A research accident in China was the most likely cause of the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a report released by Senate Republicans Thursday.
The Republican staff of the Senate Committee On Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, led by Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, studied medical literature and other publicly available material for 15 months and found numerous problems with the idea that the disease jumped naturally from bats to humans, as well as numerous reasons to suspect a problem at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIF).
However, it said because of secrecy by the Chinese government, it may be impossible to prove conclusively.
Based on previous similar epidemics such as SARS and MERS, for a virus to jump from an animal like bats to humans, it would typically first mutate enough to “circulate in an intermediate host to increase the virus’ chances of being able to infect and replicate in humans,” the report said. But there is no evidence of such an intermediate host.
“While it is likely that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a bat virus, most likely one found in horseshoe bats residing in Southern China or Southeast Asia, it remains unknown how SARS-CoV-2 traveled more than 1,000 miles from Southern China or Southeast Asia before emerging in Wuhan,” it said.
As the virus mutates in ways that allow it to jump species, there are usually failed attempts—in which the virus manages to jump but still cannot replicate once in the new host—that leave behind evidence which can be documented. But that hasn’t been seen in humans or other animals, it said.
Additionally, if some animal species was harboring COVID-19, it would be expected for multiple different humans to separately become infected from animal contact, setting off distinct infection chains, as happened with the H7N9 Avian Influenza. There is no evidence of people continuing to catch COVID disease from bats, the report said.
The Chinese government initially claimed that COVID came from a “natural zoonotic transmission occurring at the Huanan Seafood Market”–among other claims such as that the U.S. engineered the virus. While many of the earliest documented cases had a nexus to the seafood market, there was a self-fulfilling prophesy: The criteria the Chinese government initially used for counting a case of the new disease required that the person not only have respiratory symptoms, but also have been connected to the seafood market.
The virus was found on surfaces at the seafood market, but “according to presentations made to the World Health Organization (WHO) by PRC government officials and scientists in early 2020, none of the animals at the market when it was closed, in the market’s supply chain, or in China’s animal farming industry were infected with SARS-CoV-2,” it said.
Additionally, the people who were infected by COVID after going to the market all had nearly identical strains of the virus, whereas if it was a new disease jumping from animals to people, one would expect to see various mutations.
“Early SARS-CoV-2 variants had little genetic diversity and were closely related to each other, differing by only two nucleotides out of approximately 29,900 nucleotides,” the report said.
Meanwhile, there are reasons to believe that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIF)–located in close proximity to the seafood market–was conducting highly related research with poor controls.
An accident associated with such work would be far from unprecedented: The previous SARS virus escaped from Chinese labs four times, the H1N1 virus is believed to have been the result of an incident in Soviet Union or Chinese labs, and the American government once had an incident with the “highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of influenza.”
“The WIV collected more than 15,000 bat-related samples around the time the pandemic began. Of these, the WIV had identified more than 220 SARS-related coronaviruses, at least 100 of which have not been made public,” the report said. This included viruses that are up to 96.8% similar to COVID-19, including one that is 96.3% similar and which WIV only acknowledged in February 2020, after the start of the pandemic.
WIV materials show personnel on virus-harvesting expeditions handling bats with minimal protections, some with bare hands and no masks, it said. WIV was also conducing “experiments to assess the pandemic potential of SARS-related viruses” which generate “ubiquitous” and “difficult to detect” aerosols in a BSL2 laboratory, when Chinese officials have said such risky activities should only take place in higher-security BSL3 or BSL4 labs.
The U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance was even working with WIF and described “the WIV’s intent to search for SARS-related coronaviruses with potential to bind to human ACE2 receptors and that have naturally occurring furin cleavage sites in Yunnan Province, China. According to the proposal, if WIV researchers were unable to find a SARS-related virus with these traits during sampling expeditions, they then proposed to manipulate the ACE2 receptors of SARS-related coronaviruses to increase binding affinity to human lung tissue and to insert furin cleavage sites at the same location where one appears in SARS-CoV-2,” according to the report.
WIV has been secretive about such research. A WIV scientist “disclosed that her team infected civets and mice that expressed human ACE2 receptors with chimeric SARS-related coronaviruses. The results of these experiments indicated that SARS-related bat coronaviruses could infect and cause severe illness in humanized mice. The WIV was later terminated as a sub-grantee by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for failing to produce its laboratory notes and other records relating to these other experiments,” it said.
On Sept. 12, 2019, “between the hours of 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. local time, the WIV took down its online depository of data on viral sequences called the Wildlife-Borne Viral Pathogen Database. The database was intermittently accessible from December 2019 to February 2020, before being permanently taken offline February 2020. The WIV had a collection of more than 15,000 samples from bats,” the report said.
Then there was the fact that WIV was underfunded and operating with poor technology. In May 2019, the director of the WIV BSL4 lab warned that “Maintenance cost[s] [are] generally neglected; several high-level BSLs have insufficient operational funds for routine yet vital processes… This makes it difficult to identify and mitigate potential safety hazards in facility and equipment operation early enough.”
In July 2019, the deputy director of the lab produced a report on equipment shortages, problems with “the management of biosafety,” and “urgent problems.” A November 12, 2019 report from WIV’s BSL4 lab also suggested that “operational errors that give rise to dangers” had occurred.
Finally, China’s rapid development of a vaccine for COVID–significantly faster than America’s Operation Warp Speed, which itself was considered a “miracle”–raises questions of whether the Communist nation had a head start, the report said.
“What additional steps, processes, or novel techniques did AMMS researchers take that advanced the development of their vaccine faster than the Operation Warp Speed timeline? If no additional steps were taken to speed up the development timeline, when did researchers in China have access to the genomic sequence? Was it before January 11, 2020?”