After three years and countless deaths, were the people who think Covid came from a Chinese lab right all along?
“The mystery virus started here in the city of Wuhan… Dozens have been infected, but experts here believe the actual figure is closer to 1,700 cases.”Sky News, January 2020
That’s the distance between two important places in Wuhan, the city in Central China where Covid first ran riot.
West of the Yangtze river is the Huanan Seafood Market, which also sold exotic animals including Chinese bamboo rats and Siberian weasels.
East of the river is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which for several years has been studying coronaviruses in bats.
The market and the lab could both be ground zero for Covid and each supports a different theory about where the disease came from.
The first is that Covid emerged in bats in the wild, then jumped to humans in the market via another animal. Perhaps the pangolin, which is similar to an anteater.
“The number one suspect for the origin of this disease is still a zoonotic disease that occurred as a result of the farming of wild animals.”Boris Johnson, CBC News
The second theory, favoured by Donald Trump, during the pandemic, when he was US president, is that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after it was collected from bat caves to be studied.
Reporter: “My question is have you seen anything at this point that gives you a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus?”
Donald Trump: “Yes, I have. Yes, I have.”White House press conference, April 2020
This explanation was flat out rejected by people like Peter Daszak. He’s a British zoologist who was sent to China by the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of the pandemic.
“The idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true. I’ve been working with that lab for 15 years. And the samples collected were collected by me and others in collaboration with our Chinese colleagues. They’re some of the best scientists in the world.”Peter Daszak, Democracy Now, April 2020
But it’s never been as simple as Peter Daszak made out.
In 2018, US diplomats visited the Wuhan institute. They reported back to Washington that there was a shortage of technicians and investigators needed to safely operate the lab.
Of the initial 41 people hospitalised with Covid, fourteen of them, including the first case, had no direct exposure to the Huanan market.
And in the last couple of weeks more has emerged about the lab theory – which means Peter Daszak and other prominent scientists could end up with egg on their face.
“The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan.”FBI Director Christopher Wray, Fox News
This is the FBI director, Christopher Wray, speaking to Fox News at the start of this month.
“Let me step back for a second. The FBI has folks, agents, professionals, analysts, virologists, microbiologists etc., who focus specifically on the dangers of biological threats, which include things like novel viruses like Covid, and the concerns that in the wrong hands, some bad guys, a hostile nation state, a terrorist, a criminal, the threats that those could pose.”Christopher Wray, Fox News
He said the FBI thinks the most likely origin of Covid was a lab.
“So here you’re talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab that killed millions of Americans. And that’s precisely what that capability was designed for.”Christopher Wray, Fox News
The US Department of Energy has also assessed that Covid most likely came from a lab leak.
China, of course, has dismissed these suggestions.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson urged the US to “stop turning origin tracing into something about politics”.
The FBI isn’t absolutely certain the disease came from a lab, though.
It reached its conclusion with moderate confidence, the US Department of Energy with low confidence.
The National Intelligence Council and other intelligence agencies still think, for their part, that the Covid outbreak began through natural exposure to an infected animal.
We’ll probably never know the truth for sure.
Live animals were held in a market stall where Covid was later found, but no one found an animal infected with Covid. Every animal in the market was slaughtered at the start of the outbreak.
So, why has the FBI gone public about its conclusion now?
We don’t know whether the FBI has new intelligence, which has encouraged it to speak up now.
That information is classified, so the FBI hasn’t disclosed how it reached its conclusion or what evidence it gathered.
But we do know two things.
One, that whatever information it has shared with other agencies, well, it hasn’t persuaded them.
And two, that there’s undoubtedly politics at play.
“The giant Chinese balloon that had been floating across parts of the United States has been shot down by an American fighter jet off the coast of South Carolina.”BBC News
“Taiwan’s president Tsai-Ing Wen has said Taipei will boost military exchanges with the United States at a time when tensions with Beijing remain high.”DW News
“Let’s go now to the war in Ukraine, and some new revelations that the US believes China could be preparing to provide military aid to Russia.”MSNBC
In blaming a lab leak for the start of Covid, the FBI has fired a strategic warning shot at China.
A power play that says: “We’ve been watching you.”
What’s not clear is how much evidence the FBI really has.
Politics may, yet again, be getting in the way of finding out how the pandemic that changed the world really began.
Today’s episode was written and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.