Why Does the Wuhan Institute of Virology's Shi Zhengli Keep Changing Her COVID-19 Story?
Colin Butler picks apart contradictory statements in the science media, and asks why science writers ignore China's disinformation on virus research.
6 minute read
In the last six weeks, the official line from scientists and science writers on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has fallen apart. Once dismissed as a “conspiracy theory,” the idea that the COVID-19 virus could have come from a lab in Wuhan is now openly discussed, and researchers and journalists are picking apart the heretofore leading hypothesis that the pandemic started from a natural spillover from bats.
One scientist who has dissected the narrative promoted by science publishers is Colin Butler, a physician, epidemiologist and Honorary Professor of public health at the Australian National University. In an editorial titled, “Plagues, Pandemics, Health Security, and the War on Nature,” Butler highlighted a series of errors and contradictory statements published by Nature, Science, and Scientific American.
“I was taught that, especially in science, you should be honest. And if you're caught lying, you should be embarrassed,” Butler tells The DisInformation Chronicle. “But I've found so many inconsistencies in Chinese stuff, it's like they don't care if they’re caught lying.” Here is an edited and condensed version of our talk.
DICHRON: Tell me about your history with Peter Daszak, who runs EcoHealth Alliance. He’s been constantly in the media for funding and defending Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute for Virology. And Daszak orchestrated that February 2020 statement in The Lancet that called it a “conspiracy” to say the pandemic may have started in a Wuhan lab. [Note to readers: After this interview was complete, The Lancet COVID-19 Commission announced that Daszak was recused from Commission work on the origins of the pandemic.]
You were an editor with Daszak on a journal.
BUTLER: Back in the early 2000s, I was part of this group called the International Association for Ecology and Health, which published a journal called EcoHealth. They had conferences every two years where I would sometimes give talks. Around 2008 or 2009, Peter Daszak became the senior editor, and I was later invited as one of four co-editors.
I thought, “Oh, this is terrific.” Daszak was well-known, and publishing prolifically, so it'd be good to be associated with him. But I later resigned around 2013.
The world's most cited paper on emerging diseases is by Kate Jones and was published in Nature. Daszak is the final, or senior author. It came out in 2008 and has been cited more than 6,000 times, last I checked. I read this paper and found lots of errors. I reckon most people who have cited it have never read it carefully. We all think in groups and herds, so if a paper is well known, then cite it.
I wrote an article in 2012 that spent some space analyzing flaws in this paper. I also edited a report for the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, known as the TDR, that looked at some of the problems in this paper. I sent both of these to Peter, and there was just zero response. So I was losing respect for him.
My perception is that he's surrounded by yes-people. In 2010, he changed the name of his organization from the Wildlife Trust to the EcoHealth Alliance. He was kind of colonizing that term “eco health.” I would run into people at international meetings and they would think that EcoHealth Alliance was the progenitor of the idea of eco health.
DICHRON: Your editorial in the Journal of Human Security discussed this weird, servile profile that Scientific American ran last summer on Shi Zhengli, who is Peter Daszak’s collaborator at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. You wrote:
Scientific American reports that “Shi’s team had been called in to investigate the virus profile of a mineshaft in Yunnan’s mountainous Mojiang County ... where six miners suffered from pneumonia like diseases (two of them died). After sampling the cave for a year the researchers discovered a diverse group of coronaviruses in six bat species.”
The profile also states “although the fungus turned out to be the pathogen that had sickened the miners”.
You noted that Scientific American’s profile of Shi contradicts a master’s thesis from China that was later uncovered. This Chinese report states that these miners were likely sickened by a virus, not a fungus as Scientific American alleged. And after Scientific American wrote that a fungus sickened these miners, Shi published a correction in Nature which states, “We suspected that the patients had been infected by an unknown virus.”
There’s a whole lot of dancing around by Nature and Scientific American, which is owned by Nature, to protect Shi Zhengli. And to avoid admitting that a virus infected these miners.
BUTLER: I was taught that, especially in science, you should be honest. And if you're caught lying, you should be embarrassed. But I've found so many inconsistencies in Chinese stuff, it's like they don't care if they’re caught lying.
I got asked to write this editorial before I really thought that it could be a laboratory leak. But as I got deeper and deeper into the details, you can see by their own words, they were contradicting themselves.
You’ve got to have a high safety culture to do this kind of research—gain of function, or handling dangerous viruses. How can you have respect for people when they can't even get their own story right? It just cast doubt on everything.
I read that Chinese master's thesis quite carefully. I was once a working doctor, and it made perfect sense that these people might have had a fungal or viral illness. But a virus is just more likely.
DICHRON: There were also reports in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Financial Times that Springer Nature—which publishes Nature, Nature Medicine, and Scientific American—has been censoring articles that offend the Chinese government. The latest details on this appeared in UnHerd and spotlighted huge financial ties between Springer Nature and the Chinese government.
BUTLER: I read that in the Financial Times. It's outrageous. As a doctor, you can't just lie to people. There are ethics in the world. What is Springer Nature doing? Acting as censors.
We can't get to the perfect truth; we can do our best to try. They seem to be presenting a Chinese idea of truth. I suppose that that's commercial reality for these publishers, but it's not my kind of science.
DICHRON: You also wrote about an interview Shi did last summer with Science magazine. Again, a rather odd interview. In one of the questions, the reporter asks Shi about “floated” theories that the virus could have come from a lab, as if a lab leak is mere office gossip. You wrote:
She is asked, “What do you think of the theory that infected people who lived near mines were the index cases and that they travelled to Wuhan?”
Shi answers, “I guess you are referring to the bat cave in Tongguan town in Mojiang county of Yunnan Province. To date, none of nearby residents is infected with coronaviruses”.
This answer also seems disingenuous.
Why was Shi’s answer disingenuous?
BUTLER: She’s sort of saying that we knew something happened at this cave, but no one got sick, end of story. But there were six people who were sick, and some of them died. Science magazine was just repeating what Shi told them.
Shi later wrote in that Nature addendum that her team went down to that mine maybe once or twice a year for several years, actively seeking virus samples and bats, and taking over 1000 samples back to Wuhan.
DICHRON: What does this Chinese master’s thesis that was discovered last year say?
BUTLER: The author has been described as a student, but I think it was a medical doctor who was in charge of the clinical care of the six people who were sick from exposure to bat guano in a mine.
DICHRON: This is the cave where we suspect that the COVID virus came from?
BUTLER: We don't know for certain it started there. But this thesis has a reasonable amount of detail, with the ages of the men, and a rough estimate of exposures to the bat guano. And it talks about the clinical cases in detail. This was in Kunming hospital.
It was just a very convincing publication.
We now know that Wuhan researchers went down there very quickly to hunt for viruses as a result. Shi must have known about all of this at the time.
Daszak’s mission has been “I’ve got all this inside knowledge about what is happening in China. Give me all this money, and I will go to China and find these emerging diseases.” But Daszak either didn’t know about the miners’ deaths in 2012, or he’s covering something up.
DICHRON: You point out that there’s a coronavirus very similar to the COVID-19 virus called RaTG13. We first learn about the RaTG13 virus when Shi publishes a Nature article in February 2020 that describes the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. In that Nature paper, Shi writes about the RaTG13 virus and also publishes the sequence.
But many months later, in November 2020, Shi publishes an addendum. She then discloses that the RaTG13 virus was collected in 2013. That's a gap of seven years from the time of the virus was collected until Shi published the sequence in 2020.
BUTLER: Between February 2020 and November 2020, they didn't publish anything about it. Then they were forced to do that because this Chinese master's thesis was discovered. And then this team from India published a piece in October 2020 that explained how these sick miners could provide clues for the origin of COVID-19, also called SARS-CoV-2.
So the secret was out. Shi and her collaborators basically had to publish the addendum in November 2020 to save face.
DICHRON: That team from India wrote that their paper was rejected by multiple journals before they got it published. Still, it forced Nature to make a correction. This seems part of this troubling pattern of censorship we keep hearing about.
There have been multiple statements and tweets from scientists saying there’s no way that the COVID-19 virus could have been engineered or escaped because it’s a new virus. Shi told the BBC last December, “Virus sequences are saved in the [US-run] GenBank database too. It's completely transparent. We have nothing to hide.”
But Shi admitted in that Nature correction that Wuhan collected the RaTG13 virus but didn’t publish the virus sequence for seven years.
I’ve been trying to understand who these supposed virus police are that go into labs and make sure that as soon as you collect a virus you publish the virus sequence, instead of hiding the virus. Nature magazine is admitting that Wuhan researchers don’t publish their virus sequence for many, many years after they collect them.
Who knows how many viruses researchers from Wuhan have collected without publishing the sequence?
BUTLER: It's alleged that they have many viruses at Wuhan. It's just Chinese secrecy, bordering on paranoia. But I think Shi must be monitoring her language very carefully. She appears to be deliberately changing things to sort of obfuscate, muck up the picture. I’m guessing this is because security police have been arresting people.
Shi is either terribly forgetful, or the alternative is that she's stupid. And that alternative is hard to believe.
DICHRON: This is an authoritarian country that the BBC has reported has a million Uighurs confined to re-education camps. If they're going to take a million of their own people and brain wash them in education camps, it strains common sense to argue that they not would try to control one scientist.
BUTLER: I think it's perfectly consistent with how China operates. I had a meeting in 2010 with a guy organizing a meeting in China, and I told him about reports concerning ethnic minorities in the 2008 Beijing Olympics parade. I had read a Reuters’ report that the minorities were all actually Han Chinese, you know, in costumes.
We got into a heated argument in Heathrow Airport about that, because he said, “Oh, no. This is just impossible. All the minorities on display were authentic.”
It's a completely different world to me. I've been there five times, and people a decade or more younger than me seem like children, in a way. There are things you can't mention, like Tiananmen Square.
DICHRON: There's been two theories, and they're both equally valid. But large numbers of scientists and their brethren in the science media always place the onus of evidence on proving that the virus came from a lab. Science writers have been pretending that all the evidence lines up in favor of this pandemic starting naturally, and promoting that narrative.
I say, let's figure it out. NIH Director Francis Collins and Tony Fauci have called for Chinese scientists to open their records to inspection. But let’s demand the same transparency from scientists in the United States.
Release internal government documents from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies. These government scientists need to stop running to the New York Times to make their claims, and they need to just show us the documents and their emails.
Why do you think there's been so much credulous reporting? The New York Times did this really awkward interview with Shi.
BUTLER: I read that New York Times interview with Shi. It was fawning.
Science has been very accepting that it was natural spillover because of the prestige of that Lancet statement in February 2020. You had Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust and 26 others saying, “If you're not with this, you are a conspiracists.”
That was a very strongly worded letter and it had a real chilling effect.