Sharri Markson’s book on Covid’s Wuhan lab leak theory raises more questions than it answers | Coronavirus

With 4.55 million deaths as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic to date, the hunt for its origin has evolved into something resembling a mass-scale study. Are we really dealing with a terrible accident, negligence or even something more scary?

Australian journalist Sharri Markson’s conclusions fall somewhere close to the latter. She has established a crime scene around the Wuhan Institute of Virology in central China, with the murder weapon a virus called Sars-CoV-2.

That’s a probable line of inquiry. Just a few kilometers from the Wuhan food market, where the first large cluster of viral infections was discovered, the institute has perhaps the world’s largest collection of the type of bat coronavirus from which Sars-CoV-2 appears to be derived. In its top biosafety laboratory, WIV researchers are rediscovering the function of bat viruses to increase human infectivity.

Could an institute employee have accidentally become infected with such an amplified virus and carry it outside? In his new book, which is based on reporting to News Corp newspapers and Sky TV, Markson says yes.

She goes even further and plays up WIV’s collaborative work with the People’s Liberation Army’s medical researchers to entertain and not completely rule out the possibility that functional research is not just “to be ahead” of possible future pandemics, but to construct viruses as potential bioweapons.

So how does her argument stack up?

It does not start well. Its first paragraph claims that Wei Jingsheng, the leader of Beijing’s “democracy wall” movement in 1978-79, was “one of the largest departure coups the United States had drawn from inside communist China.” The term usually applies to regime insiders fleeing with valuable secrets. But Wei was willingly deported in 1997 by Beijing after spending most of the previous 18 years in prison.

It may seem like a small point, but the credibility of Markson’s dissertation is based on a nuanced understanding of how China and its ruling party work, so details matter.

Her antennae were up as soon as reports of an outbreak in Wuhan of pneumonia of unknown origin appeared in late 2019, a disease soon caused a new coronavirus similar to the Sars virus that broke out in 2002-03. Why did Beijing throw layers of secrecy about the outbreak?

That suspicion was shared by Mike Pompeo, the Hawkish U.S. Republican Secretary of State. In October 2019, he had announced a new fight against attitude to China. He isolated himself from the State Department nuance with advisers Miles Yu, a columnist for the fiercely anti-communist Washington Times (founded by Sun Myung Moon) and Mary Kissel from the front-page pages of the Wall Street Journal.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
In May 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that there was ‘enormous evidence’ that the coronavirus outbreak originated from a laboratory in Wuhan. Photo: Reuters

On the Covid-19 “Pompeo understood that there would only be a cover if there was something ugly to keep quiet,” Markson writes. In late January 2020, Pompeo asked Yu to investigate the possibility of a leak from the WIV. Yu’s report, dated April 26, 2020, found that there was “no direct smoking evidence” but “convincing evidence of circumstance” for a “possible leak”.

Trump announced this possibility on April 30, and on May 3, Pompeo claimed “enormous evidence” pointing to the virus beginning in a Wuhan lab. Possibly, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne had been given a sneak preview when she called for an independent inquiry into the April 19 pandemic.

Scott Morrison and Pompeo share the same view of China’s guilt over the Covid-19 outbreak, Markson said, and “the United States was pleased to let one of the five-eyed Allies take the lead; it would be taken more seriously by the international community, whereas if Trump had called, it would have been rejected as racist. ”

Another case of muggins Australia, attracting around 20 billion. Dollars in trade penalties, others might say. Markson says Australia’s intelligence community was concerned about Yu’s report and perceived it as potentially comparable to the case of US and British intelligence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be incorrect.

Sharri Markson.
Journalist Sharri Markson. Photo: Sydney Media Club

The Trump administration was divided between ex-bankers trying to twist a major trade deal with China and security hawks. After leading us through this internal debate, with a strong propensity for hawks, Markson’s book moves into the truly fascinating and alarming world of virology.

The researchers she cites make a strong reason for suspicion that the Sars-CoV-2 virus was created by human intervention by amplifying the spike protein on a horseshoe bat virus from southern China to better lock with the Ace2 receptors on human cells in the air passages of our body.

Nikolai Petrovsky, an endocrinologist at Flinders University in South Australia, started running simulations on a supercomputer to test how Sars-CoV-2 spike proteins mounted the Ace2 receptors on cells from a dozen animal species, including bats as well as humans. . He found it worked best on human receptors. “The virus spike protein looked like it could not have been better designed to fit the human Ace2,” he tells Markson. “Go figure.”

The next most susceptible host was the pangolin, the scaly anteater found in southern China and Southeast Asia, which after many years of research was discovered to have been the intermediate host for Sars. Petrovsky says this is unlikely to have incubated this new virus, though Markson does not investigate why. Evidence of an outbreak among pangolins has not yet been shown – their habitat is about 1500 km from Wuhan, and it does not appear that pangolins were traded in Wuhan’s market.

Other researchers make much of the presence of a function called a furin cleavage site on Sars-CoV-2 spike proteins not seen in other bat viruses, which they say in other cases have been used to construct greater infectivity. David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology says this was a “smoking gun for the origin of the virus” that points to laboratory origins. University of California’s Richard Muller says it was “like finding a fingerprint at a crime scene”.

Shi Zhengli inside a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in central China.
Shi Zhengli inside a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in central China in 2017. Photo: AP

But suspicions of human intervention struggled to get going in scientific journals, Markson says, because editors were sold the “official line” of a naturally occurring virus. The World Health Organization was complicit in China, she claims. Many in the scientific community were compromised by collaborations with Chinese colleagues, including US health chief Anthony Fauci, whom one of her scientific sources calls “the father of gain-of-function research.” Brave journalists who raised it became trolls, she claims.

The science Markson cites needs more expert judgment than this article can apply, but there are many who do not support it. In an interview with his local newspaper in Sydney, Wentworth Courier, Markson says that for every scientist who agreed to talk to her, three refused.

One who refused was Prof. Dominic Dwyer, a virologist from the University of Sydney who was part of the WHO team that went to Wuhan in February to investigate the origin of the virus. His public account of preliminary finds fell sharply for a natural origin.

“I’m surprised that only three quarters fell,” Dwyer says. He has not read Markson’s book, but has seen her articles in The Australian and part of her Sky documentary.

“The science is complex, but the interpretation of science in her articles is so poor that it is risky,” he says. “I understand that such theories arise in the very early stages of the pandemic, but even since the WHO’s visit to Wuhan early this year, there has been continued new evidence of animal compounds and none of the biowarfare.

‘People confuse studies of the origin of the outbreak with assessment of the responses to the pandemic, ”says Dwyer. “Many countries can be criticized for their reactions to the pandemic, both very early in the article or even now.”

One who can not remember any approach from Markson is the Australian virologist Danielle Anderson, now at the Melbourne Doherty Institute, who from 2016 to November 2019 worked with WIV on bat viruses. She has talked a lot about the professionalism of the high-inclusion laboratory and about its director, Shi Zhengli — a person who apparently did not talk to Markson either.

Anderson was at the Wuhan Institute, the only foreign scientist there when Covid-19 first appeared in the city. If, as Markson writes from unspecified intelligence sources, more WIV employees fell down with Covid-19 in November 2019, the mobile network was mysteriously shut down around WIV and road access blocked off for several days in October 2019, all of which Anderson passed.

China’s communist leaders are often their own worst enemy and keep secrets about things that no one can really blame them for, and even good things. It makes them sit ducks for critics like Markson to lay the worst possible interpretation of what they do.

In particular, in this book, she cites a discussion paper from the Chinese delegation to the UN Convention on Biological Weapons and Toxin Weapons, warning of the future danger to bioweapons using synthetic pathogens with race-specific infectivity, as a sign that China can work with such weapons. in Wuhan and elsewhere.

Pervert, seen from those who support Markson’s suspicion, the lesson in the book is that the world’s ideological divide must not stop scientists working together against the scary possibilities of viruses.

As for the origins of Covid-19, the title of Markson’s book needs a question mark.

What Really Happened in Wuhan by Sharri Markson is out through HarperCollins (RRP $ 34.99)

Hamish McDonald was China’s correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age during the 2002-3 Sars epidemic.

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