University of Arizona Biology Department Head Pushed China’s COVID Origins Narrative

University of Arizona Biology Department Head Pushed China’s COVID Origins Narrative

By Corinne Murdock |

In February, leadership within the University of Arizona (UArizona) sciences published papers championing an old claim made by the Chinese government: that COVID-19 originated naturally at a Chinese wet market. Also behind those papers were researchers intimately steeped in government efforts to prove that COVID-19 didn’t leak from a lab whose research on coronaviruses was funded by the government — the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China. 

UArizona Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Department Head Michael Worobey and PhD student Lorena Malpica Serrano co-authored two papers alongside 34 scientists to claim that COVID-19 came from two encounters with animals at a wet market. One of those scientists, virologist Robert Garry, was hand-selected by NIH director Francis Collins to dispute whistleblower research from summer 2021 that COVID-19 was engineered at the Wuhan Institute of Virology eight miles from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Another scientist, Netherlands molecular expert Marion Koopmans, served on the World Health Organization (WHO) mission in early 2021 to analyze the origins of COVID-19 in Wuhan — a mission that concluded with a report blaming wet market animals that was fraught with errors, rejected by WHO leadership, haunted by claims of Chinese government interference, and ultimately walked back on by several mission members. 

Over the last year, Worobey has researched for a connection between COVID-19 and the Chinese wet market. Last March, Worobey teamed up with four other researchers to posit in a paper that COVID-19 wasn’t the first coronavirus outbreak among humans — three of those researchers, University of California in San Diego scientists Jonathan Pekar, Niema Moshiri, and Joel Wertheim joined him on the two papers published most recently. That paper claimed that an earlier variant successfully jumped from animals to humans between mid-October and mid-November of 2019. Worobey and his peers largely dismissed the notion that COVID-19 originated at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

“The first described cluster of COVID-19 was associated with the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in late December 2019, and the earliest sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genomes came from this cluster,” read the report. “However, this market cluster is unlikely to have denoted the beginning of the pandemic, as COVID-19 cases from early December lacked connections to the market. The earliest such case in the scientific literature is from an individual retrospectively diagnosed on 1 December 2019. Notably, however, newspaper reports document retrospective COVID-19 diagnoses recorded by the Chinese government going back to 17 November 2019 in Hubei province. These reports detail daily retrospective COVID-19 diagnoses through the end of November, suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 was actively circulating for at least a month before it was discovered.”

Then last November, eight months after the collaborative March paper, Worobey appeared to believe more greatly that the wet market was the origins for COVID-19. He published a solo paper examining available records to link the virus to the wet market. It appears that three months after that solo paper, less than a year after dismissing the notion that the wet market was the origin of COVID-19, Worobey and several of his colleagues came to completely flip on their prior findings.

Their latest paper was picked up by the New York Times as a feature story. The acclaimed preprint recounted how the scientists studied a plethora of data, including virus genes, market stall maps, and social media activity of the earliest COVID-19 patients following several weeks in 2019 at the Huanan wet market. However, the Times noted that the papers didn’t identify the market animal that spread COVID-19 to humans. 

In fact, no American or Chinese scientists were able to test the market animals claimed to be the cause of the COVID-19 outbreak; before anyone could, Chinese police shut down and disinfected the market. Only after Chinese police finished their work were scientists with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention able to come test the area. Since there were no market animals left, the researchers sampled market interiors and stray animals. That was in January 2020. The Chinese scientists sat on this collected evidence until several months ago, a day before Worobey’s report at the end of February. The Chinese government’s report conflicted with the Worobey papers, noting that the sampled animals were negative for the virus and that all evidence of COVID-19 was found in relation to human activity in the surrounding environment.

In the year prior to Worobey and his colleagues advancing the argument that COVID originated from the wet market, an outside researcher attempted to enlighten the conflicting narratives. This scientist claimed in a paper that the virus was engineered in a lab within miles of the wet market. 

As Vanity Fair reported, evolutionary biologist Jesse Bloom authored his standalone paper after discovering the disappearance of several Chinese papers detailing several SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequences. The sequences are like points on a sequential map, allowing scientists to track the origins and evolution of a virus. Bloom suspected that the Chinese government destroyed evidence of the genomic sequences because they engineered the COVID-19 virus. His further investigation caused him to believe that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) deleted evidence as well at the behest of the Chinese government. Bloom passed his findings laid out in the paper on to Dr. Anthony Fauci and Collins.

Bloom’s paper was with contention from outside experts brought forth by Collins in a meeting: an evolutionary biologist, Kristian Andersen, and the virologist involved in Worobey’s latest papers, Robert Garry. Andersen accused Bloom of unethical behavior for daring to investigate something that Chinese scientists deleted. Andersen insisted that the genomic sequences from Wuhan were of no concern. 

Fauci sided with Andersen. He vouched for the Chinese scientists’ integrity, noting that their reasons for deleting the sequences were unknown. Yet, both he and Collins didn’t agree with Andersen when he pressured Bloom to allow edits to his paper. 

As the Vanity Fair article outlined, Fauci and Collins had a vested interest to support the notions of natural transmission, not a lab leak, because of their relationship with EcoHealth Alliance — the nonprofit research organization that funded the coronavirus bat research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Emails obtained through public records requests revealed that EcoHealth Alliance CEO Peter Daszak thanked Fauci for dismissing lab leak theories, with Fauci responding in kind.

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.