This paper has not been written by a microbiologist or virologist but by a scholar with a background in security politics, military strategy, and history in an attempt to understand the present crisis, which demands knowledge in several disciplines. We know that the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) with its disease COVID-19 is very contagious. Many people have died from it, but there is a disagreement about its mortality rate, the measures used, the vaccines, and about the reliability of the figures for several countries. What we know, however, is that this pandemic totally has dominated the media coverage in the West. In Part 1, I will discuss what COVID-19 is, whether it is a result of just a natural process or not, and I will discuss US policy and thinking about biological warfare. In Part 2, I will discuss the spread of the virus, its likely origin, pandemic simulations, and possible explanations.
In The Lancet article (January 24, 2020), Chinese scientists had analyzed the 41 first patients that by January 2 were confirmed to be contaminated by the new coronavirus, a new pneumonia. Many of them had been exposed to the Huanan seafood market, but one third had not. Three of the first four cases (by December 10) and the very first case, a 55 years’ old man, had no ties to the market. He was from the Wuhan area (Hubei Province) with symptoms on December 1. He would have been infected in late November. The first patient treated at a hospital was brought in on December 16. On December 15-20, all 10 new cases had been exposed to the seafood market. Up to January 2, 16 of 27 new cases had had ties to the seafood market, The Lancet wrote. On December 18, a 65-years old man from the seafood market came to the Wuhan Central Hospital with a suspected pneumonia. He had had symptoms from December 15 and became worse a week later. On December 24, the hospital sent samples to a private laboratory in Guangzhou. Chief Physician for Respiratory Medicine at Wuhan Central Hospital, Zhao Su, said that the Guangzhou laboratory called back on December 27, and said that it was ”a new coronavirus”. One day earlier, on December 26, Hubei Provincial Hospital had received a couple with symptoms from December 20 and 23. The respiratory doctor Zhang Jixian made a CT-scan of their lungs (also of their son), which on the next day made her notify the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. She had had experience from the SARS epidemy in 2002-03 and was worried for something similar in Wuhan. On December 29, the CDC laboratory found a virus similar to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) CoV. It was described as a “new coronavirus: SARS-CoV-2”. The alarm went off. Zhang ordered personnel to wear protection.
Left: The Lancet article from 24 January showing cases from the Huanan seafood market (red) and cases from outside the market (blue) from December 1 to January 1. Right: microscope photo of SARS-CoV-2.
On December 30, the Director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology called its world-famous expert on bat coronaviruses, Shi Zhengli, who was at a conference in Shanghai. The director told her: “drop whatever you are doing and deal with it now”. “The Wuhan [CDC] had detected a novel coronavirus in two hospital patients with atypical pneumonia”. Chinese National Health Commission (NHC) was informed. The same day, Director of Emergency Wuhan Central Hospital, Ai Fen, saw a report about a coronavirus similar to “SARS” and notified other departments and another hospital. A doctor at Wuhan Central Hospital, Li Wenliang, wrote at 17.43 on December 30 to his private WeChat group (“China’s Facebook”): “ confirmed cases of SARS were reported from Huanan seafood market”. The information turned up on Chinese social media,7 which was the first public recognition of a new virus. Li had spoken about a regular SARS virus, but one hour later he corrected this. Another hour later, also other doctors, Liu Wen and Xie Linka, wrote to their WeChat groups about “a pneumonia of unknown origin (similar to SARS)” at the Huanan seafood market. The Director of Chinese CDC Gao Fu actually learned about the virus from the internet. He called Wuhan CDC that had found the new virus the day before. Information about the virus was published before it was scientifically confirmed. The family of the first patient had had no symptoms, while the family of the December 26 cases had, which led to precaution. Medical personnel had not yet symptoms. Most cases were from the seafood market making Chinese officials first believe that the virus originated from animals at the market rather than being transmitted via humans, but the evidence was contradictory.
On December 31, the WHO (World Health Organization) was notified: 27 cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause”: “all patients are isolated […] no evidence of significant human-to-human transmissions”. Memory of SARS led to precaution. Wuhan Health Commission made an emergency notification about the “unexplained pneumonia”. They suggested people to wear face masks and avoid public spaces. Also on December 31, Chinese CCTV, Reuters, South China Morning Post, and Deutsche Welle reported about a “pneumonia outbreak”, a possible SARS-like virus. US Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Anthony Fauci and the US CDC Director Robert Redfield were informed. Already on January 1, US CDC had a detailed report about the virus. The Americans seemingly knew as much as the Chinese knew at that point. Chinese NHC sent an expert team to Wuhan and set up an emergency response group. On January 3, Redfield was briefed by his Chinese counterpart Gao Fu. Redford told Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar that “China had potentially discovered a new coronavirus”.
From early or mid-December, there were single cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, but in late December there were up to 20 cases, most of them directly linked to the seafood market. In the very last days of December, Wuhan hospitals became aware of an “atypical pneumonia”. On December 27, Zhang Jixian at the Provincial Hospital suspected a contagious virus. On the same day, the lab told Zhao Su at the Central Hospital that a patient was believed to be infected by a new coronavirus. Two days later, the Wuhan CDC identified a SARS-like virus in its lab and Chinese NHC was notified. Now, single doctors in Wuhan realized that a “new coronavirus” perhaps was the cause of a pneumonia at the market. On December 30, the Wuhan Institute of Virology was notified. A Wuhan hospital report spoke about a SARS-like virus, which appeared on internet the same evening. On December 31, the WHO was notified. The Wuhan Health Commission presented early guidelines. Media spoke about an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan. All this very early information appeared on December 29-31.
The City of Wuhan, however, was not pre-occupied by a couple of cases of pneumonia. The city has more than 11 million inhabitants. At the Chinese New Year (January 24-25), hundreds of millions of people visit their families, and Wuhan is the most important transport node in central China. The Spring Festival period at the Chinese New Year started at January 10. The local leadership was preoccupied by the Provincial People’s Congress on January 12-17, by the huge pre-festival banquet for 40,000 families on January 18, by the Spring Festival and by the transportation of tens of millions of people through the city. When hospitals raised the issue of a few cases of pneumonia, this did not appear to be the most pressing problem. The virus had arrived at the most inconvenient time possible. Publicity was disturbing to local leaders. Local police reprimanded Li Wenliang as well as Liu Wen and Xie Linka, who had written about the virus to their WeChat groups and made it public (Li was infected in January and died on February 7. This led to uproar on Chinese internet. On February 9, China named Dr. Li a national “hero”). On January 7, President Xi Jinping had given instructions about the epidemic response after a Standing Committee meeting, but central NHC experts visiting Wuhan in early January were not free to talk to the emergency doctors. Local leaders had given their own schedule priority. On January 20, Xi Jinping ordered Wuhan to “put people’s safety and health as the top priority”. Leaders of the City of Wuhan and the Hubei Province were replaced.
On January 3, Dr. Shi Zhengli and her colleagues succeeded to identify the genetic sequences of the new virus. Shi found that the genetic sequences did not match any virus in her laboratory. She was relieved, she said. On January 5-7, The Health Commission ruled out SARS, MERS and other known viruses, but it was still not confirmed that the new virus was the cause of the disease. Now, 59 people were infected. China’s CDC raised its readiness level to emergency level 2 (below level 1). On January 8, the City of Shenzhen (Guangdong) reported a “first case of pneumonia with unknown cause”. On January 9, a man was the first to die from COVID-19. His wife had already symptoms, but she had not been exposed to the seafood market indicating human-to-human transmissions. On January 10, the WHO issued a warning: possible transmissions between humans but added: “no clear evidence”. They had not yet enough evidence to have it confirmed. But soon, health personnel had symptoms. Chinese scientists published the genetic data of the new virus. The Wuhan Institute of Virology developed a testing kit, and the City started to organize tests. On January 12, the Wuhan Institute together with other institutes published the full genome sequence for the WHO and the publicly available gene library called GISAID. On the following day, Anthony Fauci’s Vaccine Research Center and the company Moderna had developed a vaccine candidate for manufacturing. On January 13, Thailand reported a first case that had travelled from Wuhan. On January 15-16, the US and Japan had one case each, both from Wuhan. On January 19, some medical workers had tested positive. Chinese NHC confirmed human-to-human transmissions. By January 22, there were 17 dead (six of the 41 first patients had died). On January 23, all communication to and from Wuhan was stopped and flights from Guangzhou over Wuhan to Moscow and Rome became non-stop flights (avoiding Wuhan). The City of Wuhan was put in quarantine. Soon this was true also for other Hubei cities. Companies were shut down. Hubei, a province of 60 million, was put in quarantine. National emergency was raised to the highest level: Level 1.
After backlogging, 266 cases were believed to have been infected from late December (South China Morning Post). According to CNN (November 2020), a leaked 117-page document from the Hubei Provincial CDC showed 20-fold increase in the number of influenza cases from the first week of December 2019 (compared to 2018) with epicenter in Yichang 300 km west of Wuhan. Some COVID cases may originally have been diagnosed as influenza, but there was no indication of cases in November. A pre-print of a Nature article (see below) indicated that SARS-CoV-2 was to 96.2 % identical to a specific bat virus and only 79.6 % similar to SARS-CoV from 2002-03. On January 24, The Lancet article above was published concluding that the spread of the virus took off after reaching the crowded seafood market, where also wild animals were sold, but the virus’ origin was not the market, CDC Director Gao said. The Wuhan Institute of Virology continued in their try to identify the pathogen. They completed animal experiments with infection of mice on February 6 and of rhesus monkeys on February 9 to be sure that the new virus “was the cause of the unexplained pneumonia”. They now had found the virus causing the disease, but CDC in China had notified the WHO and the US already after the early indications a month before they had scientific confirmation.
Intermediate Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus affinis) and a Sunda/Malaysian Pangolin (Manis javanica).
The 2002 SARS-virus appeared first in Guangdong in Southern China. It originated supposedly from a coronavirus of a bat, Rhinolophus sinicus. It had been studied by Li Wendong & Shi Zhengli et.al (Science, October 28, 2005) at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A small carnivore, a palm civet (Paguma larvata), was believed to have served as intermediate host to the first human. This had allegedly been a “wild” or natural process with mutations creating SARS-CoV. Alexandre Hassanin wrote in Conservation (March 18, 2020; HAL 12 May 2020) that a genome analysis of the “new coronavirus” (SARS-CoV-2) suggests that it emerged as a combination of two viruses, not just as a mutated virus. The virus RaTG13 using a specific species of a Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus affinis) as a host was, according to Zhou Peng et.al. (Nature, February 3, 2020) to 96.2 % identical to the SARS-CoV-2,40 but the spike or RBD (the “Receptor Binding Domain”) that makes the virus able to enter a human cell was different. However, the RBD of a virus from a Malaysian Pangolin (Manis javanica) was to 99 % identical to the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 is a recombination of these two viruses. A similar conclusion was made by Zhang Tao et.al (Current Biology April 2020) and Susanna Lau et.al in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases (July 2020). This hypothesis is also supported by the WHO 2021 analysis. “This raises the question about the link between the COVID-19 epidemic and wildlife”, Hassanin says.
However, the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, found that two very similar viruses, RshSTT182 and RshSTT200, carried by a South-East Asian horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus shameli) were to 92.6 % identical SARS-CoV-2. In an article co-authored by Hassanin, certain sections of these viruses including certain sections of the RBD were even more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13. The latter had been found in Yunnan in Southern China at the border to Laos, while the former had been found in Cambodia also at the border to Laos (Vibol Hul et.al, BioRxiv, January 26, 2021). Several Rhinolophus bat species carry viruses close to SARS-CoV-2. The Malaysian or Sunda pangolin were also to be found in South-East Asia. A Thai study (Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, et.al Virology Journal, April 2015) found similar coronaviruses in eastern Thailand at the border to Cambodia. If several bat viruses in this very Rhinolophus rich part of the world are more than 90 % identical to SARS-CoV-2, one could easily imagine that such a virus had passed through a pangolin as a second host and then developed into SARS-CoV-2 through a natural process.
27 prominent US public health scientists with Charles Calisher and Peter Daszak wrote a letter in The Lancet (March 7, 2020): Chinese scientists and medical professionals have shared “their results transparently with the global health community. […] We stand together [with our Chinese colleagues] to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. [… These] theories do nothing but create fear, rumors and prejudice that jeopardize our global collaboration.” This statement, however, was rather political than analytical, but 10 days later Kristian Anderson et.al (Nature, March 17, 2020) suggested that SARS-CoV-2 is a result of a mutating virus and natural selection: “If someone was seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have [used] a virus known to cause illness.” But SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from such a virus. These arguments, however, were refuted by a biological weapons expert Meryl Nass: what is known to a military lab is usually not known to civilians. Such work could easily have been done in a laboratory without leaving a trace, for example, by letting a virus pass through a number of animals to change its mutations, and these senior scientists are old enough to know it, she says. Hassanin, on the other hand, argues that SARS-CoV-2 is not just a mutated virus but rather a merger of two viruses, a chimera, “a flying pangolin” so to speak (Of course, not a chimera of the two animals, a pangolin and a bat, but a chimera of their viruses, which is still different from a mutated virus). He argues that such combination of viruses could have taken place in nature, but “chimeric viruses” are often built in a laboratory. If the RBD of a bat virus was replaced by the RBD of a pangolin virus, this “switch of elements” could have taken place in a lab. Let’s call this virus “the flying pangolin”.
An example: In Nature (November 9, 2015 ), Vinet Menachery et.al (University of North Carolina) make a distinction between a mutating “wild-type virus” (as SARS-CoV) and a “chimeric virus”, “switching elements”. They describe how they used cells from US Army Medical Research Institute (at Fort Detrick, Maryland) to build a “chimeric virus” combining a virus of a Rhinolophus bat with a mouse virus in order to infect the lungs of mice and to infect human cells (to develop a vaccine). Further testing on “non-human primates” is necessary before testing on humans, the article writes. But the study is also clearly aware of the risk of creating such dangerous chimeric viruses in a laboratory, and they were strongly criticized for doing it. However, it was Menachery, Ralph Baric and their team of North Carolina University that designed and performed the experiments, recovered chimeric viruses, and wrote the article, while Shi Zhengli and her Wuhan colleague provided genetic “sequences and plasmids”. The language of the article is not easy for a layman, but this “mouse-bat chimera” was certainly built in a laboratory (similar to other chimeric viruses) to become an infectious virus years before the possible “bat-pangolin chimera” of SARS-CoV-2 appeared. Since 1999, several scientists have created a large number of chimeric viruses in labs, which have been financed by US state authorities and described as “gain-of-function” research. A chimeric virus created in a lab from a bat virus and a pangolin virus “cannot be ruled out”, Rossana Segreto and Yuri Deigin argue (Bio Essays Wiley Online, November 17, 2020). Possibly, the flying pangolin, was, like the “North Carolina chimera”, built in a lab. At least, we should look into this hypothesis.
Peter Daszak, who was the main author of the above Lancet letter (March 7, 2020) from the 27 health scientists, referred in an interview three months earlier to Ralph Baric’s manipulation of a coronavirus in a lab. While Daszak in The Lancet letter claimed that SARS-CoV-2 had a “natural origin”, he claimed in the interview that “you can manipulate [coronaviruses] in the lab pretty easily. [… you] can get the sequence, you can build the protein, and we work a lot with Ralph Baric at UNC [University of North Carolina] to do this. Insert into the backbone of another virus and do some work in the lab.” This is what Daszak said in Singapore on December 9, 2019: “We [Daszak, Shi and others] have now found, you know, after 6 or 7 years of doing this, over 100 new SARS-related coronaviruses, very close to SARS. Some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanized mice models [with Ralph Baric at University of North Carolina] and are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals and you can’t vaccinate against them with a vaccine. So, these are a clear and present danger. We even found people with anti-bodies in Yunnan to SARS-related coronaviruses.” The idea was to use this knowledge to develop a vaccine before a pandemic breaks out, and this ”gain-of-function research” was described as extremely risky by several scholars. President Barack Obama instituted a moratorium on this research in 2014, but it was lifted in 2017. In several countries, this research was financed by Anthony Fauci’s NIAID, for example by contracting Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance that in 2018-19 funded Shi Zhengli at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Her Institute project, however, was only one of Daszak’s many sub-projects in South-East Asia and China.
The question is why Peter Daszak, who was working with manipulation of chimeric viruses in labs, writes a letter to The Lancet claiming that SARS-CoV-2 could not have originated from a lab, and this was written already before an analysis of the virus and its spread had been made.