Has COVID’s Patient Zero Finally Been Named?

Has COVID’s Patient Zero Finally Been Named?

The lab-leak theory of COVID’s origin has always been a little squirrelly. If SARS-CoV-2 really did begin infecting humans in a research setting, the evidence that got left behind is mostly of the cloak-and-dagger type: confirmations from anonymous government officials about vague conclusions drawn in classified documents, for example; or leaked materials that lay out hypothetical research projects; or information gleaned from who-knows-where that certain people came down with who-knows-what disease at some crucial moment. In short, it’s all been messy human stuff, the bits and bobs of intelligence analysis. Simple-seeming facts emerge from a dark matter of sources and methods.

So it goes again. The latest major revelation in this line emerged this week. Taken at face value, it’s extraordinary: Ben Hu, a high-level researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and two colleagues, Yu Ping and Yan Zhu, could have been the first people on the planet to be infected with SARS-CoV-2, according to anonymous sources cited first in the newsletter Public and then in The Wall Street Journal. These proposed patient SARS-CoV-zeros aren’t merely employees of the virology institute; they’re central figures in the very sort of research that lab-leak investigators have been scrutinizing since the start of the pandemic. Their names appear on crucial papers related to the discovery of new, SARS-related coronaviruses in bats, and subsequent experimentation on those viruses. (The Journal reached out to the three researchers, but they did not respond.)

Is this the “smoking gun,” at last, as many now insist? Has the Case of the Missing COVID Origin finally been solved? If it’s true these were the very first infected people, then their professional activities mean they almost certainly caught the virus in the lab, not a market stall full of marmots and raccoon dogs. The origins debate has from the start revolved around a pair of dueling “coincidences.” The fact that the pandemic just happened to take off at a wet market suggests that the virus spilled over into humans from animals for sale there. But the fact that it also just happened to take off not too far away from one of the world’s leading bat-coronavirus labs suggests the opposite. This week’s information seems to tip the balance very heavily toward the latter interpretation.

[Read: If the lab-leak theory is right, what’s next?]

The only problem is, we don’t know whether the latest revelations can be trusted, or to what extent. The newly reported facts appear to stem from a single item of intelligence, furnished by a foreign source, that has bounced around inside the U.S. government since sometime in 2020. Over the past two and a half years, the full description of the sickened workers in Wuhan has been revealed with excruciating slowness, in sedimenting clauses, through well-timed leaks. This glacial striptease has finally reached its end, but is the underlying information even true? Until that question can be answered (which could be never), the origins debate will be stuck exactly where it’s been for many months: always moving forward, never quite arriving.

The story of these sickened workers has been in the public domain, one way or another, since the start of 2021. Officials in the Trump administration’s State Department, reportedly determined to go public with their findings, put out a fact sheet about various events and circumstances at the Wuhan Institute of Virology around the beginning of the pandemic. Included was a quick description of alleged illnesses among the staff. The fact sheet didn’t name the sickened scientists or what they did inside the lab, or when exactly their illnesses occurred. It didn’t specify their symptoms, nor did it say how many scientists had gotten sick. If you boiled it down, the fact sheet’s revelations could be paraphrased like this:

Several researchers at WIV became ill with respiratory symptoms in autumn 2019.

That vague stub did little to budge consensus views. The lab-leak theory had been preemptively “debunked” in early 2020, and broad disregard of the idea—contempt of it, really—hadn’t yet abated. The day before the State Department fact sheet was released, a team of 17 international experts dispatched by the World Health Organization arrived in Wuhan to conduct (with the help of Chinese scientists) a comprehensive study of the pandemic’s origins. By the time of their return in February 2021, they’d come out with their conclusions: The lab-leak theory was “extremely unlikely” to be true, they said.

The next month, while the WHO team was preparing to release its final report, further details of the sick-researchers story began to trickle out. In a panel discussion of COVID origins and then in an interview with the Daily Mail, David Asher, a former State Department investigator who’s now a senior fellow at a conservative think tank, filled in a few more specifics, including that the researchers had been working in a coronavirus laboratory and that the wife of one of them later died. The intel had arrived from a foreign government, he said. Now the facts that were revealed could be summarized like so:

Three coronavirus researchers at WIV became severely ill with respiratory symptoms in the second week of November 2019.

Pressure for a more serious appraisal of the lab-leak theory grew throughout that spring. In May 2021, more than a dozen prominent virologists and biosafety experts published a letter in the journal Science calling for “a proper investigation” of the matter. A week later, The Wall Street Journal published a leak from anonymous current and former U.S. officials: According to a “previously undisclosed US intelligence report,” the paper said, the sickened researchers had been treated for their sickness at a hospital. In other words, they probably weren’t suffering from common colds. This new aspect of the narrative was making headlines now, like this:

Three coronavirus researchers at WIV became severely ill with respiratory symptoms in the second week of November 2019 and sought hospital care.

After all of this publicity, President Joe Biden ordered the intelligence community to redouble efforts to analyze the evidence. While that work was going on, the leaks kept coming. In a 12,000-word story for Vanity Fair, the investigative journalist Katherine Eban gave some backstory on the sick-research intelligence, claiming that it had been gathered in 2020 and then inexplicably file-drawered until State Department investigators rediscovered it. (One former senior official described this as a “holy shit” moment in an interview with Eban.) Her article contained another seemingly important detail, too: The sickened researchers were doing not simply coronavirus research, her sources told her, but the very sort of research that could produce amped-up versions of a pathogen—an approach known as “gain of function.” Later in the summer, Josh Rogin, a Washington Post columnist, added that, according to his unnamed sources, the sickened researchers had lost their sense of smell and developed ground-glass opacities in their lungs. By this point, in the middle of 2021, the expanded piece of intel amounted to the following:

Three gain-of-function coronavirus researchers at WIV became severely ill with COVID-like symptoms in the second week of November 2019 and sought hospital care.

The latest revelations are coming at just the moment when Republicans are lambasting the Biden administration for failing to declassify COVID-origins intelligence in accordance with a law that the president signed. The Sunday Times quoted an anonymous former State Department investigator who said they were “rock-solid confident” that the three sick researchers had been sick with COVID, because people as young as the researchers would rarely be hit so hard by a mere seasonal illness. A few days later, someone spilled the researchers’ names to Public. On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal matched the scoop, and it seemed that every detail of the once-secret information was now exposed:

Ben Hu, Yu Ping, and Yan Zhu, three gain-of-function coronavirus researchers at WIV, became severely ill with COVID-like symptoms in the second week of November 2019 and sought hospital care.

However vivid this may sound, its credibility remains unknown. Did Hu, Ping, and Zhu really get sick, as the intel claims? If so, was it really COVID? Two years ago, the Journal cited two anonymous sources on this question: One, the Journal wrote, called the intelligence “potentially significant but still in need of further investigation and corroboration”; the other said it was “of exquisite quality” and “very precise.” Just this week, anonymous officials in the Biden administration told The New York Times that intelligence analysts had already “dismissed the evidence,” by August 2022, about the sickened workers at WIV for lack of relevance. Which secret source should be trusted to explain the significance of this secret intelligence? Readers are left to sort that out themselves.

[Read: Don’t fall for these lab-leak traps]

In the meantime, over the past two years, even as the sickened-worker intel was revealed, a very different sort of evidence was mounting, too. A new research paper, published just days after Eban’s feature in Vanity Fair, revealed that live wild animals, including raccoon dogs, had been for sale at the Huanan market in Wuhan shortly before the pandemic started. In early 2022, scientists put out two detailed analyses of early case patterns and viral genome data, which argued in favor of the animal-spillover theory. Another study involving many of the same researchers came out this past spring, noting the presence of genetic material from raccoon dogs in early samples from the market; its authors described their findings as providing strong evidence for an animal origin. But other scientists were quick to challenge the study’s importance. A further study of the same data by Chinese scientists made a point of not ruling out the hypothesis that the pandemic had started with a case of tainted frozen seafood; yet another study, released in May, argued that the original work provided no useful information whatsoever on the question of COVID’s origins.

So it goes with the animal-spillover theory. The evidence in favor has always been highly esoteric, knotted with data and interpretation. Scientific points are made—a particular run of viral nucleotides is a “smoking gun” for genetic engineering, one famous scholar said in 2021—and then they are re-argued and occasionally walked back. Long-hidden sample data from the market suddenly appear, and their meaning is subjected to vituperative, technical debate. If the evidence for a lab leak tends to come from messy human stuff, the evidence for animal spillover emerges from messy data. Simple-seeming claims are draped across a sprawl of numbers.

In this way, the origins question has broken down into a pair of rival theories that don’t—and can’t—ever fully interact. They’re based on different sorts of evidence, with different standards for evaluation and debate. Each story may be accruing new details—fresh intelligence about the goings-on at WIV, for example, or fresh genomic data from the market—but these are only filling out a picture that will never be complete. The two narratives have been moving forward on different tracks. Neither one is getting to its destination.

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