What a year 2015 was. It carried a lot of freight for the melodrama of Spygate and the U.S. 2016 election. But it was also a big year for the Wuhan Institute of Virology; for a biotech company that works with the biosafety level-4 lab there; and for the exotic realm of gain-of-function research into coronaviruses – in particular those in the SARS family (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome viruses), like COVID-19.
As is so often the case, we’re back looking at 2015 because of what’s happening in 2020. The course of communal human life has been brought to a screeching halt across the entire planet by the eruption among us of the COVID-19 coronavirus. In a mere eight weeks, the U.S. has gone from a roaring economy to a ghost town, uneasily aware that as things get worse, the system we’ve lived in for decades doesn’t have a way to combat-bridge us to a future of reliable expectations.
There are too many tremendous implications to get into all of them. Ironically, China is the last nation you want to be if U.S. tax receipts are about to crash and burn bigger than any such historical conflagration, ever. If our tax receipts tank, it’s not servicing debt that our federal government is going to prioritize.
Which compounds the irony and, let us say, the quizzy face we may wear when contemplating all the coincidences attending the new melodrama – which at some point we’re going to give a -gate handle to. Will it be Virusgate? Maybe Wuhangate? (“Chinagate” has been done.)
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It won’t be possible, ultimately, to ignore it. The coincidences are just too many. It isn’t being conspiracy-minded to notice them; it’s merely sane.
To date, the excellent work of others, like Jim Geraghty at National Review, has turned up the following.
A parade of lies
First, China has been lying about the COVID-19 coronavirus from the beginning. The biggest of the lies seems to have been that China wasn’t seeing human-to-human transmission of the virus. Yet according to information recorded by Chinese specialists at ground zero, in Wuhan, human-to-human transmission had been detected by early December 2019.
Chinese authorities asserted explicitly, as late as 15 January 2020 – six weeks later, and after multiple instances of virtually certain human-to-human transmission had been seen – that human-to-human transmission had not been seen.
Even when China dropped this categorical pronouncement, the authorities there began implementing restrictive measures on the population without giving a straight story to either their own people or the WHO and other countries. Rather than acknowledging human-to-human transmission, they addressed it only in vague terms, or not at all, while silencing doctors and researchers who knew the truth.
China is also, of course, suspected of vastly understating the infected population and death toll in China from COVID-19. That is a garden-variety cover-up in the playbook of communist dictatorships. But the refusal to publish the truth about the transmissibility of the virus smacks of something else.
If the Chinese government had no consciousness of guilt about the virus, there wouldn’t seem to be any reason to lie about its transmissibility among humans. There’s no need to assume the transmissibility is China’s fault.
Indeed, China is not being accused on that head by anyone in foreign leadership. Plenty of people are accusing China of lying about it, which effectively set back other nations in their level of alertment and planning for weeks. But no one is accusing China of having somehow made the virus humanly transmissible.
China seems to have lied where there was no need to lie. So that is an interesting data point. (It’s one of Dyer’s Axioms of Intelligence that doing the unnecessary is a reliable sign of being on offense. Being on defense is about doing what’s necessary. To go beyond that is to signal that you are taking initiative.)
A trail of dots to Wuhan labs
There are also good reasons to doubt the working theory that COVID-19 made the jump from common animal host – bats – to humans via a Wuhan “wet market.” For one thing, although bats are sold in wet markets in China, it appears that bats are not on offer at the supposed ground-zero wet market in Wuhan, which is a seafood market.
But a more compelling point is that the bats that carry the virus aren’t indigenous to the Wuhan area. The closest ones are hundreds of miles away, and very unlikely to be harvested for sale in a wet market located such a distance from their habitat.
Jim Geraghty, again, has an invaluable summary. The evidence for bat-to-human transmission via a wet market is lacking. But the circumstantial evidence is striking that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was heavily engaged in studying SARS-like coronaviruses in bats, at just the time when the Wuhan outbreak began.
Moreover, researchers at the WIV were reported to have been splashed with bat blood and urine, and in the course of trapping bats (in their distant habitat), or working with them to extract fluids, may have suffered scratches as well. If someone was going to contract a particular coronavirus from a bat, it seems likeliest that it would be a human researcher and a bat population with interactions fitting that description.
Again, none of this implicates China in anything nefarious. (It may implicate their lab managers in poor security practices.) Combining it with the record of Chinese authorities lying about other things, and suppressing counter-narrative reporting from researchers and physicians, is what makes it look suspicious.
One point Geraghty spends some quality time on is the fate of WIV researcher Huang Yanling, who is thought by many to have been Patient Zero. That would have put her at the WIV in the fall of 2019. She is unaccounted for at this point, and presumed dead by those who think she was Patient Zero.
China has denied this, and the WIV has said only that she has left the institute and they don’t know where she is now.
Geraghty notes in passing that the last published paper available by Huang Yanling is from 2015. Her work up through February 2015 doesn’t seem to indicate a connection with coronavirus research (the last paper is on bacteria, not viruses).
But the timing of the cutoff of professional information about her is what’s important, perhaps more so than we would realize from the facts so far. And that brings us to our increasingly remarkable year.
The Year of the Goat
We get to 2015 by way of both the coronavirus and the recent, widely shared report that a Chinese biotech firm, WuXi Pharmatech, has a subsidiary in Wuhan called WuXi AppTec, in which George Soros was an investor about 10 years ago.
Although it’s rarely meaningless from a political-strategic standpoint to probe what Soros is investing in, the real harvest in this case comes from discovering why he can no longer be a holder of publicly traded shares in the WuXi AppTec he bought a decade ago.
It’s because in 2015, our year of freight and interest, parent company WuXi Pharmatech was taken private.
It had been traded on the NYSE since 2007. The WuXi AppTec subsidiary had been formed when WuXi Pharmatech bought out a U.S. company, App Tec, in 2008.
But in April of 2015, a consortium of Chinese investment companies, led by a little-known firm named Ally Bridge Investments Group, came together to execute a take-private buyout of the public shareholders.
The privatization of WuXi created a bit of a stir at the time, given its size and successful record in the NYSE. But there doesn’t seem to be any English-language commentary from the time on the most significant aspect of this buyout, which is that the investors’ consortium is a Who’s Who of Chinese Communist Party connected investment companies.
What China was doing was taking WuXi out of any effective oversight by foreign shareholders and tucking it firmly under the wing of the CCP.
Ally Bridge itself, headquartered in Hong Kong (but incorporated, like WuXi, in the Cayman Islands), is under the leadership of Mr. Frank Yu (AKA Yu Fan), who seems to have no biography other than his last three or so jobs with big investment houses like Goldman Sachs. If he is a native of anywhere on Planet Earth, his English-language biographies don’t mention it. That’s a common sign of a government asset.
Others in the buyout consortium include the Hillhouse Capital Group, whose CEO Zhang Lei attended Renmin University as an undergrad – the prestigious Chinese university that turns out senior CCP officials and Politburo members. Zhang later did graduate work at Yale and has recently become a major donor there. At The Epoch Times, Annie Wu and Nathan Su provide details like this about Renmin:
The university is also an active participant in the CCP’s overseas propaganda operations, having established 12 Confucius Institutes overseas, according to the school’s website.
Another member of the buyout consortium was the Boyu Group, formed by one of the chief “princeling” sons of the CCP elders, Jiang Zhicheng. In the West he goes by “Alvin Jiang”; in China, he’s the grandson of Jiang Zemin, whom you’ll remember as the General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1989 to 2004. (General Secretary is the title formally held by the national leader, or premier, now Xi Jinping.)
Ping An is another CCP-linked investment group; its CEO Ma Mingzhe is a member of the CCP, and as Reuters demurely reports, “Ping An’s earnings reports sometimes discuss key Chinese Communist Party meetings and emphasise how the company furthers politically popular objectives.”
It’s not without interest, incidentally, that the Reuters article, from March 2019, was about Ping An buying up a sizable chunk of its own shares, which are traded on the Chinese market. None of China’s financial moves lacks a geopolitical – and national-strategic – motive. And that observation, which we may leave for a moment as regards 2019, goes double for 2015.
A biosafety lab’s opening is celebrated
The most obviously important development in 2015 was the formal inauguration of the WIV’s Wuhan Biosafety Level-4 Lab on 31 January of that year. Just over a month later, according to Ge Li, the CEO of WuXi Pharmatech, the idea to take his company private sprang from his brow. By 30 April, he and Frank Yu at Ally Bridge had put together their proposal for the buyout from the NYSE.
I have a hard time seeing this as mere coincidence. WuXi subsidiary WuXi AppTec, whose services are conveniently located in Wuhan for the WIV, could hardly fail to be affected by the opening of China’s only BSL-4 laboratory down the road. If ever there were a time for WuXi to move away from foreign investors holding their shares under the rules of the U.S. SEC, and into the secretive fold of the CCP, it was the beginning of 2015.
But the beauty of the move for WuXi was that it didn’t change WuXi’s overseas access, facilities, or employment of foreign talent (at least not necessarily). WuXi continued in theory to be the same company it was before privatizing, with offices and labs around the world.
A veil, however, was dropped over its corporate governance and relationship with national strategic and military operations in China. That this happened just as the Wuhan BSL-4 was standing up is … eye-catching.
Speaking of early 2015, meanwhile, February 2015 qualifies: the date of the last paper now available online from Huang Yanling, the missing WIV scientist. That could have no meaning. Or – perhaps consonant with her being Patient Zero – it could mean that Huang’s research work moved behind a locked biohazard level-4 door in Wuhan, and Huang herself didn’t ultimately make it out.
This seemingly minor detail highlights, however, another relevant event in 2015: publication of a study of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats which postulated a “potential for human emergence.”
Two scientists from the WIV participated in the study, which was done at the University of North Carolina. One WIV participant was Shi Zhengli (or Zhengli Shi, as she is listed, Western-style, among the study’s authors). Shi is the Director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Research Center at the WIV, and has international fame as a top expert on bat virology. The other participant was Ge XingYi.
The most notable thing about the study is that its purpose was to deliberately increase the infectiousness of the pathogen to ensure useful reactions in test subjects (in this case, mice), with the ultimate goal of better detecting and treating the resulting disease. To this end, the study used “gain-of-function” measures to basically make the virus more virulently infectious.
A bat-virus study whose title conclusion is about the “potential for human emergence” must obviously grab attention. I suspect the non-experts who are interpreting this as evidence that the COVID-19 virus (which comes from the same SARS family) was engineered are oversimplifying the matter, and I stipulate that I don’t have the expertise to judge one way or the other. I am not assuming it here.
But as the study itself acknowledges, the gain-of-function approach does produce exceptionally hazardous viral cultures. In fact, the study sponsors had to get approval from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to continue it, because in October 2014, while the study was underway, the U.S. government imposed a broad halt on gain-of-function studies due to their inherent dangers.
That danger was widely discussed at the time the UNC-WIV study came out in November 2015. It was discussed in China too, where the WIV posted a few paragraphs on it in December 2015 under the headline “Will SARS come back?”
Once again, it would not necessarily be evidence of reprehensible activity if the Chinese had a sample of the virus material generated for the 2015 study at their BSL-4 lab, and it was released accidentally. It would probably be negligent, but it wouldn’t have to be evidence of fell intent.
That said, there are an awful lot of coincidences piling up. There’s another one that takes us on a detour into Usual-Suspect Land.
The French Connection
Research the history of the Wuhan BSL-4 and WuXi, and you run immediately into the French biotech firm Mérieux, which operates as the Institut Mérieux, the parent holding company, through a group of subsidiaries like bioMérieux and Mérieux Développement. It’s a family company in operation since 1897, and currently headed by 82-year-old patriarch Alain Mérieux.
The subsidiary bioMérieux was able to act with gratifying swiftness in the current coronavirus crisis to come out on 11 March with the announcement of a diagnostic test for COVID-19. The test is promoted as delivering results in 45 minutes.
The firm also mentioned proudly that it is working with the U.S. Department of Defense to field a fully-automated pneumonia panel test “based on BIOFIRE FILM ARRAY technology.” Mérieux in fact has a history of working with DOD through the Pentagon’s Critical Reagents Program.
So it should probably come as no surprise that Mérieux basically built the Wuhan BSL-4 for China, a contribution the Chinese have recognized in multiple ways. Most recently, Alain Mérieux received the Chinese Reform Friendship Award from Xi Jinping in 2018, partly in recognition of these particulars:
Alain Mérieux also served as Co-President of the Franco-Chinese Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases, alongside the Minister of Health, Professor Chen Zhu. In this role, Mr. Mérieux was instrumental in creating the high-security P4 Laboratory that opened in Wuhan in 2014.
In light of these details, it must be even less surprising that Mérieux is a donor to the Clinton Foundation, and a participant in Clinton Global Initiative projects. Mérieux joined the Clinton Foundation effort in Haiti with an emphasis on improving the detection and treatment of tuberculosis, and participates in the HIV/AIDS initiative, with a Mérieux research partner, Dr. Jean-William Pape, being awarded the Clinton Global Citizen Award in 2010 for his AIDS research in Haiti.
Interestingly, in 2016, Mérieux and WuXi invested jointly in Twist Bioscience, a San Francisco company that specializes in synthetic DNA. Synthesizing virus DNA for research purposes is a fast-growing field, so this, too, should come as no surprise, just as it isn’t surprising Twist Bioscience stepped quickly to the plate in the coronavirus crisis offering its wares for immediate shipment (SKU numbers conveniently included on the brochure-style listing page). (If you noticed at the Technology Review article that the UNC researcher cited is the same lead researcher from the 2015 UNC-WIV study, congratulations on being awake.)
And yet again, none of this is nefarious, per se. But there are reasons to take a step back and contemplate that it’s remarkable that it isn’t remarkable. What kind of world do we live in, where bats carry nasty viruses that may sometimes become infectious and deadly to humans, and humans do research that cultivates viruses to potentially be especially infectious and deadly to humans, and when a virus erupts from bats that is unusually infectious and under some conditions alarmingly deadly to humans, we assume away the human research line of effort, and invest our indignation in the more passive theory that the bats done it?
I would suggest that that world exists in our heads, and it is ours to choose how short a shrift we give to the human-intervention possibility. No circumstances dictate, a priori, one assumption or the other.
Thoughtful observers have offered reasons to at least give a second look to what China may have been doing over the last few years. This is by no means a comprehensive list; it’s just a few things I’ve come across since the coronavirus crisis ramped up.
Globe-hopping with viruses
One is the peculiar propensity of Chinese scientists to travel to and from North America with containers of virus material in their luggage. Considering the extreme bio-hazard potentially posed by such materials, even one incident ought to really, well, frost our cookies. But there’s been more than one. (See here as well.)
In Canada, meanwhile, a 2018 investigation at a Level-4 lab resulted in the removal of two Chinese researchers over an unelaborated “policy issue,” apparently related to the viruses the scientists dealt with (which included coronaviruses as well as Ebola).
At a time when a virus has propagated to the globe out of China, and Chinese authorities spent weeks demonstrably lying about it, and to this day refuse to deal transparently and in good faith even with their own people, it’s hardly paranoid to recall these incidents with special concern.
Nor is it overanalyzing the situation to consider them, as we assess the meaning of the other circumstances evident from the record.
Exploiting a crisis
In Australia, a Chinese company that in 2015 (that year again) bought a hospital group representing 8,000 beds is threatening to close all its doors across the country, unless the government provides a sufficient amount of financial assistance.
Australians basically see this as extortion. Granting that it’s a tough proposition for hospitals right now, which are bleeding money while elective and non-urgent procedures are postponed, it’s very informative that the Chinese owner doesn’t see any value in cultivating goodwill with local patrons. The basic posture of hospitals toward the public is to seek a reputation for reassurance and care – and the Chinese owner in this case appears to be simply abandoning that most ordinary of models.
It seems like a lot to throw away. Unless it reflects an unpleasant reality of disengagement.
Perhaps it does. Asia Times author Richard Javad Heydarian outlines the ways in which China has been taking advantage of the virus crisis to make assertive moves in the South China Sea, moves that include military drills and ostentatious, well-advertised offshore drilling for natural gas, in a disputed area of the waterway. Other nations are putting such priorities on hold; China, with some of the greatest domestic devastation from the virus, is not.
And there’s this, which needs no analysis.
CPC has brought an economic boom and led the Chinese people completely out of poverty. It has now successfully controlled the epidemic. We respect the US political system, but when the US govt's work against COVID-19 is poor, don't they fell embarrassed criticizing the CPC?
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) April 4, 2020
We are justified in wondering if this is all merely about reacting to a crisis. American Thinker’s William L. Gensert is dubious, essentially asking what China would be doing differently if she were laying the groundwork for one.
He doesn’t lay out a timeline. Reviewing macro trends and more recent events, such as the ejection of U.S. reporters from China, he concludes that we’re seeing signs like the ones before 9/11 in 2001. Given the convergence of conditions, some of them possibly orchestrated by China, Beijing’s opportunity to wage a war against the United States falls in the window between now and when the American recovery starts.
I would agree with Gensert that it can’t really wait until after the recovery begins. Beijing will have burned too many bridges by then, and the window for effectiveness out on a limb, with a jittery region resenting China’s every move, will have passed.
Indeed, what China does pretty much has to be about delaying or preventing America’s recovery.
The question is really how real the signs are that China has been preparing for this moment. We can parse away Chinese culpability, if we want to, in the features of the coronavirus story – at least for the moment. We can turn a deaf ear to possibilities that require more evidence, and assume them onto the ash heap of analysis.
But take a look at this discussion posted by Chinese dissident (and self-exiled billionaire) Guo Wengui about the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Biosafety Level-4 Lab. The provenance appears to be from a source directly familiar with the organization of the lab (i.e., @DTinLAC). Notice how almost everyone connected to the BSL-4 lab (called the “P4” lab in Chinese descriptions) is someone we’ve met here already: senior members of the CCP, the multifarious Mérieux empire, the players involved in the take-private buyout of WuXi Pharmatech and its AppTec subsidiary in 2015.
I’m not sure what role China played in propagating the COVID-19 coronavirus in the last four or five months. But I have no doubt that taking WuXi private in 2015 was about preparing China, from some standpoint (offensive, defensive, or both), to wage biological warfare at a time of the CCP’s choosing in the non-distant future.