The Wuhan lab at the center of suspicions about the pandemic’s onset was far more troubled than known, documents unearthed by a Senate team reveal. Tracing the evidence, Vanity Fair and ProPublica give the clearest view yet of a biocomplex in crisis.
The authors of the interim report do not claim to have definitively solved the mystery of COVID-19’s origin. “The lack of transparency from government and public health officials in the [People’s Republic of China] with respect to the origins of SARS-CoV-2 prevents reaching a more definitive conclusion,” the report says, adding that its conclusion could change if more independently verifiable information becomes available.
Throughout the pandemic, the WIV has largely remained a black box, owing to the Chinese government’s refusal to cooperate with international probes. By mining the WIV’s own records, Toy Reid and Senate researchers unearthed new clues that support the interim report’s assessment that a lab accident was “most likely” responsible for the pandemic.
In response to detailed questions, a Chinese Embassy spokesperson, Liu Pengyu, dismissed allegations of a lab leak and said that an international team convened by the World Health Organization concluded that “the allegation of lab leaking is extremely unlikely. The conclusion should be respected. … From the very beginning, China has taken a scientific, professional, serious and responsible attitude in origins tracing.” Some American politicians and journalists “distort facts and truth,” he said, adding that the U.S. should “stop using the epidemic for political manipulation and blame games.”
“Open the Aperture of Your Mind”
More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset, the question of its origin has remained a scientific whodunit for the ages. Did the virus come from a caged infected animal, languishing in the warren of stalls at a Wuhan wholesale market? Or did it come from the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology, where China’s top coronavirus researchers, some partly funded by the U.S. government, were splicing together coronavirus strains to gauge how they might become most infectious to humans?
A bitter battle has ensued between a group of virologists who assert their research points to a market origin and an alternate group of academics and online sleuths who argue there’s been an attempted cover-up of a more likely lab origin. Four months ago, the World Health Organization’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens revised an earlier conclusion and said that both scenarios remain on the table, due to insufficient evidence, and require further investigation.
In June 2021, with efforts to learn the truth at a virtual standstill, Burr drafted Dr. Robert Kadlec, the former Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response under President Donald Trump, to assemble a team to examine the leading hypotheses. Burr, the ranking member of the Senate HELP committee, is retiring at year’s end. A spokesperson for Burr declined to make him available for an interview.
In the foreword of the interim report, Burr wrote, “My ultimate goal with this report is to provide a clearer picture of what we know, so far, about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 so that we can continue to work together to be better prepared to respond to future public health threats.”
Burr has served in the U.S. Congress for 28 years, first as a congressman and then, since 2005, as a senator. By today’s standards, he is a moderate Republican, having voted to convict Trump in the Jan. 6 impeachment. Long known for his work on biodefense issues, he helped lead passage of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act in 2006 and also worked to speed up the FDA’s approval of drugs for rare diseases.
The pandemic also immersed him in scandal, as ProPublica has previously reported. In February 2020, after receiving Senate intelligence committee briefings on the health threat of COVID-19, he sold up to $1.7 million in stock holdings before the market tanked, sparking a Justice Department investigation into insider trading. Burr said he relied on public news reports to guide his decision to sell stocks. He stepped aside as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee after the FBI seized his cellphone. In January 2021, the DOJ closed its investigation without charging him.
The Senate HELP committee paid the salaries of seven researchers, but little more, so Kadlec cobbled together the best team he could. From the State Department, he borrowed a veterinary epidemiologist as well as Reid, whom he’d met just weeks earlier through a mutual friend who was a Dalai Lama aficionado. At the time, Reid was detailed to the office of Sen. Marco Rubio to work on China policy issues. Kadlec also leaned on scientific advisers with expertise in virology, epidemiology and biodefense.
Kadlec, a former Air Force officer who worked with Burr years earlier on bioterrorism issues, has served under both Republican and Democratic presidents. In 2003, he deployed to Iraq for the Department of Defense and played a critical role in debunking the false claims that trailers there doubled as mobile bioweapons labs. That experience, he says, equipped him to navigate the murky world of“dual-use research,” where civilian scientific work sometimes has a clandestine military purpose.