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What Really Happened in Wuhan - Book Review

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Published October 26th 2021
Finding out the truth about Covid-19
It was a virus like no other, dealing a deadly blow to the world as health professionals struggled to make sense of things.

If you think said virus is MEV1 from the film Contagion, you are very wrong. Rather, it is something we now know to be COVID-19, or SARS-CoV-2. The virus was first discovered in the city of Wuhan in China's Hubei province in late 2019 and has since spread worldwide. In Australia, the worst-affected regions are in New South Wales and Victoria on the east coast. Several strains of COVID-19 are currently posing a major concern to health authorities, chiefly the Delta strain that was initially discovered in India in late 2020. This strain is fast becoming the most dominant one globally.

Tracking the pandemic: award-winning journalist Sharri Markson attampts to uncover the truth about how Covid-19 originated while the pandemic shows no signs of abating worldwide.

The first inkling that something amiss was going down in Wuhan came from prominent dissident Wei Jingsheng towards the end of 2019. The son of Chinese Communist Party cadres, Wei was acquainted with President Xi Jinping during his childhood. After a lengthy prison stint for advocating reform, Wei was deported to the United States, although he remained a Chinese citizen. He had friends in Wuhan and all they were talking about was a mysterious flu-like sickness that was afflicting the city. This information would subsequently be passed along to United States Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger.

Meanwhile, in Wuhan, the health services were crumbling as the new virus spread like wildfire. Doctors were aware that something dangerous was up, but were forbidden from speaking about it and told to carry on as per normal even if they themselves came down with the virus. Among them were Drs Ai Fen and Li Wenliang, who gained notoriety as whistleblowers. Original samples of the novel coronavirus were seized by the authorities and destroyed, as the Huanan Seafood Market in the city centre was declared to be the source of the outbreak and ordered to stop trading.

Although China locked down Hubei province, including Wuhan, and banned interstate travel, international flights leaving Wuhan were still allowed, which facilitated in the spread of the novel coronavirus globally. It reached Europe and subsequently the United States via JFK Airport. The Trump administration was watching the fast-evolving situation with concern and offered to send a team from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention to help their Chinese counterparts, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. As government officials debated on the most appropriate course of action to stop the spread of COVID-19 on American soil, the virus had already gained a foothold.

Meanwhile, the spotlight on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was growing amid suspicion COVID-19 may have escaped from a laboratory. Calls for an investigation into the origins of the pandemic gained traction, only to draw angry responses from Beijing. Australian scientist Nikolai Petrovsky's research into the binding affinities of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein with angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) across species turned up some worrying discoveries but his team were not allowed to go public with their findings. Gain of function research, much of it undertaken by WIV, also came under intense scrutiny due to its controversial nature. Much of that work was undertaken by Professor Shi Zhengli, who was nicknamed "Batwoman" due to the vast amount of research her team had done on bats.

Apparently, Prof Shi had discovered a novel strain of SARS-like coronavirus in Mojiang, Yunnan following the deaths of three miners in 2012 from a mysterious pneumonia-like disease. This virus was closely similar to SARS-CoV-2. The genetic sequence of the novel virus had not been uploaded until 2016. This served to fuel the idea that COVID-19 may have escaped from a laboratory, but those who believed so were shut down and dismissed as conspiracy theorists, most notably by Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, who had been heavily involved with Prof Shi's work at WIV.

That China had been involved in risky research possibly for military use is nothing new. They have been exploring biological warfare since the 1960s after having been subjected to such warfare by the Japanese during the Pacific War. A disturbing research paper came to the attention of investigative journalist Sharri Markson of The Australian while she was doing her homework for the book What Really Happened in Wuhan, which aims to explore the laboratory leak theory in detail. This paper was a submission to the United Nations Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 2011 hosted by Ottawa. It mentioned things that currently belong in the realm of science fiction that can be dangerous if allowed to happen in real life.

Within the US administration, two prominent figures emerged as key proponents of the laboratory leak theory. They were Tom DiNanno and Dave Asher. These men saw that China was engaged in dual-purpose biological research that contributed to the global coronavirus pandemic and sought to demarche Beijing for doing so. However, they were knocked back by their colleagues who felt that the pandemic was more of a public health issue, even after they produced evidence of WIV staff members falling ill as early as August 2019.

All the above revelations are contained in Markson's book. She has basically established WIV as a crime scene, and rightly so. While it is disputed whether COVID-19 is natural in origin or leaked from a laboratory, with both sides putting out strong arguments, unusual activity that happened in and around Wuhan in the months before the pandemic broke out raised the alarm of many members of the scientific community. These were covered up by the Chinese authorities and only serves to fuel the theory that COVID-19 did leak from a laboratory after all.

While it is recommended that readers approach What Really Happened in Wuhan with an open mind, the caginess of the Chinese Communist Party this time around compared to 2003 during the SARS pandemic does give the impression of something sinister being afoot. To top it all, WIV itself has been flagged for unsafe work practices, but risky military-related medical research is still allowed to take place there. Although it is unlikely that COVID-19 is a bioweapon, it might not have come directly from the wild either.
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