As I often seem to do, I will start this post off with an admission. Most of last year I was hyper alert to how my public comments and my emails to my former colleague and friend, Dr Shi Zhengli, the lead scientist of the laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology which is world-renowned for their work on bat coronaviruses, might impact her.
I was aware that, through circumstance, my friend was at the centre of the greatest acute crisis of our time, with all sorts of geopolitical implications, many of them because of the personality of the relevant leaders of the day. And my observation of what had occurred in China through early 2020 suggested to me that her situation was likely both delicate and unpredictable, and that if I was going to openly comment on her – as I would feel compelled to do with anybody who I knew at the level I knew Zhengli (explained in that original post and in further detail below), to effectively give a personal ‘reference’ to an audience that might initially be sceptical – then I knew that I had to balance the level of support that I gave for her, certainly not negative (because that would not be true to the person I know), but not too positive either because of the domestic political situation she confronted.
Everything that I said last year I meant and stand by, and would say again, but I want to be clear that all of the time in the back of my mind I felt that I needed to be very careful about what I said and when I said it. Now, perhaps some of that was just in my own mind, but my regular viewing of logs of my blogsite show that daily my site was accessed from China, or a VPN set to China, and I know that my site was not available for general viewing there.
I have said things in my posts on my blogsite which I believe the Communist Party of China would not appreciate, and even though I consider myself to be balanced in that I am equally quick to point out my perceptions on the failings of the Anglosphere geopolity, domestic politics, and general societal values, we all understand that autocracies do not welcome or tolerate open discussion in the way that political parties in democratic nations must accept (even if some politicians, from political parties that appear to have given up on leading, appear to want to fight back in the courts against criticisms from the public).
So why am I writing this article now? Because the innuendo over the origin of the virus continues, and likely will continue a very long time, because the Anglosphere especially – including very much my own nation of Australia – perceives geopolitical advantage to pursuing that line. However, there are some very obvious points, in the context of how the pandemic progressed, and perceptions towards it, that should be made which have not been.
Firstly it is worth recapping who Dr. Shi Zhengli is and how she is relevant to a discussion of the virus origin. Zhengli is the lead scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology for the team that works with bat-human coronaviruses. Zhengli is not the Head of the Institute. I met Zhengli many years ago through her PhD work on crustacean viruses when I visited and later worked in the laboratory where she did her PhD, and I visited her at the Institute in Wuhan when I worked for Biosecurity Australia and was participating in an APEC freshwater aquaculture workshop in China. (While in Wuhan I also visited the scientist who introduced redclaw FW crayfish to China for aquaculture.)
It was Zhengli’s group that identified bats as the source of the original SARS outbreak and after a further 10+ years of exhaustive and painstaking research her group eventually traced the source back to the specific population of bats.
Let me be clear from the outset. I understand that much of the innuendo over the origins of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, stems from putting one and one together – a coincidence, in the purest sense – to come up with a conclusion. The ‘co-incidence’ is the siting of a leading bat-human coronavirus lab with a globally rare capacity to work on the most serious human pathogens with the siting of the first known outbreak of COVID-19.
Yes, that is a rather large coincidence, because of the consequences to humanity of the pandemic, but they do happen, and it is in no way any sort of evidence. What can be said with some degree of confidence is that if there was early COVID-19 disease circulating at a low level elsewhere in the world, before in Wuhan, then the chances of it being detected there is much, much lower than in Wuhan because of the expertise that exists in Wuhan.^
Nonetheless, nobody can ignore the relationship between the siting of one of the few laboratories in the world working with these coronaviruses and the first known outbreak of COVID-19 both in Wuhan.
Moreover, it certainly is a scientific possibility that a serious pathogen can ‘escape’ from a laboratory into susceptible host species, including humans, due to ineffective biosecurity measures or human error.
It is also possible that, even if the initiation of the COVID-19 pandemic were somehow related to the research being conducted at the laboratory, that there was not any wrong-doing or even error by ‘the laboratory’ or any of its staff. It could be as simple as a field researcher or technician, after having been in the field, somehow transferring the virus to Wuhan and/or on to another susceptible species (remember it has a wide host range, and an intermediate host between bats and humans is suspected) without any real wrong-doing or even awareness of the incident.
(I was going to come up with some hypothetical scenarios – which are literally infinite – then I realised it was unwise to mention any given the way wild scenarios are picked up by the ill-informed and are spread by a broad readership of conspiracy theorists far exceeding the level of readership some humble and well-reasoned bloggers attract.)
Of course spillover from wildlife, completely independent of the laboratory, such as in a live market, remains the most likely source.
When I look logically at those early events around the commencement of the pandemic, I believe honestly and sincerely that to be the case – that laboratory staff did no wrong, and that is clearly what Zhengli, herself, thought.
I certainly believe Zhengli when she says that SARS-CoV-2 was never cultured in her laboratory before the pandemic commenced when they first received samples from patients in December 2019. And I believe that once she conducted genetic comparisons she had no scientific or other reason to suspect that the virus originated from her team in any way.
I base that not on anything Zengli said to me in emails, because I would not dare raise such sensitive issues, and not just because I know what a decent human being Zhengli is, but because of what is known publicly.
Nowadays we concentrate on the innuendo raised by Donald Trump and those who were busy trying to win favour with him (e.g. Australia’s conservative Government under PM Morrison) in the deeply polarised and toxic masculinised geopolity he was promulgating.
What is forgotten is that the laboratory, and especially Zhengli who was known within China as “the batwoman”, came under very strong suspicion and criticism from domestic Chinese citizens for the same reasons – jumping to conclusions.
Zhengli was under such strong pressure from this outpouring of fear and anxiety at the start of February 2020, as the consequences of the virus spreading in Wuhan became evident, that she went online (on WeChat) to defend herself saying “I swear on my life that the virus has nothing to do with the lab”.
Also in an interview for an article in Scientific American Zhengli clearly spoke with candour expressing that she was “relieved” when she analysed the sequences of the new virus and compared them with viruses that they worked with, and had ever detected and sequenced in the laboratory, and she learned that it was not any of them.
Every single human being in her situation would have had the same concerns and would have felt that same enormous relief.
This shows that, clearly, Zhengli was open to the possibility and, like any scientist, indeed any human being, was concerned until the evidence arrived to show that her team was not at fault.
Now those who wish to ramp up innuendo will suggest something along the lines that “of course she would say that, and probably at the direction of the Communist Party of China leadership”.
I would counter that the candour that she spoke with in those first few months, especially at the beginning of February, suggests to me that she was not under any political influence at that time.
I am perfectly inclined to believe the common view that the Chinese national leadership were at the time in shock and scrambling, and they were struggling to overcome dissonance that this could be happening. And if you have an honest look at how the leadership of virtually every other nation behaved, even when it was clear that we were on the brink of a fast-moving global pandemic, remember the 2020 opening round of the NRL and Australian Formula 1 in mid-March?, then it should not be difficult to understand that they, too, would struggle to come to grips with it.
Imagine for a moment that it was you in Zhengli’s position and you had devoted your entire life, and made enormous personal sacrifices to gain skills to apply to helping solve really big problems for humanity (and I understand some of those sacrifices she did make), and then you are at the centre of something that you are almost uniquely qualified to address and suddenly, it must have seemed, ‘the whole world’, starting with the people of your own nation, and including the person in the position often described as ‘the most powerful in the world’, sees you as an antagonist rather than a protagonist.
That would psychologically destroy many people! I doubt that I would have had the personal strength, myself, to stand up to it.
Zhengli has my full admiration not only for her scientific and professional response but also for her personal courage in the face of those pressures. And my heart ached for her when I saw that she felt the need to go online and personally defend herself like that.
Moreover, if I were her, I too would be expressing a view that I am owed an apology from especially the Anglophone nations that have been most keen to create ongoing innuendo on the origins of the virus:
U.S. President Trump’s claim that SARS-CoV-2 was leaked from our institute totally contradicts the facts. It jeopardizes and affects our academic work and personal life. He owes us an apology.Dr. Shi Zhengli speaking to Jon Cohen, Science Magazine, 24 July 2020
Unfortunately the American administration, now under President Biden, sees some advantage to continuing with the innuendo, and there were recent reports suggesting that three laboratory staff presented at hospital at the end of 2019.
Many of these reports intimated that the way for the laboratory and their scientists to ‘clear their names’ was to allow their personal medical records to be inspected by international medical experts.
Again I ask the reader to try to see the situation from Zhengli’s position. Ask yourself, would you want your medical records handed over to a foreign institutions and potentially foreign national Governments, even that of an historical ally, let alone a nation which is increasingly acting as if it is no longer exactly friendly to the development of your nation?
Now in saying that, I openly admit that I agreed with the reframing of the relationship between the ‘west’ and China, and more specifically the Chinese political leadership, and I still consider it was overdue. But I also believed that much more would have been gained by letting China know that we stood with them in their hour of need at the start of the pandemic, offering any assistance possible and working together, being mindful that any nation in a similar situation would be sensitive to the implications of the threatening outbreak commencing, or being seen to commence, within their borders.
So again, literally ask yourself, if you are a ‘westerner’, “Would I like my Government to hand over my individual health records to the Chinese Government?” Of course nobody would want that. Now further consider that the Governments that are wanting their health records have been led by people, or showed support for people, who provocatively called it the ‘China Virus’, created innuendo that you were somehow involved in the release of the agent, and/or even worse, created innuendo that you were somehow involved in engineering the virus as a bioweapon.
To those who are inclined to say again something along the lines of “why not give over your personal health records if it is the only way to prove that you are innocent”, I would respond that we know enough about the world and how these matters have historically been addressed, that the truth is rarely allowed to get in the way of the bigger geopolitical picture, just ask Hans Blix (who, for younger readers, lead the UN nuclear inspection team charged with finding out whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction – they did not, but that did not deter President George Bush Jr. from his war plans).
If I were in Zhengli’s shoes, or lab coat, I would not agree to my own medical records being turned over, and I would be extremely sceptical that no matter what evidence is provided there will be many who will simply continue to believe what they want to believe.
Thankfully, Zhengli has the comfort of knowing that the logical and well-reasoned scientific community, free from such political conflicts and influences, understands the situation and that she is well supported amongst that community.
I was personally very pleased to see Danielle Anderson, an Australian scientist who was working at the Institute in November 2019, as the virus was likely beginning to circulate in Wuhan, step forward recently to provide her insights on the open culture amongst scientists and on the lack of indications of a brewing problem at the time that some of their scientists were allegedly falling ill.
Finally I wish to provide a warning on the dangers of continuing on in this direction.
I had the great fortune to travel to St. Petersburg in 1995 when I worked in Finland for 3 months during my PhD. I went with a fellow PhD student from Finland who was experienced in travelling in Russia, and with an American professor and his wife. Now I concede that national border crossings can be confronting, and being prone to anxiety, I feel it often. I know many find entering the US as a foreigner to be confronting, and I am certain there is a element of intention in that, especially in the post 911 world. However, I have never seen anybody more nervous than my American friends crossing their former cold war foe’s border.
The middle-aged professor was so ‘freaked out’ that instead of thanking the guard with the Russian word “spasibo”, he said “placebo” which caused us all to break out in laughter as he hurriedly scampered back to the ‘safety’ of the Finnish side.
What’s more, they were so influenced by a lifetime of cold war propaganda that they could see no beauty in the city which is often referred to as the ‘Paris of the East’, and which our Finnish ‘guide’ said that Finns usually do not take photographs of because they prefer to absorb it into their hearts and souls. Knowing it was likely a once in a lifetime trip for me, and even though it was pre-digital cameras so I was using costly film, I did not hold back from photographing the amazingly beautiful city.
I was again reminded of this in 1998 when I was travelling in a taxi through the decaying inner city suburbs of Washington DC, on my way to the Australian embassy immediately prior to commencing working for the Australian Government, when the driver told me how he hated St Petersburg because it was so run-down and dirty, with decaying infrastructure.
Hello! “Are you seeing what I am out the window?”
The point I am making is that it would be a huge mistake to continue on this path and make all Chinese ‘the enemy’ like Americans did with the Soviet Union.
We can disagree with the political leaders of nations without disagreeing with their people, no matter how much any particular political leader or party may consider themselves integral to their national identity and culture.
Science is one of the greater unifiers of humanity and it should remain above politics.
Science is vital for human progress and for charting a course towards a sustainable world for all of mankind. Thus, honest and open connection between scientists is imperative in a post-pandemic world in the Great Reset era where a “Global Village based on ‘Quality Globalisation’” will be key to solving our major challenges, including natural risks, of which zoonotic spillovers is now well understood to be one of the major threats, just as Dr. Shi Zhengli and her group has long warned along with international collaborators.
Only the most self-interested and/or inept of political leadership would continue to disregard this truth and continue to use scientists as political footballs.
I am quite certain that Zhengli and her colleagues will never receive that apology.
However, while they will no doubt be comforted in the knowledge that their connections with colleagues over many years means that they remain highly respected for their ground-breaking research, as well as their friendly and open natures, by the communities that they care most about, there are better and formal ways for their contributions to be recognised – is that not correct, Nobel committee for medicine?
^The same thing happened with my own work – for 150 years scientists were interested in FW crayfish diseases, but until I started my PhD research on the first described virus from freshwater crayfish they were unknown. And when I found many of them initially in Australia some assumed Australian FW crayfish are riddled with them, which was not at all the case, but it was just that I had the relatively rare skill in my field to be able to find them and I was especially good at it.
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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021