‘Lab leak’ goes mainstream

A 5-minute read

Dear Readers,

Today we are looking at a story that has quickly gone from conspiracy theory to plausible explanation - that the coronavirus leaked from a Chinese research laboratory. We ask what links German scientists have to the laboratory in question.


Jörg & Axel

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4 Things

  • Today marks a year since a far-right terrorist went on a gun rampage in the town of Hanau. The gunman, who’d published rambling conspiracy theories online, attacked two shisha bars in the town, killing nine young people from ethnic minorities. An investigation by local journalists has revealed not just a tragedy, but a scandal. One of the victims, 22-year-old Vili Viorel, pursued the attacker from the first crime scene while trying to call the emergency services: but staff shortages meant that no one picked up the call. Local authorities have admitted that the calls went unanswered due to “technical deficits.”

  • In one of the few amusing stories of the pandemic, SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach has had to have “peace talks” with Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick after they butted heads over the football club’s trip to a tournament in the Middle East. Mr Lauterbach, whose doom-laden predictions and preference for draconian measures have made him a marmite figure in Germany, said Bayern’s trip was “hypocritical” and motivated by money. To which Mr Flick replied: “you can’t really listen to these so-called experts anymore… Mr Lauterbach has an opinion on everything.” The Bayern boss’ treble-winning efforts last season made him a national hero, but a wave of criticism led him to concede that he’d gone too far in questioning Mr Lauterbach’s expertise.

  • Hamburg’s University hospital has released a study into the 735 patients who’ve died after a coronavirus infection on its wards. The results: 84 percent died as a result of the infection rather than merely ‘with’ it. At the same time, the average age at death was 83 and the vast majority (88 percent) had between one and four pre-existing conditions. Seven people under the age of 50 were among the deceased - all had serious comorbidities including obesity, advanced heart conditions and tumours.

  • A mail bomb, delivered to Lidl’s headquarters in the southwestern town of Neckarsulm, exploded on Wednesday leading to one employee sustaining serious injuries. The motive is still completely unclear. Most obvious would be a form of blackmail, but the supermarket chain does not appear to have received any attempts to pressure it into handing over money. Police are now investigating a possible link to a bomb sent to a drinks company 60 kilometres down the road.

‘Lab leak’ goes mainstream

It was a moment that received surprisingly little attention. On February 5th the editorial board of the Washington Post decided to back the “lab leak” theory about the origins of the coronavirus. The theory, pushed by Donald Trump last April and widely dismissed as a conspiracy, claims that the coronavirus leaked from a research lab in the city of Wuhan.

The fact that the Washington Post published its piece less than two weeks after Trump left office probably isn’t coincidental; the toxic ex-President made sober discussion of its merits impossible. But the editorial was also linked to a WHO visit to Wuhan that took place earlier this month.

Here’s why the Post thinks the theory needs further investigation:

  • The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) has extensively studied and experimented on bat coronaviruses that are believed to be the ancestors of the one that has caused a global pandemic.

  • The Wuhan institute was conducting controversial “gain of function” research, whereby a virus is encouraged in lab conditions to gain new attributes such as improved transmissibility.

  • A database of 22,000 samples of bat coronaviruses held by the institute went offline in September 2019. A second major virus database, held by China’s National Virus Resource Centre, has also gone offline. Questions remain over why.

  • Chinese officials have been pushing a host of dubious theories - such as that the virus originated in a US military laboratory - thus heightening the suspicion that they are trying to hide something.

It’s not hard to see why the Post calls the theory “plausible.” The Wuhan Institute of Virology was the first Chinese research centre to get a BSL-4 laboratory - a lab with the highest security classification for researching deadly pathogens.

When the lab opened in 2014 it caused concern in the scientific community. 

The first SARS virus had already escaped from high-level containment facilities in Beijing on multiple occasions, Nature magazine reported at the time. One top US scientist told the magazine that a lack of transparency in China would heighten the chances of something going wrong.

But this isn’t just a Chinese problem. The WIV’s gain-of-function research - which can create a more deadly pathogen than those found in the wild - has been backed by money from the US and Europe. Bizarrely, one of the investigators on the WHO team, Peter Daszak, is also the president of a US organization that funded the WIV’s research.

We decided to look at what connections exist between German scientists and the Wuhan Institute of Virology; we found intensive cooperation between several German institutes and the WIV for well over a decade. A lobbying organization called the German Chinese Medical Society has taken on the role of promoting this cooperation. It hosts an annual conference attended by people from the top level of government and in 2015 brought together leading coronavirus researchers from Germany with the Wuhan scientists.

The German Chinese Medical Society’s website is strangely empty of information at the moment. Pages that would normally explain the details of cooperation projects are blank. Only when one drives into internet archives does one find out what they have been doing. Why the sudden shyness?

What’s clear is that millions of euros in funding from the German and Chinese states have flowed into common projects through a programme called Sonderforschungsbereich Transregio 60. Multiple co-operations between German universities and the WIV took place through this project.

At the same time, Germany’s most famous virologist, Christian Drosten has collaborated on at least one paper on bat coronaviruses with researchers from the WIV (using funds gathered by Mr Daszak). Mr Drosten has also run projects that involve gain-of-function research.

None of this cooperation is in itself wrong - there are obvious reasons to work internationally on global health threats. But such partnerships do lead to possible conflicts of interest when scientists are asked to assess the virus’ origins.

Mr Drosten, for example, has said that the chances of a lab leak are “vanishingly small”. Why is he so sure? Research released by the University of Hamburg this week comes to a very different conclusion.

The German government might also have an interest in not getting to the bottom of the story. If it emerges that the virus leaked from an institute it co-funded, that would be a PR disaster. Besides, we know from Berlin’s general China diplomacy that it doesn’t like to get on the wrong side of Beijing.

Given that the lab leak theory is gaining in plausibility, we think that the links between German scientists and the WIV need to be better understood. Our plan is to offer members a deeper look at this issue in the near future. 


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Mr Laschet’s remarkable U-turn

Just over a week ago, new Christian Democrat leader Armin Laschet was busy defending the latest lockdown extension. “We need to move forward at a crawl,” he warned, explaining that the spread of mutated virus strains could quickly undo the gains of the past weeks.

So it led to more than a few raised eyebrows when Mr Laschet told a meeting of the CDU’s economic advisory board in Baden-Württemberg this week that “we can’t measure our whole lives against rates of infection.”

“People expect us to do a better job of balancing health concerns with all the other societal damage that comes with the lockdown,” he said, adding that “banning everything, being strict, treating citizens like little children - that's not something that’s sustainable in the long run."

Is this the real Mr Laschet finally standing up after playing it safe during the leadership campaign? That could well be true. The jovial Rhinelander is instinctually anti-authoritarian - in the Spring he was the first politician to call for an end to the lockdown. Back then, he misjudged the public mood and his popularity sank.

This time around he might have the public on his side. Germans are tired of months of tedious lockdown without an end in sight; ever fewer people are content to stay at home while case numbers drop and hospital occupancy returns to manageable levels.

But there’s also strategy in Mr Laschet’s appeal for more freedom. The biggest obstacle standing between him and the Chancellery is the not inconsiderable bulk of Bavarian premier Markus Söder. Mr Söder has tried to establish himself as a national patriarch with his constant exhortations for his peers to take the crisis more seriously. 

For now though, the Bavarian leader’s popularity is on the wane, both among the general public, and even in his own party.

Mr Laschet can plausibly argue that he has scientific opinion on his side. His own expert corona council harshly criticised the lockdown when it published its findings back in January. As we reported at the time, the council found that the lockdown had done too little to protect the elderly and vulnerable.

But there is a clear risk involved too. The Health Ministry announced on Wednesday that the so-called British variant now makes up 20 percent of all new cases in Germany. If modelling on that strain is accurate, cases could start to rise again very quickly post-lockdown. Mr Laschet would then be forced into another 180 degree turn.


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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011