a cluster of cases of a new coronavirus in Wuhan. 

[Clip: “China is battling a new and rapidly spreading respiratory virus.”] 

It’s a few weeks since Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province had been locked down.

[Clip: “Wuhan in China now on lockdown as the country struggles with fear of a pandemic.”]

The hospitals are struggling desperately.  

[Clip: “Wuhan number 5 hospital, the staff talk of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients.”]

And Li Wenliang has just died. 

[Clip: “The Chinese whistleblow doctor who told the world about the coronavirus in Wuhan has died.”]

It’s a maelstrom. And into it drops some news – or a rumour, anyway – about Huang Yanling.

Ceri: Poppy, take me back, tell me how and when and where Huang Yanling’s name first appears as patient zero. 

Poppy: On the 15th of February, 2020 is where we see the first mention of Huang Yanling,

on China’s Weibo, which is China’s Twitter.

And, it’s all been deleted, most of it’s been deleted now by China’s censors, but what we’ve got is a few screenshots. So one screenshot that remains on the internet is a person just saying “pay attention to the researcher Huang Yanling.” And this person is forwarding a thread and the thread is started by somebody whose Chinese name translates into English as kind of shedding light on justice.

And this person is saying, Huang Yanling worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and she is patient zero, the coronavirus patient zero. The day after, we start to see her appear – so she goes viral. This name goes viral. Everyone’s interested. Everyone wants to know where she is, is this true? And so the day after the 16th of February, the Wuhan Institute of Virology releases a statement saying that Huang Yanling was a master’s student there with them, but it was between 2012 and 2015, and that’s when she left and she hasn’t been back. And she’s now working in another province. And Wei Hong Ping, who runs one of the labs and seems to have been her supervisor, says he’s spoken to her, she’s fine, she left the Institute in 2015. 

And then that same day, we get a statement from somebody called Lon Teng Shiang from a company called Makura, a biotech company in Sichuan saying, yep, Huang Yanling works for them and she’s worked for them since 2016. And she’s alive and well. 

Ceri: Okay. And do we hear anything from Huang Yanling herself?

Poppy: Yeah, we do. There were some screenshots of chats, like WeChat’s kind of messenger chat, from her to her old classmates saying she’s fine. And if they get an email, it’s not real. 

Ceri: Okay. So at this stage she’s been put out there as potentially patient zero. The lab, WIV, has denied it. This company Makura is saying, yes, she came to work for us. So things are looking fairly normal at that point, but then – 

Poppy: China’s social media is not satisfied because there are a few other details that are causing suspicion. One of these details is that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has a gallery of all their graduates and Huang Yanling’s name is there, but whereas every other person in this gallery has a photograph, a head and shoulders shot of themselves, Huang Yanling’s has vanished. So her photo’s been taken off. 

And then there’s this photo as well, that emerges around that time, which is a photo from the Institute, from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and it’s a group photo from one of the labs, they’re all outside the Institute and there are about 18 people in this photo.

And on the top left, they’re standing outside of a building, you can’t really see the building, and on the top left of the photo is a date stamp – 2018. And in Chinese it says “new year group photo.” So it’s like their labs, 2018, new year group photo. And everyone’s smiling, somebody’s doing the peace sign, somebody’s got their hands in the shape of a heart. And there’s this lady at the back whose head is slightly poking out from the lady in front of her, and she’s circled in red. It’s dated, there’s a date stamp, 2018, and one of the women in the photo is circled in red and it says Huang Yanling, her name has been typed over, Huang Yanling, this is Huang Yanling and she’s here in the Institute in 2018. So now people are like, well, they said she left in 2015. They’ve erased all the photos of her officially, but this photo’s emerged and she’s there in 2018. So people are still suspicious. 

Ceri: Okay. So suddenly it’s getting a bit more intriguing. 

Poppy: Well, it’s not going away. If we can prove that this is Huang Yanling in the photo in 2018, then that undermines the Wuhan Institute of Virologies narrative that she left in 2015. 

Ceri, narrating: So from February 2020, Huang Yanling is out there in the online world. Named as Patient Zero – which is denied – and trailing a bunch of tantalising questions. Why did she disappear from social media? Why was her photo taken down by the Wuhan Institute of Virology from its gallery of researchers? Why was she in that WIV group photo in 2018 if she’d really left there three years earlier? 

And then, in July 2020, things step up a notch. And a man called Peter Daszak comes into the picture.

Ceri: Poppy, you’re still with me. Tell me, who is Peter Daszak? 

Poppy: Peter Daszak is a British disease ecologist. He runs a nonprofit in America, which is based in New York, called EcoHealth Alliance. And he’s really interested in the idea that most modern human disease comes from other animals and his work is all about preventing zoonotic viruses spilling over to humans. So for the last few years he’s been leading a National Institutes of Health project, which is a big American government body, which is looking at the emergence of novel coronaviruses with a bat origin. And he’s been working closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and funding some of their research from grants that he’s received from the US government. 

Ceri: Okay. And then – so we’re talking about July 2020 here – and there was some media pressure starting to build up on the WIV and then what happened next? 

Poppy: Well, can we just go back a little bit before July? Because in April 2020, there’s a White House coronavirus briefing and a reporter who apparently was from Newsmax, said something to Trump, made the statement to Trump about the NIH, the National Institute of Health, awarding this big grant, had awarded this grant to that Wuhan lab. And she asked Trump, why would the US give a grant like that to China and Trump replied, we will end that grant very quickly. And then a week later on the 24th of April, the NIH suspends the grant to Peter Daszak’s NGO EcoHealth Alliance. Then a month later in May a group of 77 Nobel prize laureates, write to the NIH and said, they are very concerned by this decision to pull the grant and the quote is that they say it was counter-intuitive given the urgent need to better understand the virus that causes Covid-19 and identify drugs that we’ll save us.

Ceri: All that’s happening April and May, thanks Poppy, and then in July 2020, there’s this other development. 

Poppy: Yeah. So in July 2020, there’s a bit of a u-turn where the grant was reinstated. So the NIH writes to Peter Daszak and says, actually, you can have the money, we’ve changed our mind, you can have the money, but there are a few conditions that we need you to meet.

And one of the conditions, the second condition, in fact, is explain the disappearance of Huang Yanling, a scientist who worked in the WIV, but whose online presence has since been deleted. 

Ceri, narrating: So suddenly Huang Yanling was center stage. And she was caught up in a tug of war between the United States and China and between science and politics.

Dominic Dwyer: The patient zero, I think there’s been an over-focus on that in the context of Covid. And I say that because we now know that there’s a lot of virus transmission and so on between people that are completely asymptomatic. 

Filippa Lentzos: Well, I mean, that is the core of epidemiological research, right? You want to go back to that first person. So it is very important to try to go back to find the index case. 

Ceri, narrating: Professor Dominic Dwyer and Dr Filippa Lentzos. He’s an expert in infectious diseases. Her field is biosecurity. 

In that marquee moment for science – when a joint WHO and Chinese mission came together in Wuhan to study the origins of Covid, Dominic Dwy2er was part of the team (along with Peter Daszak, by the way). Filippa Lentzos has been one of its loudest critics. 

It was a long road to Wuhan for the WHO. The first time one of their emergency committees suggested a mission there was January 2020.

What slowed everything down at first was negotiations over what the team would do and what they’d be allowed to see: the terms of reference. 

Everyone could hear the clock ticking. Everyone knew the longer it took to start work the harder it would be to get answers. But the back and forth between the WHO and the Chinese authorities went on for months. 

Front and centre in all this was the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the WIV. It’s a big, modern block, nine or ten miles out of the city. The kind of building that would look completely at home in any science park anywhere in the world. 

Inside its glass walls there’s a host of separate laboratories. It’s not even the only place in Wuhan doing research into coronaviruses but it is the only one in the city – in the whole of China, in fact – which houses what’s called a BSL-4 lab. Where the most dangerous pathogens of all are researched. Ebola, Lassa – viruses like that. 

And this, remember, is the place where Peter Daszak had sent millions of dollars in funding before he got that letter from the National Institutes of Health. He’d done some of his best-known research with Shi Zhengli who runs the coronavirus research lab here. The woman who was immortalised in the tabloids as the ‘bat lady’.

And some of the WIV’s work was contentious. They’d manipulated coronaviruses to create new, infectious versions; and they’d done some risky work in labs which had lower levels of security than scientists from western countries would have expected.

By the time the terms of reference were agreed in July 2020, the idea that a lab leak should be seriously considered was being discussed in political and scientific circles. Not loudly, perhaps. But audibly, that’s for sure. Filippa Lentzos, who we heard from earlier, had already written about it.

It didn’t feature in the terms of reference. 

[Clip: Trump pulling the US out of the WHO – “China has total control of the World Health Organisation despite only paying $40 million per year, compared to what the United States has been paying which is approximately $450 million a year. We have detailed the reforms that it must make and engage with them directly, but they have refused to act. Because they have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms we will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organisation and redirecting those funds.”]

The WHO was losing its key supporter. It had a weak hand. But it’s still hard to avoid the feeling, when you look at the terms of reference, that the Chinese got most of what they wanted. That science got bullied by politics.

The joint mission to Wuhan had no authority to examine in detail the possibility that the virus had somehow escaped from the WIV or any other lab. Some of the scientists who were on the mission regret that – I’ve talked to them – but the die was cast.

And in the end it wasn’t until January this year – more than a year after Covid was first identified – that they got in.

[Clip: “The World Health Organisation finally doing field work in Wuhan, a year after the alarm was first raised here. Their focus on the first days of the coronavirus outbreak”]  

Dominic: Look, I certainly had no illusions as to how difficult this was going to be. And certainly no illusions that we’re going to find the answer. I mean, if it was easy, we wouldn’t have had to go in the first place. These investigations, you’ve got to remember, can take an awfully long time. I mean, if you look at SARS, it took really about 14 or 15 years before the virus and the origin of that virus was finally nailed. And you look at something like the Ebola virus in Africa, I mean, we’ve had outbreaks of that for 40 odd years, but it’s only in the last few years that the origins, again in bats, has become apparent. So these things take time, and they can be awfully complicated. So certainly there was no illusion that we’re going to be able to walk and say, bingo, there it is. 

Ceri, narrating: Dominic Dwyer, professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Sydney. He worked on the SARS outbreak in 2003. He told me a story about walking across Tiananmen Square when Beijing was locked down back then, and the shock of realising he was the only person there in that huge space. 

From beginning to end, the WHO mission to Wuhan lasted a month. Two weeks in quarantine in a hotel, on endless calls to Chinese scientists presenting research findings over Zoom. In translation. Two weeks of boots on the ground in Wuhan, visiting markets, visiting laboratories, a Covid exhibition. The members of the team I’ve talked to – and others who I’ve seen quoted in the press – they’ve all said it was worthwhile. They got somewhere.

Dominic: People who are bat experts, some people who are animal experts, people who are clinical or epidemiologic experts or people who are experts in viruses themselves, genetic sequences and that sort of thing. So you get a pretty different sort of group of people or varied group of people.

Ceri: And without asking you to blow your own trumpet, do you kind of think, alright, this is probably one for me, do you have that kind of sense, just given what you’ve done and where you’ve been in the past? 

Dominic: Yeah, sure, sure. I mean, if you’re a virologist and you’re not interested in a pandemic, then it’s time to hang up the boots.

So clearly I was interested and I have done work on origins of outbreaks in Australia and elsewhere. And so look, you know, I mean, there’s plenty of people that could have done the job around the world, no doubt about it. I mean, it’s important. You’ve got to be able to get on with people and, you know, it’s not a place for difficult people or big egos or what have you, you know, you’ve got to be able to work in a team pretty well.

Ceri, narrating: Dominic Dwyer’s not the only member of that team I spoke to. And it seems to me that he represents something important about the team. That point he just made about a WHO investigation not being a place for ‘difficult people’. That stuck with me.

Because the mindset the team took into Wuhan (the people I spoke to, anyway) was that the only way – the only way – this thing was going to work was by treating Chinese scientists as peers and collaborators in a shared endeavour. Team members. You couldn’t jab your finger or make demands. You just wouldn’t get anywhere.

Now, of course, up to a point, there’s no way around that when things are set up as they are. These aren’t weapons inspectors going into Iraq after the war. They’re academics. They’re public health experts. They’re civilians. And the WHO doesn’t have the power to steam into a country or even a lab uninvited.

But it raises an interesting question. If you don’t want to be “difficult”, what do you do when someone else is being difficult? 

Dominic: Everybody was interested in finding out, was there material in any freezers or fridges anywhere that might have samples that could be tested, the best place to find those is with blood banks or blood donation services.

Ceri, narrating: This part of the story is about blood – because there might be a kind of scientific treasure in it. And it’s one of a couple of what seem to me important forks in the road for the Wuhan team.

When you give blood, a few drops of it are frozen and kept in case your donation causes an unknown infection, or some other problem. So blood banks are one of the first places scientists want to look to trace the early days of a new virus. All those stored samples have got dates on, and you can test them for things like Covid antibodies. It’s potentially brilliant evidence. And it was all there in the blood donation service in Wuhan.

Dominic: So they had done testing in February, March, April of 2020. What they hadn’t done is go back earlier and we asked them to go back earlier, so in say the last six months of 2019. 

Ceri, narrating: So let’s say that testing had been done – and they’d found evidence of Covid antibodies in blood samples in September or October 2019. That would have been a few months earlier than the Chinese authorities said the virus first appeared. Suddenly, everyone’s understanding of the timeline would have been transformed. 

Ceri: Yeah. So it’s clearly important evidence. And what happened when you asked for it? 

Dominic: Well, to be honest, they were initially reluctant. I mean, I think, you know, you could speculate why they were reluctant to do so, and it may be as much, you know, a political thing as anything else.

Ceri, narrating: At this point, I’ve heard a couple of different accounts. They both agree that the arguments over the blood samples got tetchy. It’s either the most difficult moment between the WHO team and their Chinese counterparts, or it’s one of the most difficult, depending who you speak to.

Dominic: In fact, by the end of the period of time we were there and we’d had discussions with them, they came back and said they would do it. Now, look, we haven’t met with them since, but you know, there’s a regulatory and ethics process to go through of course to do it. And they have to do that. And so, they told us that they would get on and try and work out how to do this. 

Ceri: But to be clear, you haven’t yet seen the results of that?

Dominic: I haven’t yet seen them, no, but because we’re sort of just slightly stuck in the limbo – we’ve sort of made recommendations to WHO about how to do the next phase of studies, which includes looking at the testing of blood donors and that’s sort of winning its way through the process in WHO, and will require negotiation with China and so on. But they did say that they would do it, the samples aren’t going anywhere. 

Ceri: So, tell me, you sound unconcerned by it, but I’m looking at it from the outside, I’m thinking, well, you were in there, you made what seems to me a perfectly reasonable and probably anticipated scientific request: “could we see the samples that go back beyond December, 2019?”

You were met initially with reluctance and now we’re in the summer of 2021 and the world still hasn’t seen that data. And given that you explained to me very clearly that it could be quite important, are you relaxed about that or does that seem slightly troubling to you? 

Dominic: Well, look, you know, I’d like to see it done as quickly as possible. I mean, the Wuhan Blood Center does do about 200,000 collections a year. So you’re talking about a lot of material. It’s not, you can’t just sort of whip up the stuff quickly, but yeah, look, I would have hoped that it would be done and you know, maybe it is done and they’re preparing it for publication. I don’t know. But yeah, I think we’d all love to see it.

Ceri, narrating: It’s tantalising, that sense that there may be some important evidence which the whole world would love to see sitting in a freezer in the Wuhan blood donation service, and we can’t get to it. 

And, for me, it’s the kind of incident which raises a real dilemma for scientists on a mission like that. How much do you make allowances for the obstacles the Chinese authorities are putting in your way? Do you get to the point where you say, “you’re being unreasonable”. 

In the end, do you have to reserve the right to say, “this mission isn’t working. We’re out of here”? 

The WHO mission didn’t do that. They pressed on.

Meanwhile, 7000 miles away, in Washington DC, the politics was changing even while the team was on the ground. At the end of their first week in Wuhan, Joe Biden was inaugurated as President. 

One of the very first things he did was take the United States back into the World Health Organisation, as he’d promised to do.

But then something happened which was less expected. Instead of ditching Donald Trump’s pet theory about the possibility of a lab leak in Wuhan, Joe Biden adopted it.

Over the next few months the American position hardened. First, news dripped out that US intelligence believed three people who worked at the WIV had gone into hospital in November 2019 with unexplained symptoms of a flu-like disease. 

Point one: that was earlier than the Chinese said Covid had started. Point two: it put the laboratory back in the frame. 

And then in May this year, Joe Biden announced that he’d ordered his intelligence services to do a full investigation of the lab leak theory and report back in August.

[Clip: “Today the President asked the intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion”]

There’s every reason for us to think that what happened to Huang Yanling will be one of the things they’re looking at.

I’m going to bring Poppy back in here. She’s been chasing her story for a few weeks and she’s starting to get somewhere. She’s found someone who knows the people in the picture. 

Ceri: Poppy, how have you been getting on? 

Poppy: Okay. Well, I’ve been having some interesting times over here.I  rang this guy and just had a really interesting conversation with him. I think the thing that I think he did really nail down was that this photograph was definitely taken in 2018 because he knew two of the guys in the photo, who are from his country. And he knew exactly when they were there and when they overlapped, and 2018 was that moment. So that photo is definitely from 2018. We didn’t know if the date was posted afterwards or not. 

Then we were talking about the people in the photo and could he name them, and he was saying he knew all of them. But he finds Chinese names really difficult to remember and to say and so the professor, he remembered as Pohnpei, but actually is called Wei Hon Ping.

And then when I said, was it Wei Hon Ping, he said, oh yeah, yeah. So he thought it was Pohnpei. And then Huang Yanling, he remembered her as Yanjing, so Yanjing is also the main Chinese beer. I mean, I don’t know if that was in his head. I don’t know, but he seemed to call her Yanjing. And he said that she was an exchange – on a kind of next gen program. He didn’t know which institution she’d come from, but she was there in 2018 and she was there, definitely, until he left in June 2019. 

Ceri: What you’ve got there is not bad, is it? Because here’s this photograph, so we know now that it was, we’ve got one guy telling us very definitively that it was taken in 2018. And we know from his account that – we know we’re talking about the same person, whether he mangles her name or not, we know we’re talking about the same person. We know we’re talking about the person that we understand to be  Huang Yanling. Is that right? 

Poppy: But if that, I mean, we don’t have any other photographs of  Huang Yanling. So we don’t know that that definitely is  Huang Yanling. We just know that somebody said it is, he seems to remember her as Yanjing and he seems to remember her being there. So, I mean – 

Ceri: We’ve still got some work to do to be sure that that is the person who was then identified in social media in February 2020 as patient zero.

Poppy: Yeah. 

Ceri, narrating: On February 9th this year the joint WHO/Chinese mission to study the origin of Covid-19 in Wuhan came to an end. Not a very glorious end; one of those put-me-out-of-my-misery-now, institutional press conferences. 

[Clip: “Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, good afternoon. Welcome to the press conference of the joint expert team of China-WHO…”]

A big panel of experts talking to a mostly empty room.

[Clip: “According to the relevant literature review, concerning the research on the data, it suggests early circulation of SARS Cov-2 from unpublished studies…”]

The great headlines to come out of the trip were that the most likely cause of Covid was that it had jumped from animals to humans. From a bat to another animal to us. The way things usually happen.

The other top line – and it was seized on at the time – was that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely”. We’ll come back to that. 

But I got very interested in something which wasn’t so much discussed. The team said they went in with four hypotheses about the origins of Covid. And at the end, they decided two of them deserved to be studied more.

Not the lab leak theory. That wasn’t worth looking at again until some real evidence emerged. 

But animal transfer, as I said. And one other: the idea that Covid might have been harboured in frozen food. The frozen food hypothesis.

[Clip: News montage – 

“Scientists in the country warn about the risks of contamination on imported frozen food.”
“The Chinese government says an increasing amount of frozen food being sent to China carries traces of coronavirus.”]

From the very beginning, the Chinese government pushed the idea that Covid had come into the country in frozen food. Most governments and scientists assumed they were just doing the obvious thing: deflecting attention by saying this whole pandemic started somewhere else.

You can almost feel the Chinese government holding the pen when you read the terms of reference for the Wuhan mission and the very first thing it says about the team’s approach is: “where an epidemic is first detected does not necessarily reflect where it started.”

But for all the political lobbying, I haven’t talked to a single scientist who really takes the frozen food hypothesis seriously. It’s possible it played a part in spreading Covid around. But the Wuhan mission was about finding out where it had started.

So why did the team conclude that the frozen food hypothesis was worth keeping alive? Why did it rank it higher as a possibility than a lab leak?

Dominic: Yeah, so we ended up ranking the hypotheses to try and then guide where you’re going to get what we thought was going to be the best bang for your buck. The lab hypothesis, though, is still on the table. It’s never been taken off the table. It’s just that if you’re going to go further with it, you need some real evidence to work with. So it’s not dismissed, it’s just that the other ones based on the evidence that we had were more likely. 

Ceri: Okay, but actually it’s the frozen food one that I’m interested in because that’s the other one that it was agreed there would be further study of. So, can you tell me what evidence there was that meant that that was the other hypothesis that you agreed would be studied further. 

Dominic: Yeah, look, the frozen food hypothesis was something that Chinese scientists, team members, were much more keen on than we were. Now, they presented examples of some outbreaks of SARS CoV-2 infection, particularly in Beijing in the middle of 2020. So obviously after the virus had well and truly been circulated. And they felt that the introduction into that market came in, in the frozen food that was being imported into China. For it to happen, it means that the source of the frozen food must be being handled by people who’ve got the infection. So, sure, if you got frozen fish from Ecuador or New Zealand, Australia, or whatever, and people handling that were infected and they were handling the fish, you could postulate that you could get virus in that product. The frozen food is not outrageous as a source of infection, but it’s hard to imagine that right at the very beginning, because we didn’t know that SARS CoV-2 was anywhere in the world. No one had ever seen it anywhere before. So how did contaminated frozen food get into a market? 

Ceri: It seems to me that, I just really can’t understand why, what I’m picking up from you is that is what I’ve heard from other scientists as well, that nobody really gives much credibility to the frozen food hypothesis.

They see it as a Chinese government effort to deflect the origins of Covid outside the country because this frozen food could have come in from elsewhere. And yet you as a WHO mission agreed to rank it higher than the lab leak hypothesis. And that seems to be a political decision, not a scientific one. 

Dominic: Yeah, no, we didn’t, we didn’t rank it higher for political concerns. We ranked at higher it because –

Ceri: What’s the scientific evidence, if it wasn’t a political judgement?

Dominic: Well the scientific evidence is, there’s evidence to show that that virus can be spread that way, okay. And there’s work that needs to be done to understand whether frozen foods, you know, how good a vehicle are they for transmitting infections. The point I was making before is it’s slightly different from saying that that’s how it all began. Now, when you see the sorts of things that are sold in these wet markets, they’re absolutely extraordinary. Could you have had contamination of some of that material, you know, frozen foods? I don’t know. But we all thought that there is work to be done around that, but it’s not a high flyer in comparison to the other mechanism. But there’s a bit more evidence for that than say the lab leak at this stage.

Ceri, narrating: After the WHO team came out of Wuhan, the man who led it – a Danish food scientist called Peter Ben Embarek – said “politics was always in the room”. No doubt about it.

And, actually, no surprise. So maybe the test for the World Health Organisation comes down to two things: how well have you insulated your fact-finding mission from the politics – especially in the way you’ve drawn up the terms of reference; and have you picked a team of scientists which seems capable of ignoring the political storm raging all around?

Filippa: Yeah, it has shifted. 

Ceri, narrating:  Filippa Lentzos was one of the first reputable experts to raise a flag to say we shouldn’t overlook the lab leak theory. 

Filippa: I have to say when I first wrote that article in the early spring of 2020, when I laid out the argument for a lab leak theory, saying, look, this needs to be considered on par. This is a serious possibility. It needs to be on the table. It’s not necessarily as likely, but again, we can’t rule it out, so it has to be on the table. 

From that point, there’s so much circumstantial evidence that’s come for the potential that it could have been research-related, shifts for me this balance already. It’s all that circumstantial evidence. Again, it’s not hard evidence, but it is circumstantial. It’s pointing in the lab leak  direction. 

Ceri, narrating: I wanted to pick up with Filippa where I left off with Dominic Dwyer. That question of whether the WHO team in Wuhan had undermined its findings. And by that, I mean, particularly whether it managed to resist Chinese lobbying when it let the frozen food hypothesis run.

Filippa: Well, I think it’s one of a number of examples of damage to the credibility of the whole mission. In their defense, I think the members of the team felt that it was very clear that this was a natural spillover, that’s what they’d been asked to investigate. That’s what their expertise were in. That was their focus.

The frozen food aspect was an inconvenient addition that they just had to agree to in order to get this sort of access. So they have repeatedly said coming out of the mission that they have not seen any evidence whatsoever, that it could be a lab leak. So they didn’t think that required any further investigation.

Now they hold the lab leak theory and the spillover theory to different standards of evidence. Because actually there’s very little evidence at this point to show that natural spillover could have happened, other than it’s happened before. Well, if you look at the lab leak theory, there’s plenty of precedent for lab leaks in the past, granted, not to the extent that you’ve caused a major pandemic like Covid. But we’ve also never had so many labs and so much high-risk research going on and we’re certainly long overdue, a kind of large-scale lab incident. And in addition to that, there’s all this other circumstantial evidence pointing very directly to the lab leak possibility. So we’ve got the six staff in November potentially being the first cluster of Covid patients.

We’ve got the viral sequences of early cases that have been taken off databases. We’ve had renaming of the virus. We’ve had all kinds of indicators that the research and the institute are not being as open and transparent about what is going on there. And if they are to be taken seriously, if they are a reputable institution, if they do this kind of research, they have an obligation to be as open and honest as they can to show us, convince us, that what they’re doing is safe, secure, and responsible. 

Ceri, narrating: And if they don’t do that? Well, then the tough question is: what on earth do you do in the world as it is where the WHO is public health worker to the world but, even in a pandemic, even when there’s vital detective work to be done, it’s not the world’s policemen.

Filippa: I think the WHO, their hands were tied to some extent in terms of what they could reach agreement on. Many would say they were not tough enough with the Chinese, myself included. But if you are wanting to go into the country, you do need to have the agreement of that country to go in. I mean, this was not the UN bio weapons inspectors in Iraq who, you know, had a war behind them. Iraq surrendered its sovereignty, essentially. China is a sovereign country and you are there on invitation from them. So there wasn’t so much the WHO could have done. And there is a question whether the WHO was the right international body to carry out this sort of investigation.

I think the ideal case would be to still go down the WHO route as we have, but with a changed team, with a changed mandate, et cetera. But if that’s not feasible, if China doesn’t cooperate, then we have to look at other means. And certainly Biden’s intelligence investigation is one way to do that. I think it should not be ever seen as the definitive answer. It should also look at other open source information, as well as ask different funders, for instance, who have funded work in Wuhan to open their communications, their records, their data that they’ve got out of their funded work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

Ceri, narrating: You don’t have to listen to Filippa Lentzos for long to spot that she comes from a different part of the forest than someone like Dominic Dwyer. She’s a security expert. Her big projects are about control of biological weapons. 

In that world, believing something is true because a scientist in another country – and not even a friendly country – says it’s true wouldn’t get you very far. It seems to make Filippa Lentzos impatient – and suspicious – of any joint WHO/Chinese team if she thinks she can hear them singing kumbaya together at the end of a mission that wasn’t actually, ever an investigation.

Filippa: It is an incredible naivety. I mean the whole team, you can say, again in a generous interpretation, they just want to be heroes. They want to save the world from this kind of stuff.

Even people like Peter Daszak, I really do believe there is a part of him that really genuinely thinks this is heroic stuff that he’s doing, and they do have this incredible naivety. And the biological sciences, in general, do also when it comes to the security side and weapons related work. None of them know that our own countries, China, have been heavily involved in developing weapons from biology, militarising biology.

That history is so not present. It’s very present for physicists. It’s very present for chemists. It’s not there at all. Even though we have a long history of this, it’s just that history is just unknown. But it’s also their careers. People, like Peter Daszak, have built their entire career on this kind of very dangerous research. It’s a small world.

I’m sorry. I’ve got to dash!

Ceri, narrating: As Filippa Lentzos was at pains to point out all the way through, we’re in the realm of circumstantial evidence. Everyone’s looking at straws in the wind, blowing one way or another. And, by the way, we did put some of her points to Peter Daszak but we didn’t hear back from him.

One of the straws in the wind, of course, is Huang Yanling. Some people have tried to build something solid out of her story and a rag-bag of others that are nothing to do with her. Risky experiments, strange coincidences, things that have gone unexplained or half explained.

We’ve been trying to do something much simpler. Just to get to the bottom of what we can know about her from the few little scraps that have been put out there. 

Last time I talked to Poppy, remember, we were trying to figure out what to make of that photo – the one which seemed to show Huang Yanling back at the Wuhan Institute of Virology three years after we were told she’d left.

Ceri: So here we are, Friday. Have you got anywhere? 

Poppy: I have, I’ve got somewhere. I’ve got somewhere. Through the person that I’ve been telling you about, I managed today to speak to one of the people in the 2018 photograph. And he confirmed to me that the person who’s circled in red and named as Huang Yanling, he absolutely can confirm that he remembers that her name was Yanjing.

Ceri: So, your guy was right. 

Poppy: My guy was right. It was Yanjing. 

Ceri: Oh my god.

Poppy:  But yeah, so we had a great chat. A great chat with this guy. So he said, listen, I’m going to try and help you find that girl’s name in Chinese, her Chinese characters. 

And we’re going to prove that this is Yanjing, not Huang Yanling. 

And he has. He’s found a lab technician who left the Wuhan Institute. And he sent me their WeChat and he sent the photo to her and he said, the woman in the red circle, who is that? And then she came back with this name, in Chinese. Yanjing. With the Chinese characters, Yanjing. That’s that.

Ceri: That’s the second person who’s used that – we’ve got now three people, your original guy and these two new ones all saying that’s Yanjing. 

Poppy: Yeah. 

Ceri: So I think we probably have to think it’s Yanjing, don’t we? 

Poppy: So what I’m feeling after this is this whole Huang Yanling thing, and the fact that her photos have been scrubbed off the WIV’s, the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s website. She’s disappeared. We can’t find her. We can’t get hold of anyone who knows her at the company. At first it seemed like this is deeply suspicious, that she’s been disappeared. They’re hiding her. And you know, in America we know that US Republican committees have been asking about her. Maybe she’s one of the people the US intelligence are after, but actually, if you think about it, if somebody put this rumor up about her being patient zero, it might not be that she’s been disappeared. It might be that she’s been protected from all these people online that might blame her for causing this virus, that’s upended our lives and disrupted our lives. 

Ceri, narrating: In the end, we didn’t get far with Huang Yanling’s story. But I’m glad we tried. Because it’s a kind of parable, I think. 

It certainly shows the limits of circumstantial evidence. And how difficult it is to interpret one piece of the puzzle. 

Did Huang Yanling disappear from public view for nefarious reasons? Or was it to take care of her? 

Were the Chinese cagey about her because there was something to hide? Or because that’s just how they treat someone who’s suddenly thrust into the spotlight, on a story as important as where Covid came from?

An authoritarian country, with the grip that China has, can mislead the world. And we certainly found it terribly difficult to find out even the simplest things about Huang Yanling.

But at the same time, we can misunderstand and we can misinterpret. 

And those same risks – the risks of being misled, of misunderstanding and misinterpreting – they’re part of the big picture, not just part of that grainy photo of a bunch of scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

I talked to a very eminent British scientist this week – someone who’s been important in the fight against Covid. He told me he’s started to think the most likely outcome is that we’ll never know where it came from.

But my question is:  could we have known if the WHO had gone about things differently?

Of course, it’s not possible to know that for sure, either. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if the World Health Organisation had done its job better – a bit more forcefully – we’d have had a better chance.

When they were negotiating with the Chinese government over the terms of reference for the Wuhan mission, the WHO conceded a lot. They left their scientists without the mandate to look for a lab leak.

Then they put together a team to go into Wuhan which had clear conflicts of interest. And that’s damaged its credibility ever since.

And as Filippa Lentzos said, the Wuhan team seemed to apply different standards of evidence to different parts of their mission. They left the frozen food hypothesis on the table for no good, scientific reason; and they took the lab leak off it without ever having really tried to get to the bottom of it.

So I asked Dominic Dwyer. Did they blow it? Did the Wuhan mission blow the world’s best chance to discover if Covid came from an animal or out of a lab?

Dominic: Yeah. I don’t think we blew it because nobody who understands the game would think that you could get the answers that quickly. Now, I think you’re quite right to say that we should have done this much earlier and that’s a kind of political and diplomatic issue, but I don’t think we’ve blown it.

I think we’ve set it up and I think it’s pretty well within the expectations that I had going there, in terms of how much we could do. So maybe I didn’t score a four, but I might’ve got a single. 

Ceri, narrating: If you’re not a cricket fan, what he’s describing is a steady, unspectacular way of playing the game. Just slowly building up a score.

And that’s how most scientists imagine the search for the origins of Covid will unfold. But that’s not how the world wants to work these days. We’re impatient – of course we are – to understand what’s caused this dreadful, destructive episode in all our lives. And we were anxious, and prone to conspiracy theories even before Covid. 

We also have to reckon with the fact that unlike all those previous pandemics in human history, this one doesn’t have to have begun life in an animal. 

Scientific progress means it’s possible we could have done this to ourselves. 

But it’s still a big leap to say it’s probable.