Apr 22, 2020 - World

The Chinese lab at the center of the coronavirus controversy

Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

China's highest-security virology center is at the center of debate, speculation and misinformation about how, where and when the novel coronavirus emerged.

Why it matters: Knowing the origin of the novel coronavirus is key to efforts to prevent future possible pandemics and will shape China's role in the post-pandemic world.

In the U.S., two similar-sounding theories link the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origin of the coronavirus. One is very unlikely; the other is plausible but unverified.

Theory 1: The coronavirus was created as part of a Chinese bioweapons research program allegedly linked to the WIV.

  • Virologists have determined this is highly unlikely. By looking at a virus' genetic material, it is possible to tell if it has been engineered in a lab. The coronavirus shows no such signs, as the World Health Organization also emphasized on April 21.
  • Some U.S. officials previously showed interest in this theory, but the scientific evidence debunking it has been persuasive.
    • There is also growing scientific evidence the virus originated in a bat and spread to humans via an intermediary animal, which would make it less likely it came from a lab.

Theory 2: The novel coronavirus was being studied at the WIV, and a lab accident resulted in the virus' accidental transmission to an employee who then unknowingly spread the virus in the city after leaving the institute premises.

  • This is plausible, but as yet there is no direct evidence to support it.
  • It isn't possible to tell from looking at the coronavirus' genetic sequence if it jumped from animal to human in a lab or in a wet market (or somewhere else). Confirmation would therefore have to come from contact tracing and related measures by Chinese authorities.
  • This theory has gained significant traction within U.S. government circles.

Context: There is precedent in China — and other countries, including Singapore — where breaches in lab safety procedures resulted in disease outbreaks.

  • In 2004, the coronavirus that causes SARS was accidentally leaked from a facility in Beijing, infecting nine people and killing one.
  • Yes, but: That was a known pathogen studied in numerous labs around the world. The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was previously unknown to the scientific community.

What they're saying: Yuan Zhiming, the director of the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory and vice director of the WIV, denied the novel coronavirus had any connection to the lab in an April 18 interview with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.

  • "There is no way this virus came from us," said Yuan. "People can't help but make associations, which I think is understandable. But it's bad when some are deliberately trying to mislead people."
  • Shi Zhengli, a highly respected scientist who also works at the institute and who has long studied coronaviruses that come from bats, said in February that she could “guarantee on my life” that the novel coronavirus did not come from the lab, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • A version of the second theory, which claims that "patient zero" was an intern at the facility, has also made the rounds on the Chinese internet, prompting state news agency Xinhua to publish a Feb. 16 article stating that the person in question had never been infected.

Here are three key facts about the WIV:

1. It houses the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, which is China's only Biosafety Level-4 (BSL-4) lab. That means it is the only facility in China permitted to handle the most dangerous known pathogens, including the Ebola and Lassa viruses.

  • It is the first of several BSL-4 labs that China is planning to build.
  • BSL-4 labs are rare and confer a degree of prestige on the countries that have them. Taiwan has two such labs; Japan's first BSL4 lab wasn't approved to handle top-tier pathogens until 2015.
  • By comparison, the U.S. has about a half-dozen BSL4 labs, with several more planned.

2. The lab is located just under 9 miles from the wet market where some scientists say the outbreak may have originated.

3. The WIV is home to the Chinese scientists who sequenced the complete novel coronavirus genome in early January and who are now working on a vaccine.

  • Scientists affiliated with the institute have studied coronaviruses for years, but it's not the only lab in China where coronaviruses are studied.

The bottom line: As China seeks to demonstrate scientific heft, a spillover event at China's most prestigious virology lab — and subsequent cover-up — would be "another nail in the coffin of Xi's personal reputation and the CCP's reputation on the global stage," Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said on a media call last week.

  • "Globally, it would certainly be very harmful, Domestically, I think it would probably reinforce people's impressions who are already distrustful of the regime."

Go deeper

World coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

New Zealand has only eight active novel coronavirus cases no COVID-19 patients in hospital after reporting another day of zero cases. However, the death toll rose to 22.

Zoom in: A top health official told a briefing a 96-year-old woman "was regarded to having recovered from COVID-19 at the time of her death, and COVID-19 is not recorded as the primary cause of her death on her death certificate." But health officials decided to include her death in the overall tally of deaths related to the virus.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 5,690,951 — Total deaths: 355,575 — Total recoveries — 2,350,071Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 1,699,073 — Total deaths: 100,396 — Total recoveries: 391,508 — Total tested: 15,192,481Map.
  3. Public health: CDC issues guidelines for reopening officesFauci says data is "really quite evident" against hydroxychloroquine.
  4. States: California hospitals strained by patients in MexicoTexas Supreme Court blocks mail-in expansion to state voters.
  5. Business: MGM plans to reopen major Las Vegas resorts in June — African American business owners have seen less relief from PPP, Goldman Sachs says.
  6. Tech: AI will help in the pandemic — but it might not be in time for this one.
  7. World: EU proposes a massive pandemic rescue package.
  8. 1 🎶 thing: Local music venues get rocked by coronavirus.
  9. 🎧 Podcast: Trump vs. Twitter ... vs. Trump.
  10. What should I do? When you can be around others after contracting the coronavirus — Traveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  11. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

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Updated 16 mins ago - Politics & Policy

U.S. coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

More than 100,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus, according to data from Johns Hopkins — a milestone that puts the death toll far beyond some of the most tragic events in U.S. history.

By the numbers: Over 1.6 million have tested positive in the U.S. Nearly 354,000 Americans have recovered and over 15.1 million tests have been conducted. California became the fourth state with at least 100,000 reported cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday, along with Illinois, New Jersey and New York.