From the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a hunt for its origins. What caused this global disaster? The most widely accepted explanation for some time, supported by many scientists and science journals, has been that the novel coronavirus emerged from a wet market in Wuhan, China, where seafood and live animals were sold. Anyone who posed a different explanation – in particular, that SARS-COV-2 might have leaked from a lab in Wuhan – was largely dismissed as a conspiracy theorist.
The thinking on that is changing. The World Health Organization has been investigating. A lengthy piece by Nicholson Baker in New York Magazine published in January, 2021 posited that the virus may have been unleashed as a result of a lab accident. Other mainstream journalism followed. A U.S. intelligence report on the matter was delivered in late August. While unclassified portions of that report show inconclusive results – in large part because of a lack of co-operation from China – it does not dismiss the lab leak theory.
Elaine Dewar, a Canadian investigative journalist, has been following all of this closely. An award-winning author of several works of non-fiction, Dewar has long had an interest in the relationship between Canada and China. She has spent the pandemic following the politics, the scientific research, the news coverage – and the money. She believes the science journals got it wrong initially.
Dewar plots out her discoveries in On the Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years: An Investigation. Her book casts a shadow over the wet market theory and points a finger at the Chinese government – and at some scientists and leading science journals for their single-minded support and promotion of this theory. Released in late August by Windsor, Ont.-based publisher Biblioasis, the book reads almost like a detective novel.
Dewar is particularly interested in something that has caught the attention of other science journalists. In 2012, a small group of miners in Mojiang County in Yunnan Province, China, tasked with clearing bat feces out of a cave, became very ill; some of them died. According to academic work Dewar cites, blood samples from some of the miners were sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In the book, Dewar also explores the removal of two scientists, Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, this country’s top security lab investigating infectious disease. The couple was escorted from the lab in July, 2019 and ultimately fired – under a cloud of secrecy. While Dewar does not tie them to the origin of the pandemic, she raises red flags about why and how they ended up at the Level-4 facility in Winnipeg and who they might have been in touch with from China while working there.
Trying to get more information about what goes on at the Winnipeg lab, Dewar filed a request under the federal Access to Information Act for information about all accidents that have occurred at the NML since 2015. This was in July, 2020. She was told there were 8,000 pages which would then have to be scanned, reviewed and redacted before she could see them. “That sounded like quite a lot of incidents,” she writes in her book. She is still waiting for those 8,000 pages.
Dewar spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman.
What was your intention when you set out to write this book?
Initially it was just to find out what the heck was going on. I became fascinated by the unfurling of this pandemic story really early in January . Our own people here were saying, “Oh, there’s no risk, it’s no big deal.” And I remember the same thing happened with SARS. So okay, there’s something going on here. There can’t be an agreement about what this is and where it came from, but there’s something going on that suggests that it came from somewhere that the government of China understands and knows and has been suppressing on purpose.
How early in all of this were you doubting the wet market theory?
I think the doubt came with that first round of [scientific] papers all submitted on Jan. 20  after [Chinese President] Xi Jinping announced there might be person-to-person transmission. All of them, with the exception of one, said that the wet market theory could not be sustained because 44 per cent of the patients who came in were not connected to the wet market in any way. And yet it still sort of percolated, in part because the Chinese government focused so much attention on it.
Ultimately, mainstream publications began to report seriously about the lab theory. Were you thinking that from the beginning?
I’m not sure what I was thinking until I began to understand that some of the [scientific] publications were quite deceptive and that really set the hair up on the back of my neck. [One Chinese scientist submitted two papers with different information to different science journals on the same day]. I mean, when I hit upon that, I was just gobsmacked. Because there’s no possibility that you can publish two papers saying quite different things on the same day, and allow those two papers to continue to circulate, without any reference back and forth between them.
So help me as a non-science person understand what the implications of that could be.
What that tells me is there’s either extreme sloppiness or deception going on. And that tells me: Dig more. I began to see it as science being used by the government of China as a prop to create a narrative, and not necessarily a truthful narrative.
One of the questions you raise is how could the virus have adapted to humans so quickly and easily?
SARS-COV-2 was incredibly well adapted to human beings from the get-go. And the question is: how does that happen? As most virologists will tell you, if there’s a spillover, a zoonosis, coming from an animal to a human, there’s going to be a bumpy ride as the virus adapts itself to humans. And it’s not going to be quick. This thing showed no evidence of major mutation for the first quarter of its distribution around the world and only minor variations since. So how did it adapt to humans? Was it passaged to human cells [in a lab], or was it passaged in the lungs of those miners [in Mojiang]? They were breathing heavily, they were sick for four, five, six months, because the virus kept replicating in their lungs, moving from one part of their lungs to the other and those samples ended up at the WIV.
There is a lot of interest in the couple [Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng] that was expelled from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg. You tried so hard to get at that and you kept coming up against roadblocks. Was there anything you learned that satisfied you about them?
No. What I need to understand, what we all need to understand, is how it was that they were security-cleared in the first place. Where did they come from, how did they arrive here, what’s the story?
If you and I were sitting together having dinner and I asked you what happened, what would you tell me?
I would tell you that in 2012 in a place called Mojiang County in the Yunnan province of China, three miners went into a combination cave/copper mine, started clearing out bat guano, got sick. Three more came, three more got sick. In the end, three of them died. They were sick as dogs with something clearly SARS-like, in the hospital. This was so serious and so SARS-like and there are international health regulations that say if you get a SARS-like anything, you must notify the WHO. The Chinese didn’t notify anybody. Instead, they sent samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. They worked at it, they sent in military teams to find out what else could be found from that bat cave; what other viruses could be discovered. WIV worked with those samples and published nothing on them at all, which suggests to me that the government of China had a military interest in what happened in that mine. And that this particular pandemic may have arisen from simply the opening of a sample pulled from those miners’ lungs in which the virus may have pre-adapted itself to humans and somehow infected a lab researcher and got out into the community. That’s what I think happened. I think if we’re going to have a serious investigation, we have to be looking at the lab results and notebooks that go back to 2012 from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
What are you hoping people get out of this book? What should happen now?
Well, there’s a number of issues that really bothered me while I was doing the reporting. Chief among them was the incredible slowness of the government of Canada to [act] when [the seriousness of COVID-19] was as obvious as the nose on your face from the 31st of January. I want to get at how come that happened. And I don’t want people to forget it. Because we have [27,000] dead people whose deaths might have been avoided if we had acted with speed. And if we had acted from a science point of view, as opposed to from a political point of view.
The second thing that I really want people to understand is that the nature of the biological science that we are doing is so dangerous that all of us are at risk, and yet none of us, especially in this country, have heard any debate in a public place about whether we want to allow this body of research to go forward. Or if we do, what kind of regulatory restraints we want to put on it. The silence about what we can do is scary as crap.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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