Features Australia

Xi who must be obeyed

Facebook censorship of the origin of the Wuhan flu is batty

21 March 2020

9:00 AM

21 March 2020

9:00 AM

President Xi Jinping is waging a war on a virus more deadly to the Chinese Communist party than SARS-CoV-2 — free speech. To his horror, the demand for it not only refuses to die, it’s surreptitiously mutating to evade all his attempts to destroy it. The source of the contagion? China’s courageous doctors, too well-educated to silently agree to be cannon fodder in the fight to contain coronavirus.

Last week, a magazine in China published an interview with Dr Ai Fen, a doctor in Wuhan who warned her superiors on December 30 that lab results showed a patient had been infected with a SARS coronavirus. ‘I was so scared I broke out in a cold sweat,’ she says. ‘I knew it was trouble.’ When the article was published it was almost immediately deleted by the censors but not before readers could make copies and translate it into every available language including Hebrew, Farsi, Morse code, barcode, Braille, a mash-up of Elvish and Klingon, Mao Zedong’s own calligraphy, even emojis, in an effort to fool the eyes and the software of the thought police. The creativity of this online samizdat, which reaches millions rather than thousands — as it did in the days of the Soviet Union — is inspiring hope in China’s oppressed populace. ‘I first laughed and then cried when seeing these,’ wrote one person on WeChat.

The catastrophic mismanagement of the outbreak of the SARS-2 coronavirus has impacted the whole nation but the hardest hit are healthcare workers who know their friends, colleagues and patients would not have died if the CCP had taken the drastic steps to contain the outbreak on Day One.

What happened on Day One is also essential to understanding how the virus made the leap from bats to humans, yet it is shrouded in mystery and the CCP appears to be hiding vital clues. We know that the person said to be Patient Zero, according to an article published in the Lancet on 20 January, got sick on 1 December 2019 and had no connection with Wuhan’s seafood market. We also now know that this was not Patient Zero. Chinese government documents seen by the South China Morning Post show that the disease can be traced back to a 55-year old man from Hubei province who contracted it on 17 November, 2019 and possibly earlier. Yet in a regime which obsessively tracks individuals, there are no details to indicate how he got it. Posts on WeChat and Weibo claiming that the first person infected was a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) were quickly deleted.


China expert Steven Mosher wrote in the New York Post on February 22, ‘Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab.’ He also singled out the WIV pointing to China’s track record of leaking deadly pathogens. He also noted an announcement by Xi in February that a national system to control biosecurity risks must be put in place ‘to protect the people’s health’ because lab safety is a ‘national security’ issue and a directive from the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology the next day with ‘Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus.’ He said the dispatch of the People’s Liberation Army’s top expert in biological warfare, Maj. Gen. Chen Wei to help contain the outbreak was suspicious and pointed out that Chinese researchers have illegally sold laboratory animals instead of disposing of them by cremation. The article ‘went viral’ with more than 13 million views and 100,000 shares before it was blocked by Facebook fact-checkers who claimed that it was ‘inaccurate and misleading.’

Yet the facts speak for themselves. The WIV was built by a military contractor for the PLA and conducts research into HIV, Ebola, SARS and other coronaviruses that it collects from bats.

The WIV published in the peer-reviewed US Journal of Virology in 2017 that it had genetically engineered a coronavirus found in a horseshoe bat and that it required only a minimal change to the Receptor Binding Domain — amino acids 310 to 518 — to make it infectious to humans. They said they achieved this using an HIV-based pseudovirus system. As it happens, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has a 96 per cent resemblance to a viral nucleic acid sequence from a horseshoe bat and according to an article published in Nature by David Cyranovski the key differences are ‘in the RBD sites.’ In the preprint of an article in bioRxiv on SARS-CoV-2, researchers found an ‘uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120.’ Although the paper was withdrawn, the authors plan to resubmit it. A DNA specialist who trained in the US, formerly worked at Wuhan and is now at the South China University in Guangzhou —Botao Xiao —said the coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan but he also withdrew the paper because, he told the Wall Street Journal, he didn’t have ‘direct proofs.’

Could a virus have leaked from WIV? When it was built, leading US molecular biologist Richard Ebright expressed concern because SARS had already escaped twice from the Chinese Institute of Virology. He told BBC China in February that he did not ‘rule out’ the possibility that this latest virus had escaped from a lab.

Even a report in China’s Global Times in February said a top academician had earned $US1.46 million by illegally selling lab animals and that ‘lab trash can contain man-made viruses … with a potentially deadly impact on human beings.’ Yet this had ‘nothing to do with claims the coronavirus leaked from the WIV’, it said, because the WIV’s management was ‘extremely strict.’

Like the Global Times, one of the Facebook’s fact-checkers, who just happened to have had collaborated with the WIV for the last two years, wrote that it was ‘appalling’ to suggest that the virus had leaked from the lab because of its high standards. Yet, Shi Zhengli, a virologist at WIV, and a world expert on bat viruses, known as ‘China’s Bat Woman’, wrote in Scientific American this month that when she was urgently contacted by the head of the WIV on 31 December to investigate coronavirus samples found in two patients with atypical pneumonia, she remembers thinking ‘If coronaviruses were the culprit, could they have come from our lab?’ We may never know the answer to that because Xi is fighting hard to impose his narrative of the outbreak which certainly doesn’t include the WIV accidentally leaking the virus.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last month that he was worried that China is encoding ‘authoritarian values’ into the regulation of the internet. If he wants to do something about it, perhaps his fact-checkers should stop giving Xi a helping hand.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
Close