IN simpler times, a dichotomy was understood to exist whereby our newspapers of record printed The Truth while those on the other side regurgitated state propaganda. It is of course a conceit, as the complicity of our mass media in pushing the party line on Covid-19 over the last three years demonstrates, but it’s one of which all journalists, and especially those in the business of conducting investigations, should be ever mindful or they risk being bamboozled.
On June 10, a headline in the Sunday Times promised to inform its readers ‘What really went on inside the Wuhan Lab weeks before Covid erupted’. The lengthy story was by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, editor and deputy editor of ‘the renowned Insight investigative team’.
Insight said they had ‘reviewed hundreds of documents, including previously confidential reports, internal memos, scientific papers and email correspondence that has been obtained through sources or by freedom of information campaigners in the three years since the pandemic started. We also interviewed the US State Department investigators – including experts on China, emerging pandemic threats, and biowarfare – who conducted the first significant US inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak’.
The facts presented by the Insight team are accurate as far as they go: the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) received funding in 2009 from the US non-profit organisation EcoHealth Alliance and was collecting bat coronaviruses to identify pandemic potential viruses as part of a programme called PREDICT. https://p2.predict.global/ WIV received more money from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) via EcoHealth Alliance in 2014 to continue its bat coronavirus research. The American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) refused to fund an EcoHealth Alliance proposal called DEFUSE in 2018, part of which proposed genetically engineering bat coronaviruses to see if they could be made more infectious to humans by adding what is called a ‘furin cleavage’ gene.
What the Sunday Times does not make clear is that the PREDICT programme in which EcoHealth Alliance was a partner was launched by the US government Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2009. It continued work started by the US military in the early 1960s to support military preparedness by identifying infectious diseases which might trouble US forces abroad. Under PREDICT this research was in effect rebranded as civilian work by identifying pandemic potential viruses which threatened to jump from animals to humans. To use the terminology of the Cold War, EcoHealth Alliance was acting as a ‘cut-out’ – a front – for the CIA-linked USAID. Nor does the Sunday Times make clear that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), then headed by Dr Anthony Fauci, funded the DEFUSE programme rejected by DARPA, or that Dr Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert at the University of North Carolina and WIV collaborator, who they note had himself been mixing genes from different pathogens to make chimeric viruses, wrote the gain-of-function section of the proposal.
If the meaning of ‘insight’ is to gain an accurate and a deep understanding of something, these details are more than incidental. Deep understanding requires sceptical interrogation of both the source material and the purpose behind the production of material such as ‘previously confidential reports’. It is here that things start to go awry for the Sunday Times.
Most quotes in the story are attributed to anonymous US ‘sources’ linked to a 2020 US State Department investigation into Covid-19’s origins. The reader is expected to accept their credibility at face value because they come from ‘our’ side. The only two on-record sources linked to the investigation are scientists Dr Richard Ebright, a longstanding critic of gain-of-function research, and Dr Steven Quay, the CEO of a biotechnology company.
It’s unclear who else the Sunday Times interviewed but amongst those involved in the State Department investigation was David Asher of the Hudson Institute, which is the ‘fiscal sponsor’ of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense established by Dr Robert Kadlec in 2014 when he was a mere lobbyist for the vaccine manufacturer Emergent Biosolutions. Kadlec is the principal architect of 21st century US biosecurity policy. The Commission produced the draft blueprint for Kadlec’s revamped National Biodefense Policy which was adopted by President Trump in 2018.
The investigation was set up when the State Department was led by the China hawk, Mike Pompeo, who favoured a more robust foreign policy which treated China as a dangerous strategic competitor for global hegemony. His department began exploring an alternative explanation for the emergence of Covid-19 from the natural spillover notoriously articulated in the 2020 ‘proximal origin’ paper. The far-from-disinterested parties, Dr Anthony Fauci, Sir Jeremy Farrar, then director of the UK Wellcome Trust and now WHO chief scientist, Dr Ralph Baric and Dr Peter Daszak, the chief executive of Ecohealth Alliance, were all involved in an email chain with the authors discussing the natural spillover framing in advance of the paper’s publication.
In January 2021, days before the end of Donald Trump’s Presidency, Secretary of State Pompeo issued a press release ‘sharing new information concerning the activities inside China’s government laboratories in 2019’ and demanding the World Health Organization investigate the origins of Covid-19 which he was suggesting arose from Chinese military bioweapon research at the WIV.
The US ‘had reason to believe’, said Pompeo, that several WIV researchers became sick in the autumn of 2019 and had ‘symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses’. He then said the WIV was studying RaTG13, the bat coronavirus which was most similar to SARS-CoV-2, while conducting possible ‘gain-of-function’ experiments to enhance transmissibility or lethality. Pompeo omitted to mention that the US government had outsourced all this bat-related research to WIV before sensationally claiming that WIV, despite claiming to be a civilian research institution, had secret links to the Chinese military and had been doing research for them since 2017. He accused China of behaving irresponsibly by withholding ‘vital information that scientists need to protect the world from this deadly virus, and the next one’.
The State Department investigation Pompeo initiated didn’t die with the Trump administration. The work was continued by someone the Sunday Times article mentions in passing as responsible for the US vaccine development programme, Dr Robert Kadlec.
After his tenure as Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response ended, Dr Bob was hired once again by his old friend Senator Richard Burr to work for the GOP minority on the Senate HELP Committee. Burr had in fact recommended Kadlec to President Trump for the role of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), an office within Health and Human Services, the pulpit from which he was finally able to fulfil his ambitions for his vaccine ‘Manhattan Project’.
Kadlec’s account ‘Muddy Waters: The origins of Covid-19 report’ was published in April 2023. It is straight out of the playbook of Britain’s favourite fictional civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, who pithily observed: ‘Clarification is not to clarify things. It’s to put oneself in the clear.’
The report, co-authored by Dr Bob Foster, a former chief scientist for Medical Systems Integration at Fort Detrick, the US Army Medical Research Centre, runs to 300 pages and contains 1,570 citations. Kadlec, who was once a weapons inspector deployed to Iraq to find non-existent biological weapons of mass destruction, is up to his old tricks again. The thesis put forward is the long version of the January 15, 2021, Pompeo press release. They contend that SARS-CoV-2 was circulating in the autumn of 2019, that it had leaked from the WIV lab and that because a People’s Liberation Army vaccine specialist, Zhou Yusen, a decorated military scientist, filed a patent for a vaccine in February 2020, China must have known about the leak in November. They deduce from all this that China’s military was secretly working with the WIV to develop simultaneously a bioweapon and a vaccine.
For all the material they say they reviewed, the Sunday Times writers unquestioningly retell the account given in Muddy Waters: ‘The investigators believe the Chinese military had taken an interest in developing a vaccine for the (corona)viruses so they could be used as potential bioweapons. If a country could inoculate its population against its own secret virus, it might have a weapon to shift the balance of world power.’
It’s beyond the scope of a brief article to rebut the entire document, but let me give you the flavour of it using two pieces of evidence put forward in the Muddy Waters report.
According to the report: ‘On November 25, 2019, a 25-year-old Welsh teacher in Wuhan fell ill with flu-like symptoms. The teacher developed pneumonia on December 6, 2019 and was hospitalised. On January 16, 2020, the hospital informed the teacher by letter that he had been infected by the novel coronavirus.’
The citation for this is a March 4 2020 Daily Mail interview with the teacher, Connor Reed, who lived to tell the tale. When he felt ill, Reed took a taxi to Zhongnan University Hospital because he wanted to see a British doctor and ‘there are plenty of foreign doctors there, studying’. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and sent home that evening with antibiotics which he says he didn’t take, preferring instead to use Tiger Balm. It’s a far cry from most people’s understanding of ‘hospitalised’.
The evidence for a lab leak is just as dodgy. The Sunday Times reported that the investigators believed that researchers working in the WIV coronavirus lab became sick in the second week of November. They say an investigator told them: ‘We were rock-solid confident that this was likely Covid-19 because they were working on advanced coronavirus research in the laboratory of Dr Shi. They’re trained biologists in their thirties and forties. Thirty-five-year-old scientists don’t get very sick with influenza.’
The citation in Muddy Waters for the story about the sick WIV researchers leads to Josh Rogin, foreign policy reporter for the Washington Post, who says that his information came from secret intelligence gathered by the US Government.
Current discussions of Covid’s origin proffer two explanations: a bioweapon accidentally released from an unsafe laboratory versus a naturally occurring spillover from animal to humans. Neither explanation can account for why Moderna, a company with close links to the US government which has been generously funded by the US government agencies DARPA and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), began making contractual preparations for its coronavirus vaccine in May 2019 when it asked Merck to give up the exclusivity provision in its 2015 Master Collaboration Agreement with respect to a ‘specific set of respiratory infections’. Nor can it account for the fact that Moderna’s prototype coronavirus vaccine was sent to Baric for animal testing on December 16, 2019, two weeks before the Chinese reported a ‘pneumonia of unknown origin’. The binary nature of the origin discussions obscures other possibilities, such as the one suggested by the Iranians in March 2020 and thereafter ignored, that Covid-19 was an American bioweapon, a scenario under which it’s plausible that the researchers at WIV were intentionally set up to take the blame.
As for the Sunday Times, on this occasion it has conveyed no insight, only American propaganda designed to muddy the waters, not clarify them.