China covered up the origins of Covid. It’s time the Inquiry asked why

Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells
Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells

Michael Gove has told the covid inquiry that “a significant body of judgement... believes that the virus itself was man-made”. He was immediately slapped down by the lead counsel to the Inquiry, Hugo Keith KC, who insisted that this “somewhat divisive issue” was outside the inquiry’s scope.

But why is this? The origin of the virus is the mastodon in the room. If, as Mr Gove seemed to imply, it was indeed souped up in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, equipped with a thing called a furin cleavage site so it could infect lungs instead of guts, injected into transgenic humanised mice so it could train on human lungs, then that would explain why it was so extremely infectious from the outset, unlike every other emerging virus.

This in turn would explain why it was so darned impossible to contain, and why no country managed to do so, whatever its plan. Surely this is of relevance to the inquiry?

Meanwhile, stampeding crowds of Chinese citizens are seeking hospital care for respiratory problems – again. The Chinese authorities tell us it’s simply down to a bad outbreak of flu, and not another novel virus cooked up in one of their laboratories.

They are probably right. Having locked down their entire country in the most draconian fashion in 2020 and 2022, they missed out on two winters of “normal” flu, colds and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). So there was bound to be a rebound effect this winter. In any event, Chinese people often go to hospital as a first resort when they fall ill, so crowded hospital waiting rooms can happen easily.

But how can we trust their word? This was a regime that assured us in January 2020 you could only catch covid from animals. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they denied that human-to-human transmission was occurring until several weeks into the outbreak, severely punishing anybody who told the truth. This destroyed the world’s only opportunity to nip covid in the bud and save several million lives, including about a quarter of a million British ones.

Mr Gove is the first cabinet minister to say out loud that the virus might be man made, which is itself a disgrace. I have been banging my head against a brick wall trying to get the British government and the British scientific establishment to consider or debate the increasingly strong evidence suggesting that this pandemic started in a laboratory. “Best left to the World Health Organisation,” I was told by ministers. “Too controversial,” I was told by experts. “Time to move on from that debate,” I was told by civil servants. Translation: we don’t want to offend China.

Yet the outbreak happened in a city where scientists were experimenting actively on SARS-like viruses; the closest relative of the virus at the time of the outbreak had been brought to the Wuhan laboratory from a long way away, and that lab refuses to share its database showing what other viruses it had collected.

We know that the Wuhan scientists were bringing bat SARS-like coronaviruses from distant caves and cultivating them in humanised mice, engaging in gain-of-function research, and conducting experiments at absurdly low biosafety levels. To cap it all, they had signed up to a plan the year before the pandemic to add a furin cleavage site to a SARS-like virus for the first time, and covid is the only SARS-like virus with a furin cleavage site ever found.

As my co-author Alina Chan says, this is like scientists in a certain city proposing to put horns on horses a year before a unicorn shows up in the very same city.

Worryingly, all this means the risk of another pandemic is probably higher than it was in 2020. That is partly because the Chinese regime has made none of the promises it made after SARS in 2003 to be more transparent next time. And partly because malevolent people have now seen how easy it is to destroy the world economy with a not very lethal virus - and how easy it now is to manipulate bat viruses to infect human beings.

So this time, in addition to the usual risks from chicken farms, wildlife markets and slapdash laboratories, there are undoubtedly criminals and rogue regimes deliberately planning a new pandemic for us. The very least we should do is discuss it. The topic should not be outside the remit of this interminable inquiry.

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