The big taboo

This article is a 12-minute read

It would be the conspiracy of the century if it were true…

A group of acclaimed scientists, so eager to prevent the next pandemic, have been caught out by their own research. Controversial experiments resulted in an accident: a virus perfectly adapted to humans leaked out of a high security laboratory and swept across the globe.

Compounding the damage, scientists linked to the research have used their influence to mislead the public ever since.

This is the claim made by Roland Wiesendanger, a physicist at Hamburg University, who spent a year looking into the origins of the pandemic and published his results last month. He concluded that it was likely that the virus leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan.

Needless to say, the publication caused a storm. The tabloid Bild splashed it across two pages of print, while the broadsheets lambasted Dr. Wiesendanger for entwining himself in conspiracy theories.

The Hamburg physicist’s belief that he has found evidence for a conspiracy at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is perhaps misplaced. But he is not just repeating the ramblings of nutters on the internet. Serious experts point to the fact that the virus was discovered more-or-less on the door step of the world’s leading coronavirus research institute.

Furthermore, his research highlights the problematic role played by a small clique of virologists, who’ve been trying to make discussion of a laboratory accident a taboo subject.

These researchers are connected through influential funding organizations, while many of them have links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other Chinese health institutes. They risk losing access to research tools or being disinvited to conferences if they so much as cast doubt on the official Chinese version of events.

Moreover, if forensic investigation were to reveal that the virus did indeed leak out of a laboratory, funding for much of their research would be cut and once-gleaming reputations would be left in tatters.

In Germany, one scientist stands out both for the influence he has on public opinion and for his links to research and funding that would come under suspicion. His name is Dr. Christian Drosten.

The Charité virologist is one of the world’s leading experts on coronaviruses. He should be a cautious and wise voice in this debate. Which makes it surprising that he has displayed double standards in how he talks about competing explanations of the pandemic’s origins. Meanwhile his own utterances have been, in the words of one peer, “lightweight.”

This is no insignificant matter. It is vital that we discover how the pandemic started. Billions of euros will go to research aimed at preventing the next zoonosis entering the human population. Until a laboratory accident can be ruled out, we can’t know if this money will end up going to researchers who inadvertently caused this crisis.

‘A new age of epidemics’

This story starts with the first SARS outbreak in 2003.

When the SARS virus began to spread through Southeast Asia, the first public health panic since AIDS hit the world. The US magazine Newsweek declared that we’d entered “a new age of epidemics.” After the virus reached North America, a Toronto tabloid screamed that it was “out of control”.

Looking back from today, SARS was anything but dramatic. Fewer than 1,000 people died and the epidemic was under control by the summer - and that’s despite the fact that Chinese authorities covered up it up for months. In the end, the virus was too deadly for its own good. It attacked the human airways deep inside the lung - but that also meant that it wasn’t particularly transmissible.

Nonetheless, the emergence of a new virus served as a wake up call to the globalized world of the new millennium. Answers about its origins needed to be found.

Back then, though, understanding of the origins of viruses was so primitive enough for one UK broadsheet to wonder whether SARS arrived from outer space. While the World Health Organization didn’t think much of this theory, it initially struggled to prove its assumption that SARS belonged to a family of coronaviruses which includes the common cold.

“Many scientists are working to confirm the theory that SARS simply mutated from another virus here on Earth. However, a supposition that it might have come from animals has been undermined by a failure to make it take hold in pigs and chickens,” the Guardian noted at the time. “Tests are now taking place involving other species.”

Confirmation that it was an earthly menace didn’t take long. By May 2003 wild palm civets sold at a food market in southern China were found to be carriers of a very similar virus.

The next big breakthrough came in October 2005, when a research team led by Dr. Zheng-Li Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and zoologist Dr. Peter Daszak published a paper which found that bat species in China were unwitting hosts to a reservoir of dozens of different coronaviruses.

The realisation that there were so many deadly pathogens lurking in the bat population seemed to act as a shock to some of the scientists studying them.

More scary still: these scientists were convinced that human behaviour was magnifying the risk that these viruses would jump from animals into the human population and cause more frequent deadly epidemics.

“We’re the root cause of all of this,” Dr. Daszak, a droll Englishman, told a scientific gathering in 2010. “We run roads through forest, we bring livestock into new regions, we trade animals globally and we spread new diseases.”

“The good news though is that we also have the power to stop this,” he continued. “Here’s the vision, if we can find the pathogen [in the animal population] and stop it, then we stop the disease at its root cause.”

The answer to this new threat, Dr. Daszak believed, was in sending researchers into the impenetrable caves where horseshoe bats live, capturing specimens, identifying new viruses in their blood, and then experimenting on them.

The experiments, known in the scientific jargon as gain-of-function, would entail adapting viruses in laboratories to human cell structures. Dr. Daszak believed that he and his team could thus predict which viruses were potentially harmful, allowing them to pre-empt its evolution.

‘Too many ways to be nasty’

For other virologists, Mr Daszak’s theories are highly contentious, not just in terms of their diagnosis, but also in their cure.

Critics doubt the theory that humans are causing epidemics. One American virologist commented tartly that “just because something is possible, it doesn’t make it likely.” He pointed to the fact that bats in North America commonly carry rabies, but it’s still extremely rare that a bat passes the virus to a human.

“This type of research is nonsense,” Dr Simon Wain-Hobson, of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, told me flatly in a telephone interview. “These scientists treat nature with the eyes of engineers. They feel that there are a limited number of ways to be a virus. In fact, we know there are many ways for a virus to be nasty.”

According to Dr. Wain-Hobson, there are so many pathogens in the animal population acting in unpredictable ways, that believing one can predict which one will advance into the human population is hubris of the highest order.

Nonetheless, Dr. Daszak’s views found an open ear in the scientific funding bodies of the US and Europe. He set up an organisation called EcoAlliance in the US, which was aimed at securing government funding for gain-of-function research.

At the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Dr. Daszak deepened his partnership with Dr. Shi. Using money the EcoAlliance had won from the US government, the institute started creating chimera viruses.

“They took a piece of the original SARS virus and inserted a snippet from a SARS-like bat coronavirus, resulting in a virus that is capable of infecting human cells,” an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences explains.

“This meant it could be transmitted from experimental animal to experimental animal by aerosol transmission, which means that it could do the same for humans. In other words, gain-of-function techniques were used to turn bat coronaviruses into human pathogens capable of causing a global pandemic.”

In Europe, a similar organisation called OneHealth Platform was established. While Dr. Daszak is an advisor, it was founded by Dr. Ab Osterhaus, a Dutch scientist who now runs a zoonotic research institute in Hannover.

Dr. Osterhaus started work with colleagues on a gain-of-function based influenza virus. The research involved infecting ferrets with a virus by the aerosol route until it had mutated sufficiently to be able to efficiently transmit between humans.

Commenting after Daszek and Shi first released the results of their research back in 2012, Dr. Wain-Hobson said that: “If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory.”

In an email exchange, Dr. Richard H. Ebright, a micro-biologist at Rutgers University in the US, told me he was concerned by the research funded by the OneHealth Platform.

It funds work on retrieving new pathogens from “the bush” which is “costly, provides no actionable information useful for preventing pandemics, provides no actionable information useful for responding to pandemics, and, by increasing contacts between humans and potential pandemic pathogens in remote locations, poses risks of triggering pandemics,” he wrote.

OneHealth Platform also funds gain-of-function research, Dr. Ebright added, which “by deliberately enhancing the transmissibility and/or the deadliness of potential pandemic pathogens, poses even higher risks of triggering pandemics.”

Research cooperation with Germany

It wasn’t just scientists who were worried. The US government issued a funding moratorium for gain-of-function research in 2014 due to fear that an accident could occur.

But the controversial research being conducted in Wuhan didn’t impact the institute’s international standing.

In Germany, research collaboration started being mixed with diplomacy.

At a 2015 conference, Dr. Ulf Dittmer, head of virology at the Uniklinik Essen, told an audience that included the German Health Minister, he was delighted that scientific research was “being raised to the level of German-Chinese relations.” The aim of the conference, he said, was “to establish intensive cooperation between Germany and China and to consolidate this with a cooperation agreement.”

On the first afternoon, Dr. Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology gave a presentation about her research into new zoonotic pathogens. An hour earlier, Dr. Christian Drosten had talked on the topic of “the evolution of pathogenic RNA viruses: research in animal reservoirs.”

The conference’s primary objective was to support a project run by Dr. Dittmer called Sonderforschungsbereichs TRR60. This project coupled German researchers with research facilities in China including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It did not do research on coronaviruses, concentrating on HIV and hepatitis, and was eventually ended by the Chinese in 2019.

Dr. Drosten’s head start

The close links between German and Chinese researchers meant that one man was particularly well placed at the start of the pandemic.

Dr. Christian Drosten is connected to Dr. Daszak via common membership of the OneHealth Platform. Moreover, he edited a seminal paper published by Drs. Shi and Daszak in 2015 in which they created chimeric viruses that were well-adapted to growth in human cell cultures.

Christian Drosten © Science Media Center Germany, Wie gefährlich wird das neue Coronavirus?, zugeschnitten und nachbearbeitet, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a good chance that Dr. Drosten was the first person outside of China who learned that an unusual rise in pneumonia cases had been observed in Wuhan in late 2019.

While the WHO was notified on December 31st 2019, Dr. Drosten had already been tipped off by colleagues on the ground.

“The first informal information arrived here between Christmas and New Year,” he later told a German radio station. “Of course, we immediately set about doing what we do so well - developing diagnostic test procedures in a very short time."

Once he was confident he had built a good test, he returned the favour. “We provided this test to colleagues in China, whose names I can't mention now. They tested it for us and told us that it works well.”

Dr. Drosten doesn’t seem to want anyone to know who these contacts are, or what institute they work for. A press inquiry I put to the Charité on February 20th went unanswered despite repeated requests for clarity.

That he might want to protect the identity of colleagues working in a dictatorship would be understandable. But it doesn’t square with his public utterances in praise of Chinese health authorities.

In an open letter to the Lancet medical journal on February 19th 2020, Dr. Drosten and 26 other scientists lauded the Chinese government for its “rapid, open and transparent sharing of data.” The letter commented on the Chinese health authorities' “remarkable” effort to rapidly identify the pathogen, while condemning “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin… [which] do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice.”

The letter was a clear attempt to shut down any public discussion of the pathogen’s origins that went beyond the official Chinese version that it jumped from animals. As for the Chinese authorities, who had once again hidden the start of a pandemic, not a bad word could be said about them.

A closer look at the letter’s signatories reveals a who’s who of scientists affiliated with the OneHealth Platform and EcoAlliance organizations. Peter Daszak’s name was there, as were those of other prominent members including OneHealth Platform co-founder Dr. John Mackenzie and editorial board member Dr. Jonna Mazet.

In subsequent media reports, these same few names keep cropping up. In an article on NPR stating that “researchers say that there is virtually no chance that the new coronavirus was released as a result of a laboratory accident,” Drs. Mazet and Daszak were extensively quoted. No mention was made of their links to the Wuhan Institute and gain-of-function research.

In Germany, Dr. Drosten has made sure to stamp out any suggestion that the virus’s origin could be anything other than natural.

“You don't just accidentally get infected with this kind of virus in a lab. What’s more, a bat virus doesn't just pass to humans, there's an adaptation barrier,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung last April. “As far as I can tell, this theory sounds extremely implausible." He doesn’t mention that the research at the lab - that he himself edited a paper on - worked on reducing this very adaptation barrier.

And while the letter he co-authored in the Lancet explicitly condemned conjecture, Dr. Drosten has promoted the possibility that raccoons were the source of the virus. His evidence? Some of the people who work at a Wuhan food market, which the Chinese government initially blamed for the outbreak, work with racoons.

"One could speculate on whether there might be a source to be found there," he mused on television.

For Dr. Wain-Hobson this conjecture goes beyond how scientists should talk.

“Scientists should speak when they have data, and only when they have data,” he says. “It is irresponsible to come up with a hypothesis and expect someone else to prove it. If you make a hypothesis then it is your job to prove it or disprove it.” The Englishman, who cut his teeth on HIV research, says that scientists can be opportunistic when they talk about politically delicate subjects. “I’m sure that if they want to go to China for a conference then they are not going to be critical.”

So, where did the virus come from?

While in 2021 we can rule out the theory that the virus came from space, there is little else that one can say for sure at this stage.

The Chinese government destroyed potential evidence at the alleged source of the outbreak - the Huanan food market - “for security reasons”, while a comprehensive coronavirus database at the Wuhan Institute of Virology has gone offline, leading the Washington Post to call for a full investigation of a possible lab leak.

Dr. Wiesendanger, the Hamburg physicist whose thesis proved so controversial in Germany, claims that strange happenings at the Wuhan institute in late 2019 point to a cover-up. He mentions the disappearance of a young scientist, Dr. Huang Yan Ling, who he suspects to have been Patient Zero.

For Dr. Ebright, the virus “emerged on the doorstep of - and may have emerged from the activities of - the laboratory that carries out the world's largest programs of high-risk surveillance research and high-risk gain-of-function research on bat SARS-related coronaviruses,”

Others have asked why the virus was so well adapted to humans from the very beginning, suggesting that it might have been encouraged to mutate under laboratory conditions. This process, known as “passaging” would mean that it would look natural.

Dr. Wain-Hobson, despite his long-held criticism of gain-of-function research, believes a natural event still has to be the primary assumption.

“The virus could have been around for months of years before the right mutations were picked up,” he says. “Scientists who question why it is so well adapted are only describing a success story.” But he also doesn’t rule out that as-yet unpublished research at the institute sparked the outbreak.

Whether the world will ever get to the bottom of the story is doubtful. An Australian proposal for an international mission to do forensic research in Wuhan led Beijing to threaten Canberra with sanctions. The EU stepped in with a watered-down fact finding mission for the WHO, which China agreed to.

A familiar name was to be found among the 17 WHO investigators - Dr. Peter Daszak had been invited.

Dr. Drosten, Europe’s top coronavirus specialist, “didn’t know about the application process.” A young scientist from the Robert Koch Institute was included as the German representative instead but did not travel to China.

At the end of their month-long investigation in February, the WHO team found “no answers to key questions”, Nature Magazine reported. But that didn’t stop them ruling out a lab leak as a likely cause.

“Extensive discussions with staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology” confirmed that “the virus was not known to scientists before December 2019.”

“Now, whether we were shown everything? You can never know,” one team member admitted. “The group wasn’t designed to go and do a forensic examination of lab practice.”

Dr. Ebright says that a proper investigation must get to the bottom of the mystery. What’s more, all high risk pathogen surveillance and gain-of-function research “must be restricted or terminated in cases where risks cannot be expected to be outweighed by benefits.”

The international community has already pledged billions in funding to prevent the next pandemic. But if the answer to the most fundamental question of this one - how did it start? - is not conclusively answered, that funding could go to the very organisations who should be least trusted with protecting us.

  • This article originally stated that Dr Wiesendanger’s study was removed from Hamburg University’s website. The study was in fact published on Research Gate and can be found here.


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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.