‘One or Two’ Lab Leaks Most Likely Origins for COVID: Senate Report
Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kans.) on Monday released a 301-page report concluding that COVID-19 “most likely” leaked from a lab weeks before China’s official narrative as the result of “one or possibly two” lab accidents. “We won’t be able to prove this in a criminal trial. But I do think there’s enough evidence, if this was a civil case, that we would convince a jury,” said Marshall of the report fittingly titled, “Muddy Waters.”
Conducted over 18 months by former Trump official Dr. Bob Kadlec, Dr. Bob Foster, and GOP staff on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, the report concluded after studying the lab-leak theory as well as the natural origin theory, “The preponderance of circumstantial evidence supports an unintentional research-related incident.” The full senate report represents the fullest picture the American public has yet received of the evidence pointing in any direction; in earlier assessments from the U.S. intelligence community, only a summary was declassified.
The conditional nature of the lengthy study’s conclusions highlights the remaining uncertainty about the origins of COVID-19. “Every time I pick on China, we should look in the mirror because our own federal government has kept data from us, they wouldn’t show us information. They wouldn’t let us talk to the right people,” said Marshall.
The report didn’t discount the possibility of a natural origin without a fair hearing. It affirmed several data points that made the Hunan Seafood Market at least a plausible origin point. However, “the absence of key epidemiological and genetic data” led them to conclude this was unlikely. “Recent natural zoonotic spillovers of respiratory viruses with pandemic potential have left behind evidence of where and how they occurred,” they noted. Instead, they summarized, “the preponderance of information supports the plausibility of an unintentional research-related incident that likely resulted from failures of biosafety containment during SARS-CoV-2 vaccine-related research.”
The report described the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) as a lab-leak waiting to happen. By 2019, the lab had collected “approximately 20,000 … animal virus samples from across China,” which “underwent initial evaluation in BSL-2 settings … usually by graduate students.” The report added, “Widely accepted biosafety guidelines hold that initial evaluation of SARS-related bat coronaviruses should be conducted in at least BSL-3 laboratories because of the risk of creating infectious aerosols.” BSL-2 laboratories operate with lower safety standards than BSL-3 laboratories.
But WIV’s labs suffered from “neglected maintenance, insufficient operational funds, and a lack of specialized managers and engineers to operate BSL-3 labs,” complained Yuan Zhiming, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP) Committee of the Wuhan Branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), in May 2019.
Aware of WIV’s safety and maintenance shortcomings, researchers attempted to retroactively address them, all while its biolabs remained fully operational. In 2019 they filed patents for correcting “existing door seals that developed slow leaks over time,” “a manually operated exhaust fan,” HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter disinfection, and mending the pressure cooker-like autoclave sterilizers, used for sterilizing equipment, which were “unable to achieve required sterilization temperatures,” had “potential leaks around the autoclave doors,” and accumulated “excessive condensation of autoclaved infectious materials.”
“It is very, very apparent that their biological safety training is minimal,” said Robert Hawley, “who for years oversaw safety programs at the U.S. Army’s maximum-containment lab at Fort Detrick, Md.”
Eventually, the problems at WIV came to the attention of the nation’s leaders. On November 19, 2019, a senior CCP official from Beijing relayed “important oral and written instructions” to WIV senior leadership in a special biosafety and security training session, which was “was followed by a two and a half day remedial biosafety training course for WIV researchers.”
By then, the disease may have already been spreading. The report noted “an increase in adult Influenza-Like-Illness (ILI) accompanied by negative laboratory influenza tests” in the week November 11-17, 2019 from a Wuhan hospital, “approximately 13 weeks before the peak incidence of COVID-19 cases in late January-early February 2020.” According to international data collected in 28 other countries, 13 weeks is “the average time from the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 [the COVID virus] to the maximum incidence of recognized cases.”
Officially, the report acknowledged, China holds that the first COVID-19 outbreak was “no earlier than December 8, 2019.”
However, “eyewitness accounts, media reports, epidemiological modeling and additional academic studies further support October 28 to November 10 as the window of emergence.” Some of the anecdotes come from government sources (emphasis added):
- “The Deputy Consular Chief [at the U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan] recalled, ‘By mid-October 2019, the dedicated team at the U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan knew that the city had been struck by what was thought to be an unusually vicious flu season. The disease worsened in November.’”
- “A January 2021 S. Department of State factsheet stated … ‘several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.’”
- “Unpublished People’s Republic of China (PRC) Government data identified the first COVID-19 case in mid-November. A veteran South China Morning Post reporter reviewed an official China CDC document that showed a 55-year-old from Hubei province contracted the virus on November 17, 2019.”
Some anecdotes were collected media reports about the situation in Wuhan (emphasis added):
- “An Australian journalist interviewed a frontline Wuhan doctor who conveyed that he and his colleagues saw a growing number of patients exhibiting fever and respiratory difficulties in early November, 2019. The physicians realized that a coronavirus, likely SARS, was the causative agent by early December.”
- “Two other media outlets published information from leaked hospital data from pneumonia patients in Wuhan with suspected COVID-19. These reports identified two separate suspected case-clusters in early October and November 2019.”
- “A Wuhan University biostatistics professor gave an interview in which he discussed his work to compile a nationwide database of COVID-19 cases. According to the epidemiologist, several suspected cases predated the earliest official cases in December, 2019. ‘There were two patient cases in November, with onset on November 14 and November 21, 2019, and five or six cases before December 8, 2019.’”
- “In August 2021, a veteran Washington Post policy columnist reported that at least one of the WIV researchers became ill in early November, 2019 and exhibited symptoms highly specific to COVID-19, including the loss of smell and ground-glass opacities in his lungs.”
Still other anecdotes measured the crisis with proxy variables (emphasis added):
- “A June 2020 published Harvard University study found an unusual increase in Wuhan hospital traffic during [autumn 2019].”
- “Satellite imagery showed a significant increase in vehicles parked at major Wuhan hospitals – an indicator previously established as a proxy for hospital occupancy rates – in this period compared to October and November of 2018.”
- “Search queries made on the Chinese search engine Baidu for terms like ‘cough’ also increased substantially in October and November, 2019.”
The report contained one more reason to believe that COVID may have been circulating earlier than Chinese authorities admit. “People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Professor Zhou Yusen, Director of the 5th Institute at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS), … submitted one of the first COVID-19 vaccine patents on February 24, 2020,” said the report. “Several experts assessed that Zhou likely would have had to start this vaccine development research no later than November 2019 to achieve the February patent submission date.” National Review’s Jim Geraghty called this revelation “the closest thing to a smoking gun” in the report.
The researchers considered other evidence supporting the lab leak hypothesis as well, such as a unique genetic marker in the COVID virus, SARS-Cov-2. “One of the notable genetic findings of SARS-CoV-2 is the presence of an FCS [furin cleavage site]. It is the first SARS-related beta coronavirus found with one,” but WIV had been attempting “to artificially insert genetic sequences for human furin cleavage [HFC] sites to evaluate their pandemic causing potential in SARS-related coronaviruses” since 2018.
In the end, the report settles on “two plausible scenarios” for a lab leak. First, they hypothesized that a “research-related incident occurred sometime before September 2019,” the virus was first isolated in the low-level lab. “This infection, while unlikely to have caused the COVID-19 pandemic, may have spurred the WIV and PRC government to undertake precautionary actions identified by this investigation and others,” they wrote.
Second, they hypothesized a “mid- to late October” spillover from the lab due to malfunctioning equipment, which provoked another round of security responses. A detail from a November 12 internal report suggested “the possibility of more than one research-related incident” when it indicated that “incidents involving ‘high pathogens’ requiring a response from the BSL-4 team had occurred.”
In any event, the report suggested that the poor quality of the WIV labs contributed to make any lab leak worse. “The identified underlying biosafety issues increased the likelihood that such containment failures were not immediately recognized,” they said. “The possibility of unrecognized biocontainment breaches combined with SARS-CoV-2’s clinical characteristics of asymptomatic and mild clinical illness in the majority of infections, likely confounded early recognition and containment of the initial outbreak.”
If these hypothetical scenarios strike close to the truth, then China has not only covered up the origins of COVID, but indirectly contributed to them through inadequate lab safety. The report repeatedly stated that none of the evidence it collected can definitively prove that the COVID virus came from a Chinese lab. However, they noted, “according to published research, the cause of over 80% of laboratory-acquired infections (LAI) are never conclusively determined.” To date, the 301 pages of research and 1,570 footnotes they published represent the fullest explanation Americans have been able to access.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.