Washington: After 65 lakh deaths and 63 crore cases globally, an interim report by the minority oversight staff of the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP), has concluded that the Covid-19 pandemic was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident”.
Vanity Fair, in partnership with ProPublica, scanned through hundreds of pages of the Senate researchers’ findings and 236-page analysis, and has now published a detailed report.
Commissioned by Senator Richard Burr (Republican, North Carolina), a nine-person team, including Toy Reid who is China specialist for the Rand Corporation, “examined voluminous evidence, most of it open source but some classified, and weighed the major credible theories for how the novel coronavirus first made the leap to humans”.
As part of his investigation, Reid used a virtual private network, or VPN, to access dispatches archived on the website of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) which is state-run and funded.
“These dispatches remain on the internet, but their meaning can’t be unlocked by just anyone. Using his hard-earned expertise, Reid believes he unearthed secrets that were hiding in plain sight,” the report said.
Ever since the Chinese city of Wuhan was identified as ground zero for the Covid-19 pandemic, a contingent of scientists have suspected that the virus could have leaked from one of the WIV’s complex of laboratories.
“The WIV is, after all, the venue for some of China’s riskiest coronavirus research. Scientists there have mixed components of different coronaviruses and created new strains, in an effort to predict the risks of human infection and to develop vaccines and treatments. Critics argue that creating viruses that don’t exist in nature runs the risk of unleashing them,” the report mentioned.
The Wuhan lab’s newer Zhengdian campus, about 18 miles to the south, is home to the institute’s most prestigious laboratory, a bio-safety level 4 (BSL-4) facility.
As Reid burrowed into the party branch dispatches, he became riveted by the unfolding picture.
“They described intense pressure to produce scientific breakthroughs that would elevate China’s standing on the world stage, despite a dire lack of essential resources,” the report noted.
Even at the BSL-4 lab, they repeatedly lamented the problem of “the three ‘nos’: no equipment and technology standards, no design and construction teams, and no experience operating or maintaining [a lab of this caliber],” according to the report.
In the fall of 2019, the dispatches took a darker turn. They referenced inhumane working conditions and “hidden safety dangers.”
On November 12 of that year, a dispatch by party branch members at the BSL-4 laboratory appeared to reference a “biosecurity breach”.
“What has been included in the interim report are the facts the Committee has determined are ready for, and worthy of, publication at this time. The Committee’s bipartisan oversight investigation is still ongoing, and what is worthy of inclusion will find its way into the final report,” a spokesperson for the Senate HELP minority committee told Vanity Fair and ProPublica.
The interim report also raises questions about how quickly vaccines were developed in China by some teams, including one led by a military virologist named Zhou Yusen.
The report called it “unusual” that two military Covid-19 vaccine development teams were able to reach early milestones even faster than the major drug companies who were part of the US government’s Operation Warp Speed programme.
“The lack of transparency from government and public health officials in the (People’s Republic of China) with respect to the origins of SARS-CoV-2 prevents reaching a more definitive conclusion,” the report said.
China has always denied that Covid virus was a leak from the Wuhan lab.
A Chinese Embassy spokesperson dismissed allegations of a lab leak and said that an international team convened by the World Health Organisation concluded that “the allegation of lab leaking is extremely unlikely. The conclusion should be respected”.
“From the very beginning, China has taken a scientific, professional, serious and responsible attitude in origin tracing,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying.