Atop editor at the New York Times instructed Times staffers not to investigate the origins of COVID-19, two Times employees confirmed today.
‘In early 2020,’ a veteran Times employee tells me, ‘I suggested to a senior editor at the paper that we investigate the origins of COVID-19. I was told it was dangerous to run a piece about the origins of the coronavirus. There was resistance to running anything that could suggest that [COVID-19 was manmade or had leaked accidentally from a lab].’
In November 2019, it emerged that China Daily had failed to disclose to federal authorities millions of dollars in payments to US outlets including the Times and the Washington Post. In August 2020, the Times quietly scrubbed the China-funded advertorials from its website. Still, in October 2020, the Times ran an op-ed by Regina Ip, a member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council, justifying the repression of anti-government protests in the Hong Kong SAR.
Chan started emailing authors and journals to get the raw data she needed to more fully analyze what they had done. Making such data available is usually a condition of publication, but it can still be hard to obtain. After what she calls months of stonewalling, Chan finally lost her cool and blasted an accusation out from her browser. “I need the scientists + editors who are directly or indirectly covering up severe research integrity issues surrounding some of the key SARS-2-like viruses to stop and think for a bit,” she posted to Twitter. “If your actions obscure SARS2 origins, you’re playing a hand in the death of millions of people.”
Eddie Holmes, a prominent Australian virologist and coauthor of one of those papers (as well as “Proximal Origins”), called the tweet “one of most despicable things I read on the origins issue.” He felt accused, but he wondered what he was being accused of, since his paper had correctly accounted for its pangolin data sources. Holmes then circulated an intricate time line prepared by Chan of the publication dates and past connections between the authors. The chart’s dense web of arrows and connections bore an unmistakable resemblance to an obsessive’s cork board covered with red string and thumbtacks.
In gain-of-function research, a microbiologist can increase the lethality of a coronavirus enormously by splicing a special sequence into its genome at a prime location. Doing this leaves no trace of manipulation. But it alters the virus spike protein, rendering it easier for the virus to inject genetic material into the victim cell. Since 1992 there have been at least 11 separate experiments adding a special sequence to the same location. The end result has always been supercharged viruses.
A genome is a blueprint for the factory of a cell to make proteins. The language is made up of three-letter “words,” 64 in total, that represent the 20 different amino acids. For example, there are six different words for the amino acid arginine, the one that is often used in supercharging viruses. Every cell has a different preference for which word it likes to use most.
In the case of the gain-of-function supercharge, other sequences could have been spliced into this same site. Instead of a CGG-CGG (known as “double CGG”) that tells the protein factory to make two arginine amino acids in a row, you’ll obtain equal lethality by splicing any one of 35 of the other two-word combinations for double arginine. If the insertion takes place naturally, say through recombination, then one of those 35 other sequences is far more likely to appear; CGG is rarely used in the class of coronaviruses that can recombine with CoV-2.
In fact, in the entire class of coronaviruses that includes CoV-2, the CGG-CGG combination has never been found naturally. That means the common method of viruses picking up new skills, called recombination, cannot operate here. A virus simply cannot pick up a sequence from another virus if that sequence isn’t present in any other virus.
Wuhan is also home to China’s foremost coronavirus research laboratory, housing one of the world’s largest collections of bat samples and bat-virus strains. The Wuhan Institute of Virology’s lead coronavirus researcher, Shi Zhengli, was among the first to identify horseshoe bats as the natural reservoirs for SARS-CoV, the virus that sparked an outbreak in 2002, killing 774 people and sickening more than 8,000 globally. After SARS, bats became a major subject of study for virologists around the world, and Shi became known in China as “Bat Woman” for her fearless exploration of their caves to collect samples. More recently, Shi and her colleagues at the WIV have performed high-profile experiments that made pathogens more infectious. Such research, known as “gain-of-function,” has generated heated controversy among virologists.
By spring of 2021, the debate over COVID-19’s origins had become so noxious that death threats were flying in both directions.
In a CNN interview on March 26, Dr. Redfield, the former CDC director under Trump, made a candid admission: “I am of the point of view that I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory, you know, escaped.” Redfield added that he believed the release was an accident, not an intentional act. In his view, nothing that happened since his first calls with Dr. Gao changed a simple fact: The WIV needed to be ruled out as a source, and it hadn’t been.