Following is the full transcript of the March 12th, 2021 Hudson event titled The Origins of COVID-19: Policy Implications and Lessons for the Future
David Asher: Hello, it’s David Asher. I’m a Senior Fellow here at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. I want to welcome everyone to an event on preventing the next pandemic. The policy implications of China, COVID-19, and the future of the world in an era of biology, indeed of synthetic biology. I want to just directly introduce our moderator today, Christopher Isham. Many years with CBS News as the D.C. Bureau Chief, and Deputy Head of CBS News. Many years before that as the Lead Investigator for ABC News. Among other famous interviews, he was the first Westerner to interview Osama Bin Laden. He’s cracked many big stories in the past and is an old friend. We’re very grateful for his moderation today. Chris, I’ll turn it over to you.
Christopher Isham: Okay. Thank you very much, David. Just by way of a brief setup, it’s now more than 14 months that we’re into COVID-19 since it emerged in Wuhan, China. More than two and a half million people have died. A million more have been sickened, some with lasting effects. There’s been obviously a devastating effect on the world economy. Yet we still have no clear understanding of the origins of this virus. Conventional wisdom and many in the scientific community have said that its origins are zoonotic. That is, the virus jumped from an animal in the wild, most likely a bat, to humans possibly via an intermediate animal host. The other theory is that the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan that was conducting myriad experiments on bat coronaviruses.
The purpose of this panel, and I will say that it’s a very bipartisan panel or nonpartisan panel, is to examine the research into the origins and try to chart an approach to the way forward. Let me get into it and introduce our panelists. David Asher has already started us off. He’s a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. His area is focused on U.S. foreign policy in Asia, economic and financial policy towards U.S. state adversaries, strategic law enforcement, and high technology development. Dr. Asher is well known as one of the most experienced advisors to the U.S. government on countering money laundering, terrorism financing, and sanctions evasion. He has conducted a number of whole of government investigations that have been highly effective involving complex international issues, such as nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons development and proliferation.
Specifically to the issue at hand, he spearheaded a taskforce for the office of secretary of state looking into the origins of COVID-19 and the role of the Chinese government. Miles Yu is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is also a professor of East Asian and Military Naval History at the U.S. Naval Academy in Minneapolis, Maryland. Dr. Yu specializes in Chinese military and strategic culture, and the U.S. and Chinese military and diplomatic history, and U.S. policy towards China. Dr. Yu served in the Trump administration and served as a China policy advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Jamie Metzl is a technology and healthcare futurist. He’s a geopolitical expert, novelist, social entrepreneur, media commentary, and Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council. In 2019, he was appointed to the World Health Organization Expert Advisory Committee on Human Genome Editing. He’s the author of a recent book, Hacking Darwin, and he’s served in various capacities in the U.S. government over the years in the U.S. National Security Council, the State Department, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other offices. Most specifically, in terms of the issue again on the table today, he was the lead author of an open letter that was published that was critical of the WHO China investigation that was released on March the fourth.
Andy Weber is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks. Mr. Weber has dedicated his professional life to countering nuclear, chemical, and biological threats, and to strengthening global health security. He served in the Obama administration as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs. He has conducted a number of U.S. government taskforces that address U.S. leadership, and coordinated U.S. leadership on the international response to pandemics, including the response to Ebola, for the Department of State. With that, let’s get right into it. I’d like to open it up with a very broad question, which is, why is it important to understand what the origins of COVID-19 are? Andy Weber, do you want to take a crack at that?
Andy Weber: Sure. I mean, the most important thing is that we understand it so that we make this the last pandemic and don’t have a repeat. But I think it’s also important because if, and it’s a big if at this point, it were the result of so called gain of function experiments, which the U.S. government is still funding, including overseas and in the Netherlands, and apparently previously in China, we need to have a policy discussion. The Trump administration lifted the moratorium on this very risky type of research called gain of function research in 2017. I think if indeed that was the cause of this and led to the creation of this very effective SARS-CoV-2 virus, then we need to re-look at that policy and perhaps lead an international effort to stop this kind of very, very risky research.
Christopher Isham: Thank you for that. We will definitely come back to the details on gain of function research. Jamie, anything to add on why we need to understand the origins?
Jamie Metzl: Yeah. There are some people who are saying, “We don’t really need to understand where this came from because we know there’s just best practice of all these different things that we should do. We should have somewhat more lab security. We should be careful about encroaching wild spaces. We should keep our attention on climate change.” All those things are good things. But imagine if a plane crashed and somebody said, “The plane crashed. Let’s make sure we are thinking broadly about airline safety.” We wouldn’t do that. That would be insane. We’d say, “We know that this plane crashed. If we don’t want to have another plane crash just this same way, we better ask this really tough, tough question.”
Knowing how this pandemic began first is really essential to responding to this pandemic. And it’s essential for prioritizing our next steps for doing everything that Andrew mentioned of trying to prevent the next one. There are many people who are saying, and I find it very unfortunate, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Why are you causing trouble? Let’s just do all the right things.” That’s the wrong answer. We need to know where this pandemic… how it began. We need to understand all of our many failures across the board in many countries, which ensued as a foundation for fixing our biggest problems.
Christopher Isham: Thank you for that. You’re right, I have heard a number of people say, “Well, we know what the genetic structure of this virus is. Why do we need to know where it came from?” I think that’s an important point. There is an international investigation underway under the auspices of WHO, World Health Organization, in conjunction with China. They recently conducted a trip to China, and at the end of that trip conducted a news conference on February the ninth. At which the leader of the team, Peter Embarek, said that the most likely scenario was that the virus jumped from animal host, probably a bat, to an intermediate host, and then to humans. He did not identify, however, which bat or which virus in that bat, or which intermediate host could have possibly accomplished that spillover.
He also stated that he felt that the release from a lab, accidental release, or any kind of a release, was extremely unlikely and really didn’t require any further research. Jamie Metzl was the lead writer of a letter that was released on March the fourth, which raised some very serious questions about the integrity and the structure of the WHO investigation. Jamie, why don’t you elaborate on that?
Jamie Metzl: Sure. As I was saying before, we are all stakeholders in understanding where this pandemic came from. To understand this WHO “investigation,” we need to go back to 2020. Because in early 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was raising boldly some pretty tough and honest questions about the origins of the pandemic. Viewers may remember that Australia was punished by China for even raising those questions with restrictions on beef and other exports from Australia to China. That then went to the Rural Health Assembly in May. It was this kind of strange thing where a resolution that began as saying, “Let’s have a tough look at where and how COVID began,” with strong Chinese opposition. Somehow morphed into a Chinese led resolution calling for an investigation into the zoonotic origin of the virus.
Already, it was pushing toward one particular outcome, which Chris, you mentioned the series of zoonotic jumps through intermediate animal hosts. After that, the WHO negotiated from I think a very weak position the terms of reference with the Chinese government for that investigation. Unfortunately, China negotiated veto power over who got to be an investigator. It was agreed that in most areas, the Chinese government would actually do the primary research and present its findings to these international “investigators.” So, already there was a big restriction. Then when this team went to China, there was an expectation I think in other parts of the world that this was a real investigation. Not only was it not a real investigation, it was more of a chaperoned two week study tour where they were given highly curated information.
Most people on the world didn’t appreciate that this committee wasn’t the World Health Organization. It was an independent advisory committee to the World Health Organization that was then engaged in a joint process with their Chinese government counterparts. The thing that was announced on February ninth at the Wuhan Press Event should have been, “Well, this was a joint independent committee Chinese government press event.” Then it would have been clear. Well, geez, of course they’re saying, “Don’t investigate the lab leak hypothesis.” Why would the Chinese government want to investigate itself when the stakes are so high? But that wasn’t the way it was covered. It wasn’t at all clear that that was the case in the press event.
The way that this went out into the world is, the World Health Organization doesn’t think the lab leak hypothesis is worthy of investigation. And that the World Health Organization thinks that the frozen food hypothesis is. I certainly was deeply, deeply concerned about that. I immediately put out a statement and sent messages to my friends and contacts at the World Health Organization. I was very, very pleased that three days later, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, the WHO Director General, put out a statement saying, “No, we’re going to… we believe every hypothesis should be investigated.” I had also been part of an international community of scientists and other experts who had been meeting privately, having almost academic conferences, virtual conferences. Presenting data, challenging each other, really trying to understand to the best of our abilities where COVID may have originated. It was at that time that I said to that group, “Look, we need to come forward. Because if we don’t do anything, the story out in the world will be that WHO says, ‘The lab leak hypothesis isn’t worthy of investigation.’ That’s wrong.”
We did put out our open letter on March fourth. It basically made the following points. One, this pandemic is terrible and deadly. Chris, as you mentioned, it needs, for the reasons that you’ve articulated, a full investigation. Two, this joint effort between the WHO organized independent committee and the Chinese government is not the kind of full investigation that we need. We articulated at great length why. Number three is, if we want to have a full and unrestricted international forensic investigation with all access to relevant records, samples, and key personnel, here is what it would look like and here is how we might do it. Then number four, we call on world leaders to try to make this kind of investigation happen so we can understand where this terrible pandemic began for all the reasons that we’ve articulated.
Christopher Isham: Just to be clear, your view expressed in the letter is that the current WHO China investigation should be scrapped and replaced with a new structure.
Jamie Metzl: There certainly will be some useful pieces, tidbits of information, that will come out of this process. But I think that there’s a real difference between saying, “All right. We’re going to have a joint independent committee Chinese government two week study tour that may come up with some interesting pieces of information.” That’s fundamentally different from saying, “We actually need to have a full, thorough, and unrestricted international forensic investigation to actually answer the problem.” Whether it should or shouldn’t be scrapped, we shouldn’t confuse this with the kind of investigation that we need. Everybody on earth is a stakeholder in that kind of investigation.
Christopher Isham: What you’re saying is though that really what’s needed is a truly independent, new investigative structure.
Jamie Metzl: Yes. With access to all, as I mentioned before, records, samples, and personnel. I was just this morning actually there with Chatham House. I did an event with a number of members from this committee. In the early days they were saying, “This is an investigation.” A lot of them were saying, “It’s a WHO investigation.” Now I think wisely, and perhaps in response to our letter, they’re saying, “No, this is just a joint study, a joint study tour.” It’s crazy that we are well over a year past the initial outbreak. There is no existing full and credible investigation into the origins of the pandemic, and we need it.
Christopher Isham: Okay. Let’s move to what was going on in the U.S. government. David Asher and Miles, you were both involved in the state department during the Trump administration in leading an investigation into the origins within the confines of the U.S. government. But you did unearth a number of things that I think have been newsworthy, that you were able to declassify and publish on January the 15th. David, why don’t you give us a little bit of background on how that came about and what you found?
David Asher: I guess the first thing is to explain what an actual investigation is. It’s certainly not what the WHO is engaged in. The only international organization that does serious investigations really is the IAEA. Even there, they’re always handicapped by the lack of intelligence collection and authority. They do have an ability to receive highly classified information from a number of states. They have a substantial outreach program to dissonant communities and other sources of information that upon corroboration, they are able to use. There was no even FBI wide serious investigation that I’m aware of. An investigation involves probing the motive, the cause, the implications, and I’ll call them the reverberations. Frankly, one of the things you do in an investigation, I worked on the origins of what became known as the AQ Khan Proliferation Network. Something which people didn’t want to believe for years even existed. I worked on uncovering the highly rich uranium program in North Korea, which Jamie was also involved in previously in the very early stages.
It came from very scant information that we built up to a highly probative, sophisticated matrix of lines of questioning of not just our intelligence community, but of allies, of civil points of contact. It was organized from the top down with the clear objective of trying to get to the bottom of an issue objectively, whatever that was. We didn’t come at this saying, “Let’s go blame the Chinese.” But we have to start, and Miles can elaborate on it, we had to appreciate the nature of the Chinese government. This is a government that since 2007 has been writing publicly about genetic warfare. I don’t know the United States government has been talking overtly about the need to develop weapons.
Well, the Chinese government, at the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army, and even at Xi Jinping’s level himself, have at least suggested that bio war is the future of war in some ways, even going beyond nuclear war. I don’t know quite what that means, but when I start to read that in publications which are not classified but not well read because they’re in Chinese and they’re aimed at a Chinese audience, you start to say, “What are they talking about?” Then as a guy myself, who sort of followed the money, I started to follow the money into a number of installations ascended around the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has two campuses, not one. We had to look at the personnel list there. You had to look at some of the people that were publicly known. Dr. Shi, the Bat Lady as she’s been called, is the most sort of infamous and famous, who has been working on bat born coronaviruses for well over 15 years as a research priority. Including the development of synthetic hybrids of bat coronaviruses, which are using the so called gained of function technique to increase their lethality.
She published a paper in 2016 I believe, in Nature, the most widely regarded scientific publication on earth, with a researcher at University of North Carolina. Where she laid out that they had developed an extremely potent version of SARS-coronavirus-2. What she didn’t publish was that in 2012, they had discovered an even more potent natural occurring virus called Ranchi-13. Which by the way, any scientist would tell you that discovery alone should have been on the cover of every major science publication on earth. The fact that they said that they had the first case in history of a bat born coronavirus going directly into human… through human contact to infect humans. That was a revolutionary, not evolutionary, event in science. Why did they cover it up and they locked it away in some freezer, they say? I certainly don’t believe that. That would be another thing.
We have to understand that they were nagged in bat borne, live bat research at the Wuhan Institute. Something which they never admitted, but they have patents publicly for their bat containment vessels that they have at their institute. There’s all sorts of things that are hiding in plain sight. What we did was take what was hiding in plain sight, and then combine it with some high end information collected by our intelligence community, only a swath of which was declassified. 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.
**From that point forward, it certainly seemed to have started to spread within their community. We still don’t know all the details on that. We know most of which we’ve released. I can’t talk about things we haven’t. But we really haven’t had an international investigation, even among our FBI allies, other than people in the intelligence community. I’ll just make one comment about intelligence. The world of biology that Andy and Jamie have been writing about and warning about for years, where you could use even the common flu and other viruses as exceptionally good weapons. If you believe, as I do, that this might have been a weapons vector gone awry, not deliberately released but in development and then somehow leaked, this has turned out to be the greatest weapon in history.
You’ve taken out 15% to 20% of global GDP. You’ve killed millions of people. The Chinese population has been barely affected. Their economy has roared back to be number one in the entire G20. It doesn’t mean that they did this, but when you look as I do having run criminal investigations as well, you’ve got to say, “Motive, coverup, conspiracy.” All the hallmarks of guilt are associated with this thing. The fact that the initial cluster of victims surrounded the very institute that was doing the highly dangerous if not dubious research is significant. And the fact that they massively covered it up, destroyed evidence, and denied access in a way that they didn’t do in SARS-COVID-1 back in 2002, 2003. I was the Senior State Department Official involved in discussing that issue with the Chinese government and they had more than enough to tell us about that. They kept it pretty secret from our own people, but they did warn us that they had a big problem on their hands. In this case, they told us nothing. Miles could elaborate on that.
Christopher Isham: In terms of that cluster that you mentioned in the fall of 2019, I presume that was earlier than the other cases that were discovered in December in Wuhan.
David Asher: Yes. I mean, it’s interesting. There’s one media article in the world that we found that actually says it was based upon a U.S. intelligence report, which I had never seen and I can’t vouch for. I would if I actually have seen it. But in the times of Israel, I believe, at the end of November, they said that they had been given a briefing by the U.S. government on a cluster of victims in Wuhan. It sounds remarkably like what we declassified. If the U.S. government somewhere, somehow knew about that, and somehow it got to even the Israeli government, and frankly we didn’t tell the American people, I would consider that a pretty incredible coverup on our own side. I don’t know that that’s true. It’s interesting, there was this one article that was consistent with what we later declassified. The other very important part is that this was a military program. It was a military program that curiously started probably around 2016 from what we can tell.
Christopher Isham:** You’re talking about the [crosstalk 00:26:11]
David Asher: The development of coronavirus related disease vectors, which could be used as weapons, could be used for bio events. They were excluded from the Chinese declarations of biological defense programs in the 2016, 2017 period. After years of SARS being a priority issue that the Chinese said in an unclassified statement declared to the international community in Geneva. That disappeared at the same time that the level four laboratory kicked off in initial operations, and they accelerated this apparent military funded program. I doubt that that’s a coincidence. Did they stop talking about this as a bio defense area because they decided to make it a bio offense area? We don’t know.
I would not assume that they didn’t. Then in that same year, on Chinese national TV, there was an interesting media commentary by their lead PLA commentator on the nightly news in China where he talked about that we have entered into an area of Chinese bio warfare, including using things like viruses. I mean, they made a public statement to their people that this is a new priority under the Shi national security policy. Miles in his op ed with Secretary Pompeo recently referred to a lot of this information. He’s been studying it for a very long time. Again, you need to understand the context of Chinese hybrid warfare. You need to understand that the nature of the communist state in China, and its secretive dual use approach to everything military, to be able to appreciate it.
Not a single person in the WHO kingdom knows a thing really about China as far as I can tell, let alone their military. Let alone how they use disinformation and information to obfuscate classified programs. Frankly, most of the people who do bio weapons related work in the government and international community are focused, and Andy can comment, on old stuff like anthrax. They’re not thinking about the new century biology that Jamie’s book Hacking Darwin gets at.
Okay, let’s try to pin down a few things here. One is the cluster that you mentioned occurred in that one institute earlier in the fall of 2019. Have you asked the Chinese about that?
David Asher: We asked the Chinese something that I can’t quote verbatim because I don’t know it. But we researched every demarche that the U.S. government and FBI partners that we could get our hands on had made and It came up to be nearly 100 different approaches asking for assistance, offering assistance. The answer consistently was, “No, we don’t need assistance. This can’t spread human to human.” In fact, that was the first thing they kept telling us for up to one month when they knew it was spreading human to human from the beginning of January or even late December, if not earlier based on the declassified information put out by the state on January 15th.
I mean, obviously there was a cluster of cases. The WHO kept looking for the first cluster. Well, we put out information that there was a cluster. I also want to note that there is information which needs to be confirmed in the sequencing. Everyone says, “Oh, the sequencing. Everybody understands it. It’s very transparent.” I’ve had numerous experts to the U.S. and foreign governments in sequencing, so called bioinformatic science, tell me that there’s all sorts of indications in the sequence. In fact, there was an article written in a European publication. It was by Wiley, a well peer reviewed article, where they identified a bat borne backbone for the coronavirus mixed together with the receptor binder of a pangolin.
David Asher: Now, how a bat and a pangolin get together and mate, that’s a new one on me since they don’t really coexist in the same communities. There’s no evidence of them being able to penetrate the skin of an armadillo-like creature like a pangolin. Anything is possible, but there are curiosities and artifacts in the sequence themselves that are extremely disturbing. I’ll let the experts on science, and we hope in the future to have a panel just on the science side. It’s hardly cut clear that that exonerates the Chinese.
Jamie Metzl: Chris.
David Asher: Yeah.
Jamie Metzl: If I could just jump in quickly. As you know, I’ve felt very, very strongly since the beginning days of the pandemic that the lab leak is possible, perhaps even likely. That we have to do a full and thorough investigation. But I also think that we need to be careful in making our assertions. I think that we need to build this scaffolding, whatever, build this wall kind of brick by brick. There are a lot of things where we can say, “Well, that sounds weird. That sounds suspicious.” But I do think that those of us who are making this case, given the magnitude of the implications, we just need to make sure that we’re holding ourselves to the highest level. Just saying, “All right, what are the questions that we have? What are the things that we can prove? What are the things that we can’t prove? In order to prove things that we may suspect, what’s the data that we would need?” I know I’ve spent the last year being accused of being a conspiracy theorist. This year, I think it changed.
I think people are starting to recognize one hypothesis is lab leak. One hypothesis is a series of zoonotic jumps through intermediate animal hosts, which don’t require, David, mating. But I just think that in this conversation, it’s easy, especially with people who have many of the same suspicions, to now hold ourselves just to the highest standards. All right, what can we prove? What do we suspect? If we want to prove something more, what’s the evidence that we would need?
Christopher Isham: Thank you for that. Doctor, could you maybe give us your perspective on how you feel the Chinese government has handled the investigation to date? Do you agree with David Asher’s perspective that they have been engaged in a willful attempt to cover it up?
Miles Yu: Well, thank you. First of all, before I say anything, I would like to clarify that I’m speaking today in the capacity of a Senior Fellow at Hudson. Not of a defense department employee or the professor of the Naval Academy. Let me put this whole issue into a much larger context. That is, the China policy and also the national security. Not just for the United States, but also for the entire world. China is a country of consequence. Deny or malign, it is a country of consequence. Yet its many practices and its behaviors are out of the range of international inspection and international monitoring.
It has been doing a lot of things that are kind of very dangerous. One of the issues obviously is in the area of virus research and bio weapons development. I think through this investigation of the origin of this virus, the deadly virus that it is and extremely pernicious to the health of the world, we can also accomplish something else. We must use opportunities like this to put the Chinese government responsible for what it’s doing. One of the most important things that we should keep in mind is China still is a communist country controlled by the Marxist entity. The first and foremost priority is to prove that the China communist party is all around great. The social resistance is really superior. They tend to hijack any scientific inquiries, such as the origin of the virus. It’s a political priority.
Xi Jinping said… his first meeting to talk about, focus on this virus, was January seventh. He called a bureau meeting talking about this. What exactly he said, what exactly instructed, we’ll never know. But all we know is following an authority in which there is a systemic government gagging of any information about the virus. As a matter of fact, he disappeared. In the meantime, all he was talking about and he was most gung ho about was talking about the advanced nature of the communist party and the incredibly superior ideology of communism. He wanted everybody to get into the ideological intoxication program. That’s the priority. That’s sort of a behavioral pattern since the 1940s, you might say, of the Chinese communist party. That’s very dangerous.
Secondly, a separate opinion I wrote is the op ed published in The Wall Street Journal, as somebody mentioned before. We put out this extremely dangerous situation in China. That is the bio safety. China has been evolved into this greatly foreign pipe of virus research since 2003 SARS outbreak. They have discovered a very, very large number of dangerous pathogens and viruses. Yet according to China’s own admissions from Xi Jinping to bio lab directors in the local label, they all believe that China’s bio safety standard is really low and is very dangerous. This was an accident waiting to happen. By studying the origin of the virus, we could really expose China’s extremely dangerous bio safety environment. That will improve and is not going to be beneficial… not only beneficial to the people of China, but also to the entire world.
Thirdly, I think it’s much more sinister, which some of my fellow panelists have mentioned. That is, China knew the origin of this virus all along. They knew exactly what happened and they endeavored to cover it up. Because it may be related to bio weapons, it may be related to some other very dangerous, adventurous kind of function studies. All those things put together, that shows the extremely important aspect of the inquiry to find out the truth. The truth may be something we like to hear. Maybe it’s something we want to see or maybe not. But the most important thing is we’re going to find out exactly what happened. The biggest obstacle to all of this is the Chinese communist party. This is why the world should be really, really worried about the behavior pattern of the Chinese communist party.
Now, the second issue obviously is to establish the truth of the origin of the virus. The second part of that obviously is to find out the culpability. Who is responsible for this? I will say based upon the enormous damage done to the world, and we’re thinking our best upon the discovery of the true origin and the establishment of the culpability. Then I think the world should seek reparation. [crosstalk 00:38:38]
David Asher: We’re a ways off from that at this point until…
Jamie Metzl: If I could just jump in, just with a response to what Miles said, at least I don’t know what the Chinese government knew. It could be that there are people in the Chinese government who know exactly where, how COVID began. It could not be. That’s certainly my view, is one possibility is the lab leak hypothesis. I personally think it’s the most likely hypothesis, but it could just as easily, and some would say more easily, the zoonotic jump through an intermediate host. These are all real possibilities. I can’t say whether someone in the Chinese government knew in the beginning. But what I can’t say in agreeing with Miles is there was a massive coverup from not just day one, from minute one.
China, everybody knows how they suppressed the initial whistle blowers. They kept the World Health Organization investigators from coming to Wuhan for over three weeks. They immediately began destroying samples, removing databases from public access, imprisoning citizen journalists who were asking tough questions. From then until now, there is a universal gag order on scientists for publishing or speaking out in any way about the origins of the pandemic without the approval of the government. As I said in my Joe Rogan interview a couple of days ago, I am certain that there are people in China right now who at least have a lot of highly relevant information. But I’m sure that those people are terrified that if they were to speak up in any way, they would be in great danger.
Miles Yu: Let me just add to what Jamie said. There is some kind of a misunderstanding and confusion about the circumstantial evidence of the whole thing, as well as a certain aspect of the whole thing. What’s circumstantial is the real origin of COVID because we don’t have direct evidence to point out to the exact origin of that. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence, that’s true. I think the world needs to know the origin. That’s circumstantial because of the obstruction of the Chinese communist party.
Now, what’s rock solid with certainty we can say is the bio safety environment of China is also the irrefutable fact that Chinese communist party has endeavored to seriously cover up. That’s really, really certain and unambiguous. I just want to be sure, when Secretary Pompeo and I wrote that op ed, we’re not talking about the circumstantial evidence. We’re listing all the things that we know as certain, as unambiguous. China is a bio safety environment, and it’s extremely lax. That really is something that we have to clarify.
Christopher Isham: As Josh Rogin has pointed out in his reporting, there were cables going back to 2017 from the U.S. embassy and Being that the conditions in the lab were dangerous and the lab was conducting very risky research into bat coronaviruses at the time. This has been known for a number of years that the conditions in that lab were not as safe as they should be in order to contain the kind of pathogens that they were working with.
I’d like to move on to the issue of gain of function research, which was being conducted at the lab. This was something we talked about a little bit earlier, but I think the interesting aspect to that is that there was U.S. funding for that kind of research, from the NIH and from the Department of Defense, I believe. That funding was terminated by the Trump administration in April, but that research continues elsewhere and may be continuing in China as well without U.S. funding. I’d like to go to Andy for a minute because he was in the Obama administration when a moratorium was established on this kind of research. I wondered if you could give us a sense of why the decision was taken at that time to suspend funding for that kind of research.
Andy Weber: Sure. I remember I was in the HEG meeting with the Netherlands Foreign Ministry the day the news broke that a laboratory in the Netherlands funded by the National Institutes of Health was conducting gain of function research on highly pathogenic Avian influenza. Specifically to increase the transmisability of that very dangerous flu virus. That led to concerns about the research being published and giving a playbook for those who might do such research for more nefarious objectives. For example, in developing biological weapons, or for bio terrorism, or state bio weapons programs. That information was eventually published in a slightly edited version. But we imposed a moratorium because we needed to have a pause.
The justification for this type of research is that it will better prepare us for a pandemic. But the risk of conducting this type of research is that these super viruses that you create in doing this research might escape from a laboratory, even with good bio safety conditions. My feeling is this is a policy debate we need to have. The Obama administration imposed a moratorium. It was lifted by the Trump administration in 2017. They did put in a review process that looks at the risk benefit equation. But clearly, I think that was inadequate because we continue to conduct this type of risky research not just in the United States, not just in the North Carolina laboratory, the academic laboratory, but we export it overseas where we should have a policy of only working with laboratories that meet our very strict bio safety standards. My own view is that if this type of research is justified, it should only occur, at least the U.S. government funded research in this area, should only occur in the most secure and safe U.S. government laboratories. Not in academic laboratories, and certainly not overseas.
Christopher Isham: Do you think there should be an international convention to restrict this kind of research?
Andy Weber: I do. The first step is just the U.S. government reconsidering funding this type of research. I think we should lead an effort to have some form of control over this type of research occurring on an international basis.
Miles Yu: Let me jump in on that point. It’s a very good point. I think all the major science magazine journals, like Nature and Science, they have warned for years about the irony that in many scientific fields, because of strong ethically defined standards, research, in the west, particularly in the United States, many researchers could not do the kinds of experiments in certain animals, particularly primates, in the U.S., for example. China’s lax regulation and their very low bio safety standards would allow that. That created a very lucrative and inviting opportunity for many scientists in the west to collaborate with Chinese colleagues and do the kind of research that they could not have otherwise done in the west on primates, for example. It’s very, very attractive to a lot of American scientists.
That created a conflict of interest when it comes to searching for culpability for origin of all kinds of viruses in China. Because many scientists that have some interest involving this, I’m afraid to say this. I’m absolutely in agreement with Andy about how the international regime could regulate to sort of make countries like China, with low bio safety standards, live up to a very high internationally sanctioned standards. That actually is a very important aspect of the inquiry because if we find all the loopholes, if we find all the shortcomings of China’s bio safety standards, China’s Communist Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping, would admit it. Then we should help China to live up to… to have higher standards. That’s going to be very good for the entire world.
Christopher Isham: Just to ask a basic question, I mean, has this kind of research, creating super viruses, viruses that are more dangerous and more transmissible and more lethal than exist in nature, has this kind of research actually produced any positive benefits?
Jamie Metzl: Andy, you’re probably… you have a response to Miles, but Andy, I would love to hear your thoughts.
Andy Weber: Well, I’ve heard about the benefits, but I have not seen the results to that effect, no. My own feeling is that the risks far outweigh any potential benefit.
Jamie Metzl: Yeah. I mean, there are theoretical benefits of the idea at least behind it, and its advocates, is let’s get ahead of the curve. Because we know that viruses are evolving. If we know which are the most dangerous viruses and how they might evolve, maybe we’ll have a leg up on developing vaccines. But the counter argument, as Andy just said, is that in trying to fight some future monster, we’re actually creating a present monster. Then it’s a really difficult thing because whatever the origins of COVID-19, we know there are some really dangerous viruses out there. There’s a bit of a Willie Horton issue because so many of these pandemics for millennia have originated in kind of tropical parts of China.
It does make sense to at least be studying viruses where they are likely to emerge, but it’s 100% right that we need bio safety, especially for these kinds of pathogens. It can’t just be considered a national issue for any one country because viruses, as we are seeing, they don’t respect our national boundaries. We need to have standards. Now, Singapore is exploring the possibility of creating a DSL for virology institute in Singapore. Should we have, in places like Wuhan and Singapore, is that where we should have these kinds of high level virology institutes? Or should they be in Antarctica, or some kind of a place that… I think there are some really, really big global structural issues at play here that we have to address.
Miles Yu: One addition or thought to that is, during the whole process, one of the saddest thing to me is the politicization of our scientific community. Many scientists are jumping into the political arena to discuss this as a political issue. If Donald Trump says something, that obviously is wrong to many of them. They come, by instinct, to the opposite. I think to give credit to many scientists, particularly many of them in China, most of them want to live up to the international standards. Even many of them within the Wuhan Institute of Virology, this institute was championed as the model of transparency and international corporation. It does have a lot of international corporations.
For example, the institute itself was designed according to international standard after a French lab with very good technology, but because of the national policy, after the institute was built, the French were kicked out. There was no international supervision. There was no international corporation in this core research. It’s very exclusive, secret, and as our intelligence discussion pointed out, has secured the weapons of a risk project with the PLA. All those things pointed out, the issue really about, this scientific issue in China, in the Chinese political environment, is it’s more political than scientific.
If China’s national policy changed, then we probably will see that China now will be much more transparent. Remember, one of the hardest hit group of people by the Chinese communist party’s coverup are their scientists. Many of them were forced into silence and some of them even disappeared. For those people who want to cooperate with the international scientific community, their voice is gone. I think this is a time for us to evaluate how the government and the science community should really work together for the better future of mankind.
David Asher: Can I just make a brief point? Because maybe I was speaking in a little bit of an exaggerated fashion earlier when I talked about pangolins and bats being mated. It’s not that they mate, it’s that they are engaged in cross mutations across species through deliberate scientific gain of function research, which was most definitely published and going on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and quite a few other places in China. And not just that it’s some BSL poor laboratory. It goes on in the United States as well. But I do not detect in any of the discussions that we had, and Miles was in many of them, that we ever had anything to really coverup on our own side. Except for the fact that our own scientific community, beginning with Dr. Collins and Dr. Fauci themselves, have made a multi billion dollar industry out of bio defense after 9/11. I’d like to see frankly evidence as an American taxpayer of what that actually produced.
It did produce funding going to the Wuhan Institute of Virology through the EcoHealth Alliance, through DITRA. DARPA perhaps at some level, the state department. These were well intentioned efforts. They weren’t maligned. We weren’t trying to create a disease vector. But to the extent that the Chinese took our money in typical Chinese fashion of deception and dissimulation, and used it against us at some level, wouldn’t surprise me in the least. That’s what they’ve been doing as they’ve stolen the F-35 space technology, MQ-9, the Reaper from General Atomics. Biology is an area where it’s totally consistent for the Chinese to be doing this type of activity. We are very convinced they were doing it.
The reason why I also am concerned about our own scientific community’s bias is that I heard from very well established scientists at our national labs who did not want to be quoted, who were very fearful of consequences, that they found peculiarities in the exact sequences that people at the WHO and others are saying are pristine. There’s nothing irregular about them. They said, “No.” They’ve seen plenty of things that are irregular in their very sequences. That’s a fundamental scientific fact that I have not seen addressed adequately. I hope that as Jamie builds the foundation for a broader investigation that we don’t ignore the sequencing data itself may have clues.
Miles Yu: The idea that the Trump administration, particularly of the State Department, would withhold willingly and evidence to the public is absolutely untrue. I mean, as a matter of fact, the two cables disclosure of 2018 by the American diplomats is actually the result of Secretary Pompeo’s. Many pushed to disclose as much as possible to the public, what we know. There are a lot of things, as David alluded to, deals with the methods and sources. We interview many top notch scientists in this field. They have their reviews. Then one of the conditions they would talk to us is obviously to withhold their identities. We have a lot of internal information on this, even though not direct. But again, this intelligence disclosure is a pretty bureaucratically long lasting process. But no willingness to withhold the information from American public.
Christopher Isham: Yeah. Okay, well thank you for that, Dr. Yu. I think we’re going to wind things up here. It seems to me that looking forward and trying to chart a way forward, Jamie has outlined I think a good proposal for a new investigation. One of the key things there, Jamie, it seems to me, is that there needs to be access to the various databases that were housed at the Wuhan institute. My understanding is most of the databases were taken offline in September of ’19, and that they contain hundreds or possibly more of sequences of bat coronaviruses that could be very valuable. I think there’s a bigger picture too, which is whether the world needs a different structure on how to approach some of these issues with the kind of research that’s going on right now. Andy, I know you’ve been thinking about that.
Andy Weber: Yeah.
Christopher Isham: We’ll wind up on those two points.
Andy Weber: We definitely-
Christopher Isham: Jamie, why don’t you go first and then we’ll go to Andy?
Jamie Metzl: Okay, yeah. Two very good points. In terms of the databases, yes. Maybe there are things we’re learning from the sequence genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But if we knew all of the research that was happening at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the other labs, which is not just the research happening in Dr. Shi’s lab. All of the research in those facilities. If we had access to all of the databases of the viruses and their sequence genomes, I think that would tell us a lot. Maybe in one direction, maybe in another.
It’s also true that there are two issues. Regulatory, global regulatory issues. One is, can we have a better regulatory system for these bio labs? I think Andy mentioned IEEA. I think that would be a great model. The second, it’s a broader issue connected to the work that I do with One Shared World, is that we reached a point in our development as a species where our biggest problems are global in nature, but our organization is national in nature. That’s why the WHO didn’t have the authority to send its people to Wuhan. It didn’t have its own surveillance network. It’s right now why we have approaching three million people dead. We have this independent advisory committee essentially going to Wuhan as supplicants asking, “Hey, can you help us out and give us some information?” When they get that highly curated information, it’s certainly better than nothing, but it’s not everything.
Christopher Isham: Good. Andy, do you want to summarize your proposal?
Andy Weber: Sure. Last year, the President of Kazakhstan, Tokayev, for the UN proposed creating an international bio security and bio safety organization. I think the idea has merit so we can have better regulation and reestablished norms on the types of research that should be allowed. I also think, and the Council on Strategic Risks, where I’m affiliated, where I’m a senior fellow, we are advocating for a global early warning system to prevent pandemics and learn early about any bio attacks. We think we can have a really good global disease surveillance system with routine information sharing, with ubiquitous genetic sequencing, so we can make this the last pandemic and also significantly reduce the threat of biological weapons.
Christopher Isham: Great. Well, I think with that comment, I think that’s an excellent point. I want to thank all of our panelists. This has been very, very interesting. I’m not sure we cracked the case, but we certainly highlighted the importance of an objective investigation. Thank you.