Geopolitical expert urges transparency from China on COVID origins

FAN Editor

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, Michael Morell speaks with Jamie Metzl, geopolitical expert and technology futurist, who argues for transparency and access to resources from China in order to find the origins of COVID-19. Metzl believes the most likely origin of COVID-19 is a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Metzl, a supporter of the World Health Organization’s work, calls for a full, transparent investigation, rather than the previous joint expert committee investigation with the Chinese government.


  • Demand resources from China to find origins of COVID-19: “The one hypothesis that the Chinese government is most afraid of, that it’s spent more than a year covering up, is the lab leak hypothesis. It really needs a serious investigation. We need to demand on behalf of the nearly three million people who’ve now died from COVID access to all of those resources that we need. Whatever China provides, great. If they’re not providing it, we need to be very public about that.”
  • U.S. gave a research grant to Wuhan Institute of Virology prior to pandemic: “After some very controversial research came out in 2014, the Obama administration established a moratorium on U.S. government funding for gain of function research. There was a grant, however, that had already been provided to an organization called the Eco Health Alliance. They passed some of that money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for this research. There are many people. Marc Lipsitch at Harvard is one of them, but there are many others who have sounded the alarm about gain of function research. There are others who think that it’s important.”
  • WHO must “clearly articulate what a full investigation would look like:” “The first thing that we have to do is to clearly articulate what a full investigation would look like. The starting point can’t be, ‘we know China isn’t going to give us much information.’ We know they may let some WHO investigators in, but they’re going to give them a highly curated study tour where there are apparatchiks monitoring not just the international investigators, but the Chinese scientists who are with them. We need to articulate what’s the goal and then we need to measure China’s and everybody else’s behavior and transparency against that goal.”

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MICHAEL MORELL:  When you joined us before, it was to chat about your then new book Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. How did that book do? What was the response to it?

JAMIE METZL: It went incredibly well. Lots of people read it. More importantly for me, it helped spark a much bigger, broader conversation about how we should think about managing and ultimately governing some of the most powerful technologies our species has ever possessed. We suddenly are one species among the billions who’ve ever lived who has the ability to read, write and hack the code of life. The question for us with this and other technologies is can we generate the wisdom to use them wisely?
It’s led to a lot of other conversations. I was invited to join the World Health Organization International Advisory Committee on Human Genome Editing. Our report is going to come out in in March/April of 2021, making recommendations about how human genome editing could ideally be governed. It’s been a very exciting and ongoing journey.
Today we’re going to talk about the origins of coronavirus. Several weeks ago, you published an article in Newsweek titled “Beijing Must Come Clean About COVID-19 Origins.” Two questions. One is, how is it possible that well over a year after the first human infection, we still don’t know the origins? 

JAMIE METZL: It’s really not possible, but for politics. Certainly we don’t have an unlimited ability to trace the origin of every pathogenic outbreak, but actually the skills that we have through genome sequencing and tracing and just basic forensics are pretty great. It is my strong view that the reason we don’t know is that the Chinese government has been engaged in a massive obfuscation and cover up effort for more than the last year. That’s why we know that records have been removed or destroyed. Samples have been destroyed. People in China and citizen journalists who’ve asked tough questions have disappeared. There’s a gag order on Chinese scientists to not publish anything or speak publicly in any way about the origins of the of the pandemic. Because most of the evidence is in China and there’s not just limited access, but an active effort to destroy it or cover it up. It makes the process of understanding what happened all the more difficult. 

MICHAEL MORELL: The second question is why is it so important to know the origins? 

JAMIE METZL: It’s really important. When a plane crashes, you could say, ‘Well, a plane crashed. We should redouble our efforts to make sure that we have safe skies.’ You’d be right. But when a plane crashes, we also want to know why did this particular plane crash? Because that could point to a much bigger problem. You could say, ‘there are lots of things that could lead to pandemics. One of them is unsafe laboratories and another is climate change and eco system destruction. We should do all of them.’ But to prioritize our response, we need to recognize where the biggest challenges are. If this is something, which I believe is most likely the case, that COVID-19 comes from an accidental lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that’s a pretty big problem because that’s not the only institute of virology in all of China or in all of the world. We need to prioritize that response now and in the future. If it’s something else, that would be our starting point. I think it would be enormously self-defeating to say ‘it doesn’t matter where the worst pandemic in a century comes from and we should just play nice with everybody and move on and try to do a little bit of everything.’ 

MICHAEL MORELL: This not knowing, this is a very different situation from other pandemics like SARS, right? 

JAMIE METZL: Yes. In SARS relatively quickly, we were able to trace its origins. We were able to chart the intermediate host. For a virus to go from bats to humans, it’s very rare that it goes straight from bats to humans. But lots of viruses have reached us from bats through some intermediate host, whether it’s pigs or something else, and then into humans. In a full year of looking and the Chinese government is massively incentivized both to look and to find evidence of this zoonotic jump in the wild through these intermediate animal hosts, there’s been no evidence of that. There is tons of at least highly suggestive circumstantial evidence, in my view, that points to the serious possibility of an accidental lab leak. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Can we walk through all the possibilities here for where this thing came from? 

JAMIE METZL: One possibility is there was a virus that went straight from bats to humans. Maybe a bat bit somebody, maybe somebody in a market was cutting up a bat and got blood into a cut. That’s option one. Option two is that there was a series of jumps from bats through intermediate hosts, like pangolins or civets, and then that virus mutated in that environment and then ultimately reached humans. Number three, which the Chinese government is promoting, which makes not much sense to me, but that there was some kind of virus that got stuck in some frozen food somewhere and was shipped to Wuhan. That seems very low likelihood to me. 

MICHAEL MORELL: You mean from outside of China? 

JAMIE METZL: Outside of China. But that’s what the Chinese government is saying, that it may have started someplace else and it got sent in a frozen package to China. I think it’s ridiculous, but let’s leave that on the table as a possibility. Number four is the possibility, I call it the likely possibility, of an accidental lab leak. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Are there two possibilities when it comes to the lab? Research on a naturally occurring virus versus research on a manmade virus? Are those two distinct possibilities? 

JAMIE METZL: I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it that way. Some people have talked about genetically engineered virus versus non genetically engineered. By that would mean using the tools of genome editing, like CRISPR. Then there are other tools to actually manipulate, using genome editing tools, a virus. Then the second possibility is there is just a really dangerous virus that maybe exists in a remote cave somewhere and it exists in one of these labs. So without any kind of manipulation, that leaks. A third possibility is that there is this dangerous, naturally occurring pathogen and then experiments are done on that virus in the lab. Some people are starting to hear about this so-called gain of function research. Like with dogs, you understand that you now have a dog. But the dog’s ancestors were wolves. And how did wolves become dogs? It wasn’t through genome editing. It was through selective breeding. Essentially, gain of function research is selective breeding. You select for qualities in a virus, it could be the ability to replicate rapidly or infect human cells. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Walk us through the evidence from your perspective? 

JAMIE METZL: Let’s look at these four options. One would be a series of animal to animal jumps. Zoonotic jump through intermediate hosts is the technical terms. Basically, it means bat to pangolin or civet or cat, to human. That would be a very likely possibility. That’s what happened with the first SARS. But in the first SARS, there was actually evidence that turned up. Here we are more than one year after the beginning of the pandemic and there is absolutely no evidence for that. It could be. There are lots of scientists who think that’s what happened. It’s a very real possibility.
Frozen food hypothesis. I think it’s extremely unlikely. Absolutely no evidence. It’s kind of a ridiculous hypothesis. We shouldn’t be in the position now of eliminating hypotheses, but just evaluating them. That leads us to the possibility of an accidental lab leak. Here would be my best case for why I think this is the most likely option.
First, the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a relatively new level 4 virology institute that is the only level 4 virology institute in all of China, which is the highest level. We have some of those here in the United States.
In 2012, six Chinese miners went into a copper cave in Yunnan Province in southern China, which is more than a thousand miles south of Wuhan, to clean things up because this copper mine had become infested with bats. All of them got very sick with what we now recognize as symptoms that are exactly like the symptoms of COVID-19. Three of them died. A year later, a team from the Wuhan Institute of Virology went to that cave and took samples back from that that cave. One of those samples is called RATG 13 virus, and that was in their database. That virus is the closest known genetic relative to the SARS-COV-2 virus. We also know that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was engaging in gain of function research on the viruses in their repository. We know that as part of that gain of function research, they were exposing these viruses to humanized mice. When I say humanized mice, what it means is mice whose genomes were manipulated so that they have Humane ACE-2 receptors. Many people have heard about the spike protein on the virus. It connects with the ACE-2 receptor on the human genome. These mice were essentially genetically engineered so that they could respond to viruses just like humans do.
Then we have this outbreak. Again, I said there’s no evidence of animal to animal transmission, but suddenly this virus that shows up is perfectly adapted for humans. How did that happen? It could be that happened in the wild in some way that we still haven’t found or it could be through this gain of function research it was manipulated. That doesn’t mean genetically engineered, but it means pushed in the direction of being highly contagious and transmissible for humans. 

MICHAEL MORELL: What would be the purpose of such research? 

JAMIE METZL: Gain of function research is very controversial in the scientific world and in the United States and elsewhere. There are some people who are strongly supportive of it. The argument is, ‘We know we’re going to face many dangerous pathogens in the future. Rather than wait for them to face us, why don’t we learn more about how viruses grow and become more dangerous so we can start developing treatments and vaccines?’ There are others in the United States who say, ‘we are creating a monster because we are fearing another monster. Why?’ There was a huge debate about that. So much so that after some very controversial research came out in 2014, the Obama administration established a moratorium on U.S. government funding for gain of function research. There was a grant, however, that had already been provided to an organization called the Eco Health Alliance. They passed some of that money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for this research. There are many people. Marc Lipsitch at Harvard is one of them, but there are many others who have sounded the alarm about gain of function research. There are others who think that it’s important.
Let me come back to what I was saying before about why I believe the most likely origin of COVID-19 is an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. I talked about the evidence for the gain of function research, the fact that SARS-COV-2 closest genetic relative is this RATG 13 virus that was extracted from the cave in Yunnan in 2013 and brought to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We’ve talked about the gain of function research, but then we need to look at what China did in the earliest days of the pandemic until now. In the earliest days of the pandemic, China prevented World Health inspectors from coming to Wuhan for nearly a month. They immediately started taking down databases that had previously been accessible to the public. They immediately started silencing people who may have been able to provide invaluable evidence to the world about the origins of COVID-19. As a matter of fact, the only reason that we had the sequenced genome of the SARS-COV-2 virus as early as we did is that there was a Chinese scientist who went rogue and paid the consequences for sharing that information. It didn’t just end there. For the last year, there’s been a massive cover up that’s involved removing or eliminating databases, eliminating samples, silencing or imprisoning people with evidence about where this came from and not allowing the World Health Organization the kind of access that would be required to get to the bottom of this essential question.
MICHAEL MORELL: On January 15th, Secretary Pompeo made a statement about the U.S. having intelligence information that several researchers inside the lab became sick in the Fall of 2019 with what the Secretary said were symptoms consistent with COVID. He also said in that statement that Wuhan had been engaged in secret projects by the Chinese military involving laboratory animal experiments. Do you have any insight into this information, who it’s been shared with, why it hasn’t been made public? 

JAMIE METZL: I do have a lot of information on that. I was quietly in touch with members of the U.S. government encouraging them to go fully public with this essential information. It was really unfortunate that the Mike Pompeo statement came in the last days of the Trump administration, where there were all of these declarations and pronouncements happening one after the other. Unfortunately, I think it was lost. These are two very important pieces of information.
First, on the fact that people had COVID-like symptoms. It’s significant. It’s hard to differentiate COVID from pneumonia. But Dr. Shi, who’s the infamous Chinese bat woman, the scientist at Wuhan Institute of Virology, said no one in her lab had been sick. The second piece of information is that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had been doing secret animal pathogen research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Certainly, the Chinese authorities hadn’t made any kind of declaration under their international treaty obligations or let the WHO know about that. The reason why that is significant is for the people who are arguing in China or elsewhere against an accidental lab leak as being a serious possibility, a lot of them are trusting the civilian authorities at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who say, ‘we didn’t have anything like this in our repository.’ But it’s clear that there was lots that was happening at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that the civilians weren’t part of and didn’t even know about. I certainly think this is very important information. I’ve called publicly for the U.S. government to release as much of that raw data as possible. I’d love for the U.S. intelligence and others to share that with at least our five eyes intelligence partners and put out a joint statement. I think this is really important stuff. It’s not conclusive evidence, but it’s significant evidence. 

MICHAEL MORELL: I want to come back to something that you said earlier that I wasn’t really aware of, that some U.S. funding made its way to the Wuhan Lab. Are you essentially saying that US taxpayers may have helped fund the work that produced COVID-19? 

JAMIE METZL: I am saying that. Certainly there was funding. Part of it came from the Defense Department. Part of it came from Dr. Fauci’s office. In the early days, the idea behind that funding is, ‘if we want to understand these dangerous pathogens, we need to be doing research where they are.’ That was in China. I started raising essential questions about the origins of the SARS-COV-2 virus early in 2020. What I said then and I believe now is we have to point fingers, we have to say, ‘where does this come from and who is accountable?’ Certainly China, if this theory is true, would bear the lion’s share of the responsibility. But we also need to point fingers at ourselves and look at what is the type of work that we were funding. The chain of transmission, it went from the US government to the Eco Health Alliance and then to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We should be asking those kinds of questions. We’ve seen an over politicization of all of this, whether it’s Republicans versus Democrats or America versus China. We need to try at least to the best of our ability to get over all of that and just ask the questions, where does this come from? What are the problems that allowed this pandemic to begin and how do we fix them? 

MICHAEL MORELL: The WHO has been in China investigating the origins. You were very skeptical of that investigation producing objective results. We’ve talked a little bit about why that’s the case. They just came out with their initial findings. They said it was extremely unlikely that the virus originated in the lab and they even left open the possibility of the virus originating outside China. Your reaction to the report? 

JAMIE METZL: I put out a statement immediately, after that February 9 press conference in Wuhan between the Chinese authorities and the international expert committee, absolutely condemning what they had announced at that conference, it was truly a farce. I love the WHO. I’m a big supporter of the WHO. I think Dr. Tedros Adhanom, the director, is doing a great job. But there’s a lot of confusion in this investigation about who is actually doing it. If you ask the WHO, they would say, ‘We’re not the ones doing this investigation. We have this independent international expert advisory committee and they are doing an investigation.’ Most people don’t know that it’s a joint investigation between that independent committee and the Chinese government.
When they did the press event, it wasn’t the WHO making that pronouncement. It was this joint committee. The really tragic thing about that is that nobody on Earth understands that subtlety. Everybody thinks the WHO said it’s not a lab leak, and it could be frozen foods. That was why I was in close touch with people at the WHO immediately after that press conference. I said, ‘you’ve got to clarify this, because people think that the WHO is essentially carrying the Chinese government’s water.’ Because the Feb. 9 press event basically was all of the Chinese points, it was just presented by the Chinese and this expert committee. That’s why I was very encouraged when three days later on February 12th, Dr. Tedros said at a press conference, ‘We’re actively examining all hypotheses, which meant that the lab leak hypothesis is still very much on the table.’ Then he said a few days later, also in a press event, ‘I don’t know why people are calling this a WHO investigation. This is an independent investigation by this expert committee alongside the Chinese government. Nobody outside of the WHO appreciates that subtlety. That’s what’s so tragic. That’s why I and friends and scientists all around the world are working very actively to say, ‘What we need to have is a full and unrestricted international forensic investigation with access to all necessary resources and examining all relevant hypotheses.’ 

MICHAEL MORELL: When I was doing the research for this episode, I kept on seeing the investigation as WHO. So that perception is still out there. That’s not good for the WHO. It’s not good for international organizations in general, which is why it’s very interesting how strong that perception is. 

JAMIE METZL: It’s so critical. That’s why I’m in close touch with the WHO. I’m a huge supporter of the WHO. We need to have it. If we didn’t have one, we’d be desperately now scrambling to create it. But the WHO is in this very difficult position because it answers to its member states. It’s always trying to find this balance. If the WHO isn’t careful, it could end up just being in the crosshairs of everybody, particularly China and the United States.
That’s why the February 9 Wuhan press conference was such a tragedy. It was really a low point because the WHO position must be ‘we need a full and unrestricted, credible forensic investigation into the origins of COVID.’ That’s the standard. It’s up to China whether China wants to play along, provide information, not provide information, allow WHO investigators in or not in. But they shouldn’t be in the position of publicizing China’s obfuscation or its cover up. It’s a really tricky position. What I’m trying to do is highlight the very significant flaws and shortcomings of this joint investigation by the expert committee and the Chinese government, while at the same time recognizing that we must support the WHO, and its essential role in the world. 

MICHAEL MORELL: What do we have to do to get to the bottom of this? What would China have to agree to? 

JAMIE METZL: The first thing that we have to do is to clearly articulate what a full investigation would look like. The starting point can’t be, ‘we know China isn’t going to give us much information.’ We know they may let some WHO investigators in, but they’re going to give them a highly curated study tour where there are apparatchiks monitoring not just the international investigators, but the Chinese scientists who are with them. We need to articulate what’s the goal and then we need to measure China’s and everybody else’s behavior and transparency against that goal.
We need lots of information, but we need to tell the Chinese what it is that we need. We know that there were all of these databases of viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, for example, that have disappeared. We need access to that. We need to be able to confidentially interview all of the relevant Chinese scientists, all of the people who worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, some of whom have vanished off of the face of the earth. We need whistleblower provisions so that people can speak openly and honestly without fearing that they will be disappeared or imprisoned or even killed. We really need to have all of that.
In terms of understanding if there was a zoonotic jump, animal to animal jump, the Chinese government is all in with that. That’s the story they would like to happen. They’re being very collaborative on that. On this somewhat crazy story of frozen foods, the Chinese government is all in on that. That’s why the one hypothesis that the Chinese government is most afraid of, that it’s spent more than a year covering up, is the lab leak hypothesis. It really needs a serious investigation. We need to demand on behalf of the nearly three million people who’ve now died from COVID access to all of those resources that we need. Whatever China provides, great. If they’re not providing it, we need to be very public about that.
I’ve also had a piece with Glenn Gerstell talking about how can we get information even if China isn’t collaborating. Certainly we could do much more working with our five eyes intelligence partners to get that kind of information. Not just about the origins of this pandemic, but to have surveillance about future pandemics because we can’t rely on an authoritarian government like China to give us information, especially when they’re not doing it, about threats that could have this kind of devastating impact on all of us.
The reason the Chinese so strongly do not want the truth to be that this originated at the lab. Why? 

JAMIE METZL: When you put yourself in China’s shoes, this could look really bad. If this story comes out that COVID-19 stems from an accidental leak followed by a criminal cover up. Question one is what was the research that you were doing and why? Question two is how did you have this kind of leak from a facility that was supposed to have the highest levels of security? Question three is if they knew that COVID-19 came from an accidental lab, how many people are now dead because of this potential cover up? The consequences of this are huge.
Let’s just say that it was proven without a doubt, and certainly we aren’t at that level now. Let’s just say that there is some smoking gun or some email that proves without a doubt that this was the result of an accidental lab leak. That the Chinese government knew it. That they had an active and engaged year long cover up. What would happen? Certainly, there would be a lot of anger all around the world from countries who have been devastated economically and in terms of lives and livelihoods lost. There would be an incredible level of anger at China. Within the Chinese government, it would be a question whether Xi Jinping would even retain his authority because of the magnitude of what happened.
The Chinese government has a long history of covering up really big things. When you go to Beijing and you see Mao Zedong’s portrait in Tiananmen Square, people aren’t talking about the 47 million people who died as a result of Mao’s disastrous policies, primarily in the Great Leap Forward. When you hear all of this about Tibet and how the whole history of a people and a civilization is being erased, you realize that for the Chinese government managing these kinds of narratives is at the core of what they do. That’s why we need to really ask some tough questions, because if the Chinese government internally wants to tell a made-up story, that’s up to them. But we in the international community shouldn’t, and frankly can’t for our own safety be part of that process. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you have a sense the Biden administration is going to make this a priority? 

JAMIE METZL: I know that people in the Biden administration are very aware of these issues. They are tracking them very closely. The president himself has talked about the need to have open access to all information. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, has spoken about this. But your question is the right one. Where does this fit within the grand scheme of priorities? If the United States were to go all in for this investigation, you can pretty much rule out any other kinds of collaboration with the Chinese government on climate change or lots of other things. I do think right now the US government is in a holding pattern where they’re doing an intelligence review about how strong is the case and waiting for additional information to be unearthed that could lead us to know more about where COVID-19 comes from. That’s this tricky situation. As long as China is able to control that kind of access, to not allow access to databases and samples and personnel, I think it’s quite likely that we’ll still be in this gray area. When that’s the case, the political cost of making that type of really strong push to even try to get this kind of access and information will go up.
I’ve called on the US government to establish a bipartisan 9/11 style commission to look at the multiple failures related to COVID, certainly China and our own failures. There’s a reason why Taiwan has nine dead and we have 500,000 dead. It’s not about the origins, it’s about the response. The World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros would be the first to say that there are significant shortcomings in the WHO. A lot of those are structural. We, the countries of the world, have a weak mandate. We’ve not given it the resources that it needs. To protect all of us, we need a stronger WHO that’s able to build better public health capacities in the poorest countries of the world, that’s able to have a much stronger emergency response capability. All these things are needed. We really need to get to the bottom of the problems in order to start fixing them. 

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