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How US media misrepresent the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s laboratories and safety protocols

Even if we were to accept all the accusations against the WIV regarding their alleged subpar safety standards, none of it has any relevance to the Covid-19 pandemic unless it can be shown the WIV possessed SARS-CoV-2 in its lab before the outbreak, and there is no evidence of that.
 
by Joshua Cho 
 
Part 2 - State Department cable a ‘nothing burger’
 
The claim that the WIV was conducting its experiments in substandard or unsafe working conditions started gaining mainstream acceptance when Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin published an op-ed based on redacted State Department cables from 2018. Rogin claimed that the redacted cables were evidence of “safety issues” at the WIV:

                                   Two years before the novel coronavirus pandemic upended the world, U.S. Embassy officials visited a Chinese research facility in the city of Wuhan several times and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab, which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats.

                                    What the U.S. officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic. 

Certainly, when reading Rogin’s contrived interpretations of the cables, it’s understandable why these characterizations of the WIV’s biosafety standards would create a sense of mass panic and hysteria among people unfamiliar with laboratory work. However, around the time of publication, Rogin’s opinion piece was already criticized by experts like virologist Angela Rasmussen at the University of Saskatchewan, who tweeted that Rogin’s claims were not only “extremely vague” — with the portions of the cables cited not demonstrating a “clear and specific risk” — but also highly inaccurate.

The sections Rogin cites from the January 19, 2018 cable are:

                            During 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…

                          Most importantly, the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.

Rasmussen pointed out the main takeaway is that the cables conclude “it’s important to continue working on bat CoVs because of their potential as human pathogens,” and that it “doesn’t suggest that there were safety issues specifically relating to WIV’s work on bat CoVs capable of using human ACE2 as a receptor.” Other critics at the time argued that if Rogin truly believed the State Department cable was as damning for Beijing as he claimed it was, there was little reason for him to refuse to release its full contents in his op-ed upon publication, or when people voiced their skepticism of his presentation of it afterward.

Rasmussen’s skepticism and expert judgment were vindicated three months later, when the Post released the full cable after it filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, and reported that Rogin’s selective leaks “sparked unproven speculation.” It noted, “The full cable does not strengthen the claim that an accident at the lab caused the virus to escape, nor does it exclude the possibility.”

Rasmussen later remarked that the full cable is a “big old nothing burger,” because it doesn’t actually raise any concerns with the WIV’s work. Rather, the cable showed how the WIV “wanted to ensure staff working with dangerous pathogens were trained so they could do so safely.” This would explain why the cable requested further aid and training for the lab’s projects and personnel, instead of trying to cancel them.

The Post also pointed out that the lack of trained personnel is not a problem unique to the WIV, as it cited Rob Grenfell, the director of health and biosecurity at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (an Australian government biomedical research agency), saying “All [such] facilities around the world face this challenge.”

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Comments

  1. It's worth noting in this context that the world's first lab-certified Covid death was in the USA: Lovell “Cookie” Brown was the first known American to die with COVID-19. She died in Kansas on Jan. 9, 2020.

    The first China death occurred two days later.

    Also, Covid was endemic throughout the USA by December, 2019, by which time 4-6 million Americans had been infected.

    Read "Serologic testing of U.S. blood donations to identify SARS-CoV-2-reactive antibodies: December 2019-January 2020”. Sridhar V Basavaraju, MD, et al. https://academic.oup.com/cid/advance-article/doi/10.1093/cid/ciaa1785/6012472

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