Russians Say COVID Came from an American Lab in China. Is It True?

Burning questions remain regarding the COVID epidemic.  Where did it come from?  How did it spread?  Who is responsible?  The key question is whether we are dealing with the release, accidental or not, of a lab-created pathogen.  The Russian and Chinese press continue to pump out articles holding America guilty, but they serve as a smokescreen for ill-run Chinese labs.

In March 2020, the Russian monthly Zvezda ([Red] Star) blamed George Soros for financing "the laboratory in Wuhan, China, that developed and released the coronavirus in late 2019,"  blaming America by association.  The mainstream American media are quick to dismiss that claim as "disinformation."  Yet perhaps it is Russian mis-information, a propagandized account shaping public opinion of something that actually happened, some lab accident at a Chinese laboratory.  However grossly hyped, this claim still deserves investigation to determine whether or not the novel coronavirus was released in a laboratory accident connected to American-funded research facilities located in Wuhan, China.

In July 2020, two researchers, Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson, released the results of their investigation into the origins of  SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19).  They discovered that the most closely related coronavirus genome sequences to COVID, BtCoV/4991 (98.7% identical) and RaTG13 (96.2% identical), were obtained from live bats collected from a mineshaft in China's Yunnan Province in 2012–2013 by scientists working under Zheng-li Shi at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).  Their purpose was to determine the source of a mysterious illness contracted by six miners working there in spring 2012; three of them had died.  The Chinese doctor who supervised their treatment made this the subject of his master's thesis, which Latham and Wilson translated and used as a source.  Unlike its near relatives, SAR-CoV-2 has a variant region of its viral spike protein that greatly enhances viral spread in the body.  Another puzzling feature is that SARS-CoV-2 targets the lungs, which is unusual for a coronavirus.

Zheng-li Shi's laboratory at WIV was one of the two Chinese research facilities in Wuhan working with bat coronavirus.  Not George Soros or the Gates Foundation, but rather Anthony Fauci's NIAID awarded a continuing grant through the EcoHealth Alliance to fund Shi's research, the Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence Project, starting on 1 June 2014 and scheduled to end on 24 April 2020.  Between 2014 and 2017, a total of $1,893,999 was awarded for the Shi lab experiments, WIV's share in EcoHealth's NIH grants of a total $3.25 million over five years in 2015, followed by another $3.7 million, five-year renewal in 2019.  As part of that research, the Wuhan lab conducted in vitro and in vivo research using S protein sequences, infectious cloning technology, and other genetic recombinant experiments to test the potential of these novel bat coronaviruses to lead to disease pandemics.

A group of Russian virologists working in Wuhan laboratories before they were evacuated from Hubei Province in late January 2020 maintain that the large genome of the so-called "Chinese" coronavirus, its long incubation period, and the severe pulmonary edema it causes are all factors that make it a potentially pandemic pathogen or PPP.  They drew attention to a 2015 research article in the journal Nature Medicine that discussed the design of a "chimera" or lab-created bat coronavirus rendered capable of infecting human cells.  All fifteen researchers worked for the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the epicenter of the 2019-nCoV (COVID) virus pandemic.  According to these researchers, they combined bat coronavirus SHC014 with mouse-adapted SARS-CoV.  The result was a novel virus capable of replicating efficiently in the human airway.  In vitro experiments with mice demonstrated its replication in the lung tissue "with notable pathogenesis" — development of disease.  One telling feature is that young mice infected with their novel coronavirus recovered with few ill effects, while elderly mice succumbed to a cytokine storm — precisely like the human victims of COVID.

In 2015 — after they had published research with level-4 pathogens, describing their creation of a recombinant SHC014/SARS-CoV virus — WIV became China's very first BSL-4 facility.  Only then was the Wuhan laboratory properly equipped for research into a level-4 pathogen like the coronavirus.  To initiate the necessary ongoing monitoring of the lab, as a BSL-4 facility, in January 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing sent American science diplomats to WIV.  After their first visit, the U.S. inspection team immediately reported their findings to Washington in two "Sensitive but Unclassified" cables.  The 19 January 2018 cable warned that "[d]uring interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory."  Their first cable further warned that the WIV's work with bat coronaviruses and their potential for human transmission risked the emergence of a new, SARS-like pandemic.

The NIH threatened to terminate the grant, claiming that EcoHealth's research "failed to align with agency priorities."  Yet as secretary of state Mike Pompeo has noted, NIAID's entire purpose in continuing to fund and affiliate with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a longstanding Chinese biomedical laboratory, was "to protect the American people from labs that aren't up to standard."  Professor Justin Fendos, the former director of the Tan School of Genetics at China's Fudan University, visited many such research facilities in China, and "can say with some authority that safety standards can, in many cases, fall short of what you would expect in the United States."  Accordingly, in August 2020, NIAID awarded a new grant to WUV's Li laboratory, specifically for gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses.

Many scientists have criticized gain of function research (GOF), the methodology employed at the WIV.  GOF involves manipulating viruses in the laboratory, including genetic recombination, to explore their potential for infecting humans, risking the start of a pandemic from the accidental release of what would be a novel virus.  Regarding GOF research, Director Thomas Inglesby of Johns Hopkins' Center for Health Security admits, "even in the greatest laboratories of the world, there are mistakes."  Dr. Martin Furmanski of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation published a historical review of outbreaks of PPPs that occurred from laboratory releases, including three separate escapes of SARS: from the National University of Singapore in August 2003; from a Taiwanese SARS research scientist who contracted it at a medical meeting in Singapore in December 2003; and from a nurse in Beijing, China, who had treated a laboratory researcher with China's National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Beijing who had fallen ill in March 2004.  After investigating the 2003 outbreaks, two previously unrecognized, additional SARS laboratory infections at the NIV in February 2004 were identified.  The WHO found other shortcomings in the handling of live SARS virus at the NIV, plus a lack of surveillance of laboratory personnel for laboratory-acquired infections. 

Given the international problem of laboratory safety and the genuine concerns regarding GOF research, a thorough investigation of these U.S.-funded laboratories seems in order.  Any U.S. investigation should ignore the media pundits and simply discover the truth.

Lynn Corum is a translator who studies developments in the Russian press that affect America's national interests.  She has been researching and writing on Putin's stated plans since 2009 and is a world expert on Project Russia, the Kremlin's published state ideology.

Image via Pxhere.

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