Home Book Review What Really Happened in Wuhan

What Really Happened in Wuhan

Book by: Sharri Markson
Reviewed by: Shoshana Bryen Winter 2022

Chalk up one enormous, smashing political victory for President Joe Biden and his administration: the imposition of mask and vaccine mandates on the American people in defiance of a number of judicial rulings has moved the discussion of COVID-19 away from what it is, how it got here, who covered it up, and who paid the price. 

China has disappeared from the conversation.

Demonstrations, resignations, aggravation – accompanied by inflation and empty shelves – have wiped out discussion of Chinese culpability and American complicity. The World Health Organization (WHO) and scientists who participated in Chinese Gain of Function (GOF) research and then claimed to be neutral observers; media censorship of dissenting voices on behalf of the institutions promoting the natural origins theory; and where American money went and for what purpose are, apparently, old news. How much did antipathy toward President Donald Trump influence the media’s insistence that the virus had a natural origin, and its censorship of any other viewpoint? Apparently, a lot.

That’s why you need What Really Happened in Wuhan by Sharri Markson. Markson, an award winning Australian journalist, begins at the beginning. The real beginning, before November 2019.  

BIG disclaimer here: there is a lot of dense science all across the book. Although Markson makes most of it intelligible to lay readers, you don’t have to understand all of the science to understand the big picture. An index would have helped us flip back and forth to descriptions, people and incidents that are important, but separated by pages and chapters.

It Happened in Wuhan

Chinese doctors and researchers knew something was wrong in November 2019. Dr. Wang Lei pinpointed, 

The moment when the denial of human-to-human transmission truly became a farce. When dead bodies were piling, left to decay for days in hospital corridors and on trucks, because Chinese health authorities refused to officially record any deaths. The bodies were for them nothing more than a logistical problem. 

Dr. Wang knew it was a new coronavirus but was forbidden by the government to discuss the diagnosis. Dr. Ai Fen was right behind him and so was Dr. Zhang Jixian.

Chinese chat rooms and organizations were on it. And in late December, Marjorie Pollack and Larry Madoff of the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (Pro-MED) in the U.S. were digging deep. Countries and organizations asked WHO for information. On December 31st, China acknowledged that there was pneumonia in Wuhan – and then swept social media sites of all references to “unknown Wuhan pneumonia” and similar phrases. On January 2nd, the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) Director General wrote to her employees:

By order of the National Health Commission, all relevant information concerning the outbreak, testing, as well as data results and conclusions from experimental treatments should not be published on social media and should not be disclosed to the media (including official media), partner organizations (including technical service companies.)

On January 26th, the Chinese military took over the institute. China specialist Miles Yu believes, “The negligence at China’s biolabs, especially the WIV, was so dangerous that the PLA [Chinese military] dispatched a general to take over the facility soon after the outbreak in Wuhan.” Scientists began disappearing shortly thereafter. 

But the chaos was just getting started. Chapter Four, “Chaos,” and Chapter Six, “Last Train to Wuhan,” detail the mess – the disappearance of brave journalists and doctors who tried to get the word out. Don’t forget Chen Qiushi, who snuck into the closed city and disappeared after his Wuhan video was viewed more than 1.5 million times. Remember Li Zehua, Fang Bin, Xu Zhiyong, Xu Zhangrun, and friends Cai Wei, Chen Mei, and Tang Hongbo, Zhang Zhan, and an estimated 897 others who were punished by April 2020 for challenging Xi’s official propaganda. The organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders called China “the biggest prison in the world for journalists, with at least 120 detained or missing.”

They are among the heroes.

In a later chapter, “The Missing,” the Spanish-based human rights NGO Safeguard Defenders describes residential surveillance as “mass state-sanctioned kidnapping” and “enforced disappearance.” “Using data from court verdict cases posted to the Supreme Court database, we estimated that at least 28-29,000 people were placed into Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location by the end of 2019 since the system came into effect in 2013.” 

Former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove says of those who enter residential surveillance, “They’re either killed or they end up in…the equivalent of concentration camps.”

The White House

While Markson calls the White House “chaotic” in the early days, there were American officials with an appreciation of the severity of the virus, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his experts Daniel Pottinger and Miles Yu, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. President Trump looks pretty good. The President’s decision to play “good cop” in an effort to maintain relations with Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping was reasonable, particularly as he was simultaneously stopping traffic from Wuhan to the U.S. while the media called him a racist. 

Not surprisingly at this point, Anthony Fauci looks pretty bad. And Peter Dazcek and Lancet Magazine should pay some terrible price for an absence of even minimal ethical standards, publishing what they called a definitive letter about the natural origins of COVID while neglecting to mention that most of the signatories were financially and professionally tied to virus research in Wuhan. Markson names signatories and their conflicts of interest.

Lab Origin Discussion Roadblocks

Markson points out that much of the discussion of the possible lab origin was shut down precisely because Trump and Pompeo thought it might be a reasonable avenue of investigation. The media’s view of Trump was a driver in quashing not only the lab origin theory but also journalists and scientists who wanted a broader investigation. Ditto any conversation about treatment in advance of the emergence of a vaccine. This is a huge indictment of “mainstream” journalism – and not only in the U.S.

The story of Australian scientist Nicolai Petrovsky is chilling in more than one way. Petrovsky had spent more than 35 years researching and developing pandemic vaccines – including for Ebola, avian flu, Japanese encephalitis, West Nile virus, and against the SARS and MERS coronaviruses. His goal in this case was to find the transmission path of SARS-CoV-2 from animals to humans. If he knew which animal host the coronavirus had infected before transmitting it to humans, it would be instrumental in designing a vaccine. In March 2020, he uploaded to a supercomputer the genetic sequence from bats, cats, dogs, pangolins, mice, civets, monkeys, hamsters, ferrets, horses, tigers, cattle, and snakes as well as humans. Petrovsky was shocked by the result.

Humans came out at the very top of the list. That was not what we were expecting, as the animal host from which the virus had been transmitted should have been at the top of the list….data suggested the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein had uniquely evolved to bind and infect cells expressing human ACE2.

He told his partner, LaTrobe University Professor David Winkler, “Please don’t think I’m crazy or a conspiracy theorist, I’m truly not, but basically, I’ve formed a conclusion that we can’t exclude the possibility that what these results might be telling us is that this could be a man-made virus.” But when Petrovsky went to a “pre-print server” to publish his paper, the server managers rejected it as “too hot.” Petrovsky said:

The paper was clearly being seen as going against the prevailing scientific political orthodoxy. They said the paper should be peer-reviewed first, but this was nonsense as the whole point of pre-press servers is to make papers available before peer review. Obviously… the scientific community had already decided that only research suggesting a natural origin should be allowed to see the light of day.

Chapter 7, “Scientists Speak Out,” details the international group of scientists who pushed for open discussion of multiple theories – in other words, real scientists. Read their names, because like the names of Chinese scientists and doctors – they should not go unmentioned, even though, happily, they remain at liberty. Richard Ebright of Rutgers University, virologist David Baltimore, physicist Richard Muller, Roland Wiesendanger of Hamburg University, Israeli geneticist Ronen Shemesh, Dr. Steven Quay, geneticist Yuri Delgin, and Professor David Relman, among others.

But, although many scientists did not think Petrovsky was crazy, and although many shared his concern for open discussion, everything from Nature Magazine to Lancet strove to keep their voices from being heard. Only in 2021 did groups of professors and doctors make headway, and it was June 2021 before Nature Scientific Reports actually published Petrovsky’s paper, perhaps because the Trump administration was gone. 

Gain of Function

Gain of Function research takes center stage in “The Scientists who Knew.” Again, the specifics of the science are dense, but suffice it to say that long before the COVID outbreak in November 2019, a great many scientists argued that “the benefits of GOF” were “minimal at best” and they could “far more safely be obtained through other avenues of research,” Steven Salzberg of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s Center for Computational Biology wrote in 2015. He was seconded by others. In fact, NIH funding for GOF research had already been “paused” by the Obama administration. 

One who objected to the pause was virologist Ralph Baric – who was working at the time with Zhi Zhengli, the Bat Woman at the Wuhan Institute for Virology. Not surprisingly at this point, Fauci argued that GOF benefits outweighed the risks. “The same research that international scientists said should be banned, Fauci described as ‘important.’” 

GOF funding restarted in 2017 – with no public debate. Fauci had one meeting with the Office of Technology Policy before the CDC restarted funding subgrants to WIV. Health Secretary Alex Azar, it appears, only found that out in 2021, when he was long out of office. 

That should be a line of inquiry by itself – who does what with American funds and the imprimatur of the CDC and NIH?

Lessons for the Future

The good news is that throughout the U.S. government, there were individuals who caught on early and were dogged in their pursuit of the truth, including lab theory, bioweapons possibilities, the dangers of GOF, and the inability of China to be a constructive partner. Aside from Secretaries Pompeo and Azar, the State Department’s Tom DiNanno and senior subject matter expert Dave Asher led a “Covid working group” investigation “to get to the bottom of where COVID-19 originated – be it from a bat cave, a lab lead, or worse, a WMD accident. We looked at why China had covered up its propagation and why elements of the U.S. government appeared highly complicit.”

The bad news is that as vaccines were developed, deaths receded, and treatments have begun to emerge, the real push to know more has almost disappeared. While the American public view of China has become decidedly more negative, and the Pentagon is taking steps in the Pacific to enhance the American/Western position, the White House appears more interested in mask and vaccine mandates – pressures on American citizens. Markson is, herself, decidedly pessimistic:

The world is still in the dark about the precise turn of events that sparked this pandemic, and this of course leaves the world vulnerable to whatever comes next. There is still no evidence that the United States and other Western nations are any more prepared for a future pandemic than we were before this global catastrophe, with gain of function experiments still largely left unchecked. The failures of the scientific community, intelligence agencies, international bodies and large sections of the media have all left the world aless secure and less safe place to live.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.