Wuhan Institute of Virology was under cyberattack. Three WIV employees allegedly being sick?

What's the "Wuhan lab" after all?

Apologies for subscribers to Pekingnology for tech or regulatory content, this is the third consecutive newsletter on COVID-19 origin tracing - for a reason: with Beijing’s opposition to the World Health Organization’s current Phase 2 origin tracing plan, the issue is, at least seen here, at the forefront in the worsening ties between China and the United States, which is believed here to be pressuring the WHO.

Your Pekingologist is glad to share that his highlight of one unreported bit out of the press conference was recently corroborated by a recent New York Times column that cited this July 22 newsletter.

From The New York Times

On July 21, the disappearance of the sequences was brought up during a news conference in Beijing, where Chinese officials rejected claims that the pandemic started as a lab leak.

According to a translation of the news conference by a journalist at the state-controlled Xinhua News Agency, the vice minister of China’s National Health Commission, Dr. Zeng Yixin, said that the trouble arose when editors at Small deleted a paragraph in which the scientists described the sequences in the Sequence Read Archive.

“Therefore, the researchers thought it was no longer necessary to store the data in the N.C.B.I. database,” Dr. Zeng said, referring to the Sequence Read Archive, which is run by the N.I.H.

An editor at Small, which specializes in science at the micro and nano scale and is based in Germany, confirmed his account. “The data availability statement was mistakenly deleted,” the editor, Plamena Dogandzhiyski, wrote in an email. “We will issue a correction very shortly, which will clarify the error and include a link to the depository where the data is now hosted.”

The journal posted a formal correction to that effect on Thursday.

One of the most frustrating things in the raging COVID-19 origin tracing debates is that facts and technicalities from the Chinese side, for various reasons, don’t get appropriate inches or airtime in English.

Sometimes, they don’t appear to get delivered to the public discourse in English at all. Trying to bridge gaps like this has always been the mission of this newsletter, which was on The Guardian recently, with a photo of your Pekingnologist on Château d'If in 2018.

From The Guardian

It was a confusion shared by some state media journalists – often labelled as Beijing’s “propagandists” – said Wang Zichen, a former Brussels correspondent for the official news agency Xinhua, now working in its headquarters in Beijing.

Wang became well-known among foreign journalists and diplomats from the early days of the Covid pandemic when he began to produce an occasional newsletter called Pekingnology, which he claimed had since had more than 2,100 subscribers – from foreign diplomats to journalists and China-focused academics.

Twitter also labelled Wang’s account as “China state-affiliated media” last year. He said when he saw the label he was “surprised and dismayed”. “But then, I joked to myself: not everyone can have this badge of honour as a state account, so I began to think of the ways of making the best use of it – including tweeting actively about what I think is the most accurate information about China.

“The current situation is that the west is mostly seeing the side of China it wants to see, and we don’t always speak the language the world easily understands, either. It’s a two-way street,” Wang said, admitting he did not publish much contrary to Beijing’s official stances but still wished to be a “bridge” between China and the west.

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There is some other information from the July 22 press conference that may also be of value to people seriously interested in COVID-19 origin tracing, perhaps the most pivotal scientific endeavor in our times that has unfortunately been highly politicized.

The nearly 2,200 subscribers’ respective knowledge of the matter most certainly vary significantly, so your Pekingnologist can only proceed based on his gauge and hope you find at least some of them are useful - not necessarily drawing conclusions, but getting a bit more clarity.

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Wuhan Institute of Virology was under cyberattack

A CNN exclusive on Thursday:

US intelligence agencies are digging through a treasure trove of genetic data that could be key to uncovering the origins of the coronavirus -- as soon as they can decipher it.

This giant catalog of information contains genetic blueprints drawn from virus samples studied at the lab in Wuhan, China which some officials believe may have been the source of the Covid-19 outbreak, multiple people familiar with the matter tell CNN.

It's unclear exactly how or when US intelligence agencies gained access to the information, but the machines involved in creating and processing this kind of genetic data from viruses are typically connected to external cloud-based servers -- leaving open the possibility they were hacked, sources said.

That caught the eye of your Pekingnologist because Yuan Zhiming, Director of the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, and Researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), Chinese Academy of Sciences, said (Mandarin) in the July 22 press conference in Beijing that there is a

large number of malicious attacks on the (Wuhan) institute's website and the work and private email addresses of many of its staff, including Shi Zhengli's team

Yuan associated the offline of a WIV database with cyber attacks:

Q: 武汉病毒研究所管理的病毒数据库,已经在2019年下线。请问武汉病毒研究所是否公布其自疫情暴发以来收集的所有基因序列?

Q: A virus database managed by the Wuhan Institute of Virology went offline in 2019. Has the institute published all the genome sequences it has collected since the outbreak? 

A: 刚才这位记者谈到的病毒所数据库,实际上是研究所团队建立的一个初步的框架,数据库的结构和内容,目前还在不断地完善过程中。考虑到病毒所的网站以及包括石正丽团队在内的众多员工的工作邮箱和私人邮箱受到大量恶意攻击,目前数据库在武汉病毒研究所内部共享。

项目团队对数据库的一些原始数据进行了分析和系统整理后,将以论文形式发表研究结果,并以可视化方式在数据库中展示和检索。大家知道,科学研究的原始数据经过分析和整理后以论文的形式发表,随后数据库随之公开,这是科技界的一个惯例,病毒所会严格遵循科技界的规则来展示和共享我们的科学数据。

A: Just now, the reporter mentioned a database of the WIV, which is in fact a preliminary framework established by a team in the WIV. The structure and content of the database are still being improved. Considering the large number of malicious attacks on the institute's website and the work and private email addresses of many of its staff, including Shi Zhengli's team, the database is currently shared within the WIV.

The project team will analyze and systematically sort out the original data of the database and publish research results in the form of papers. The team will display and enable searches in a visualized way based on the database. As everyone knows, it is the usual practice that the original data of scientific research is published in the form of papers after being analyzed and collated and the database will then be opened to the public. The WIV will strictly follow the rules of the sci-tech community in displaying and sharing our scientific data.

In April 2020, there were reports of WIV being hacked on the Washington Post, The Australian, and South China Morning Post.

From the Washington Post:

Unknown activists have posted nearly 25,000 email addresses and passwords allegedly belonging to the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation and other groups working to combat the coronavirus pandemic, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online extremism and terrorist groups.

UPDATE:

About an hour after the publication of this newsletter, Robert Potter, Co-CEO of Internet 2.0 and formerly with the Washington Post, has this comment. Since Potter is apparently an expert on this and was cited in the Washington Post story, let’s hear from him

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Were three WIV employees allegedly sick?

The Wall Street Journal first reported on May 23, 2021, that

Three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report

This bit of “intelligence” was later leaked to other U.S. media and widely reported, such as NBC News on May 24.

But two months before that, David Asher, the U.S. State Department’s former lead investigator into the origins of COVID-19, on March 22, told Sharri Markson of The Australian

US intelligence that has now been declassified, along with information from public sources, has credibly confirmed that three workers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell sick in early to mid-November 2019, prior to the official start of the pandemic.

Their illness was consistent with both COVID-19 and influenza and, in his personal assessment, was the likely cause of the outbreak.

As far as your Pekingnologist is aware, the most up-to-date information directly from the U.S. government was the Jan. 15, 2021, so-called fact sheet from the Department of State under Mike Pompeo shortly before Donald J. Trump left office, which used the word several, NOT three

The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019

It’s possible that your Pekingnologist missed something in the sea of COVID-19 origin tracing information, but there seems to be a discrepancy here: either the Wall Street Journal was wrong in reporting on May 23 the information was previously undisclosed, or that David Asher was wrong in saying on March 22 relevant U.S. intelligence had already been declassified.

There is this interesting quote from Asher from The Australian interview

“There were multiple staff members who did have to go to hospital and appeared to have had conditions of COVID-19,” he said. “You don’t normally go to the hospital with influenza, especially a cluster of people. This is the most probable source of the outbreak.”

Asher apparently doesn’t know China. Chinese residents go to the hospital with influenza ALL THE TIME. There are multiple reasons behind that, but that’s beside the point of this newsletter - if you don’t believe this fact, ask a person who actually lived here.

Back to the July 22 press conference where Yuan, of WIV, said (Mandarin)

There were media reports that three researchers at the WIV went to the hospital in November 2019 with all the same symptoms as COVID 19. These reports were created out of thin air. It would have been very simple for us to know the truth if the reporters had provided us with the names of these alleged researchers. In fact, we have long proposed that solution, but received no response to date.

Yuan was implying that China had long responded to the accusation, which your Pekingnologist can link to a Q&A in a March 31 press conference (Mandarin) by the Chinese team of the WHO-China joint study of COVID-19 origin tracing.

Tong Yigang, Subgroup lead in animal and environment of the Chinese team and Professor at Beijing University of Chemical Technology, said (Mandarin)

对于这个问题,中方的专家组进行了调查,没有发现传言中武汉病毒所三名工作人员患病的情况。中方专家组是回顾了2021年2月3日世卫中国联合专家组访问武汉病毒所的一些会议记录,还原了事实的整个过程。过程是这样的,武汉病毒所一位研究人员在回答世卫专家组外方成员提及的到武汉病毒所参与与医院合作的流感监测系统的情况,当时是明确回复外方,关于2019年开始武汉病毒所和武汉某一家医院合作进行流感疫情监测的一项研究工作,这项研究工作涉及到样本采集是从2019年1月份到2020年1月份,一共采集了1001份样品,这些样品在2020年3月份是由武汉病毒所进行了一些检测工作,因为他们有这方面的检测能力,他们对这些样品进行回溯性的筛查,发现了在2020年的1月份,有700份样本,这700份样本是2019年1月份到2020年1月份中间的一部分,也就是2020年1月份收集的700份样品,发现了4份阳性的核酸标本,也就是有4份流感和新冠共同感染,出现了在2020年的1月份,因为他们监测的是流感的数据。这4份阳性标准中,有3例是成年人,1例是老人,他们是合作医院的病人,不是武汉所的职工。这个情况,他们的文章其实早就发表了,大家有兴趣的话,可以进一步研究他们这篇文章中详细的描述。谢谢。

Basically, Tong said, on the question that three WIV employees were allegedly reported to be ill in November 2019, the Chinese team had investigated and found no such thing; the Chinese team had reviewed the minutes of meetings when WHO and Chinese experts visited WIV on Feb. 3, 2021, where one WIV researcher said WIV had a study on influenza monitoring with a Wuhan hospital, where 1,001 samples were collected between January 2019 and January 2020; WIV later did a retrospective screening of the samples and found four positive samples of infections of both influenza and COVID-19 - four out of 700 samples collected in January 2020; the four samples are from three adults and one senior citizen - all are patients at the Wuhan hospitals, NOT employees of WIV.

Tong also said this had been published, without giving a link.

Your Pekingnologist did a Google search and found he could mean this one

Among enrolled 1001 patients, four patients (0.4%) in January 2020 were detected co-infection of SARS-CoV-2 and influenza virus (Fig. 1). There was no SARS-CoV-2 virus in influenza patients in December 2019 and earlier (Fig. 1). 

Only the U.S. intelligence agencies knew if their intelligence, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal on May 23, originated in the influenza monitoring, but your Pekingnologist wants to highlight Tong’s explanation because so far that went unmentioned in the Western mainstream media - as if China never specifically addressed it beyond a blanket denial.

The fact of the matter is China on July 22 has again thrown the ball back into the U.S. side: show us the names of the three WIV employees that you claimed were sick in November 2019.

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When you talk about “the Wuhan lab,” what lab are you talking about?

Also, Asher indicated - again, citing what he said was declassified intelligence but not seen in mainstream media at the time - in a Hudson Institute event that the three allegedly sick WIV employees were from a BSL-3 (Bio Safety Level - 3) lab in the WIV, rather than the much-maligned BSL-4 lab.

But the key thing that was declassified that the first known cluster that we're aware of, of victims of we believe to be COVID-19. There is a possibility it was influenza, but I'm very doubtful that three people in highly protected circumstances in a level three laboratory working on coronaviruses would all get sick with influenza that put them in a hospital or in severe conditions all in the same week, and it didn't have anything with the coronavirus. That's highly hard to believe.

To repeat, this is interesting because the point man of the State Department under Pompeo was pointing fingers at NOT the WIV’s BSL-4 lab, long the target since BSL-4 is the highest-level containment that could most easily ignite the imagination for something risky.

That the WIV’s BSL-4 lab wasn’t safe to begin with was introduced to Western mainstream by an April 2020 opinion column on the Washington Post via Josh Rogin, which this newsletter later pushed back.

Columbia Journalism Review’s The Media Today called that column “bombshell new reporting,” which was “shared widely on social media, including by prominent mainstream journalists.” 

Throughout his column and later his book (March 2021), Rogin did not differentiate between a BSL-4 lab and a BSL-3 lab while focusing exclusively on the BSL-4 lab as if that’s the only one in WIV.

From Rogin’s April 2020 opinion column, where he quoted a California-based digital scientist to describe the WIV lab

There are similar concerns about the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab, which operates at biosecurity level 2, a level significantly less secure than the level-4 standard claimed by the Wuhan Insititute of Virology lab.

In his book excerpts published on Politico Magainze in March 2021, Rogin appears to continue referring to only the BSL-4 lab at WIV, for example

In the spring of 2020, inside the U.S. government, some officials began to see and collect evidence of a different, perhaps more troubling theory—that the outbreak had a connection to one of the laboratories in Wuhan, among them the WIV, a world leading center of research on bat coronaviruses.

To some inside the government, the name of the laboratory was familiar. Its research on bat viruses had already drawn the attention of U.S. diplomats and officials at the Beijing Embassy in late 2017, prompting them to alert Washington that the lab’s own scientists had reported “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”

Your Pekingnologist doubts if Rogin recognized that there are different levels of labs in WIV or that coronavirus research is traditionally NOT conducted in BSL-4 matter, as Rogin never made any effort to differentiate them in his writings.

But your Pekingnologist recognizes it’s possible that Rogin, as well as many others, was using the term “lab” broadly to cover everything and anything at WIV. However, in that case, the problem is the focus of the lab leak theory has been squarely on the part of the WIV that’s most likely not involved in coronavirus research.

For a real science journalist, this is something that has to be nailed down. See a question from Jon Cohen, of the journal Science, to Dr. Shi Zhengli in July 2020

Q: Given that coronavirus research in most places is done in BSL-2 or BSL-3 labs--and indeed, you WIV didn't even have an operational BSL-4 until recently-- why would you do any coronavirus experiments under BSL-4 conditions?

A: The coronavirus research in our laboratory is conducted in BSL-2 or BSL-3 laboratories.

After the BSL-4 laboratory in our institute has been put into operation, in accordance with the management regulations of BSL-4 laboratory, we have trained the scientific researchers in the BSL-4 laboratory using the low pathogenic coronaviruses as model viruses, which aims to prepare for conducting the experimental activities of highly pathogenic microorganisms.

After the COVID-19 outbreak, our country has stipulated that the cultivation and the animal infection experiments of SARS-CoV-2 should be carried out in BSL-3 laboratory or above. Since the BSL-3 laboratories in our institute do not have the hardware conditions to conduct experiments on nonhuman primates, and in order to carry out the mentioned research, our institute had applied to the governmental authorities and obtained the qualification to conduct experiments on SARS-CoV-2 for Wuhan P4 laboratory, in which the rhesus monkey animal model, etc. have been carried out.

The experimental activities are supervised by our institute’s biosafety committee and complied with the biosafety regulations.

There is also Gabriel Gras, a French biosecurity expert who had monitored the construction of the BSL-4 lab of WIV, telling Xinhua

"It is very expensive to operate a BSL-4 lab, in money but also in time, since the experiments take longer to set up due to safety constraints such as wearing a high-pressure diving suit," Gras explained, saying that it's "just common sense" that they don't work in BSL-4 labs with BSL-3 pathogens any more than they do in BSL-3 labs with BSL-2 pathogens.

"Using a BSL-4 to work with a coronavirus is like using a 20-ton crane to move a 30-kg refrigerator. It would be completely illogical."

If you don’t believe Dr. Shi Zhengli or Gabriel Gas, then David Asher’s little-noticed use of “level three” at the think tank prominently unfriendly to Beijing based on what he said was declassified U.S. intelligence, may be worth a thought.

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