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lab leak theory wuhan

The Other Lab in Wuhan: The German-Chinese “Laboratory for Virus Research”


The “lab-leak” theory is enjoying a strong revival at the moment, thanks in part to Elon Musk having obliquely endorsed it in a Tweet while clearly point the finger at Anthony Fauci: “As for Fauci, he lied to Congress and funded gain-of-function research that killed millions of people.”

This despite the fact that an article in Science appeared to have already put the theory to rest over a year ago by showing that the initial cluster of Covid-19 cases in Wuhan was located on the opposite (left) bank of the Yangtze River from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is commonly supposed to be the pandemic’s epicenter according to the “lab-leak” theory.

But unbeknownst to most observers, there was in fact another infectious diseases lab in Wuhan, the German-Chinese Joint Laboratory of Infection and Immunity, and it is located on the same side of the river in the cluster.

The below map from the Science article makes the distance of the cluster from the two campuses of the Wuhan Institute of Virology clear – although the article itself coyly refrains from referring to the Institute. 

Instead, the article shows that even if many of the earliest known cases of Covid-19 in Wuhan did not have any “epidemiologic link” to the famous Huanan wet market, the great majority of them were clustered in the vicinity of the market. This suggests – as per the quasi-official account – that the epidemic started in the market by way of animal-to-human (zoonotic) transmission and then spread to the surrounding area via “community transmission.”

Ergo, the “lab-leak” theory is dead.

Except that there is also an infectious diseases lab in the area of the cluster: the aforementioned German-Chinese Joint Laboratory of Infection and Immunity at Union Hospital, Tongji Medical College. The laboratory is a joint project of Union Hospital, Tongji Medical College and the University Hospital of Essen in Germany. Prof. Ulf Dittmar, chair of the virology department in Essen, has also referred to the joint laboratory as the “Essen-Wuhan Laboratory for Virus Research.”

(See interview here [in German]. It should be noted that in the cited interview, conducted in January 2020, Dittmar downplays the dangerousness of the novel Coronavirus and warns against “hysterical” reactions.)

Helpfully, the map from the Science article also indicates the locations of the Chinese host institutions of the joint laboratory: the Union and Tongji hospitals. Per the legend, they are indicated by crosses 5 and 6: right next to the home location of what the article identifies as “cluster 1,” an elderly husband and wife who represent “the earliest known case cluster and the only cluster admitted by 26 December. They had no known connection to Huanan Market.” (Red dots on the map indicate cases with a known connection to the market; blue dots those that have no known connection.) The Tongji Hospital is the closest to “cluster 1.”

Astonishingly, in early September 2019, only three months before the allegedly initial outbreak of Covid-19 just a stone’s throw from Tongji Hospital in Wuhan, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid a visit to none other than…Tongji Hospital in Wuhan. The hospital is also known as the German-Chinese Friendship Hospital.

A photo of Chancellor Merkel being welcomed by nurses at the hospital reception can be seen here. The accompanying article in the German newspaper Die Süddeutsche Zeitung notes another highly intriguing fact: the Essen University Hospital is not the only German teaching hospital with which Tongji has a “close partnership.” 

It also has a partnership with the Charité Hospital in Berlin of Germany’s “state virologist” Christian Drosten! Drosten is the chair of the virology department at the Charité.

Now, it was none other than Christian Drosten who in mid-January 2020 – just a couple of weeks after the initial outbreak of Covid-19 just a stone’s throw from Tongji Hospital – devised the notoriously oversensitive PCR test that would become the “gold standard” for detecting the virus. Since Drosten’s PCR would also and especially be used to test people with no symptoms of the illness, it thus paved the way for the outbreak to obtain pandemic status. 

Before the PCR test was adopted by the WHO, Drosten’s paper on it would be rushed through the peer-review process of the EU-funded journal Eurosurveillance in record time: going from submission to acceptance in anywhere from three-and-a-half hours to 27-and-a-half hours per the calculations of Simon Goddek.

According to accompanying tweets and Gettr posts in German, a photo that circulated on the two platforms earlier this year is supposed to show Drosten at a Tongji Medical College (or perhaps joint Tongji-Charité?) event. “What a coincidence,” some of the posts note ironically. (Here, for instance.) Many of the posts link a Charité webpage. But the link does not contain or no longer contains any such photo. It merely leads to generic information on a Charité-Tongji exchange program, thus leaving the source of the photo unclear. 

Christian Drosten at Tongji Medical College event?

A Google search result from the Tongji website (see below) tantalizingly notes that a “Sino-German Disaster Medicine Institute, Charité University in Germay [sic.] and Tongji Hospital was officially opened in Tongji Hospital, Wuhan, China.” But the indexed Tongji news article is not available nor is it cached, and the URL is not archived by the Wayback Machine either. Could this be the event at which Drosten is pictured? Perhaps Drosten could clarify.

In any case, thanks to a FOIA request, we know that Drosten participated in February 2020 email exchanges with Anthony Fauci and other international scientists about the possibility of a lab leak and that he was in fact, in contrast to other participants, particularly irritated about the hypothesis. Several of the others – including, n.b., Anthony Fauci – are clearly willing to entertain the possibility of a lab leak, and Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust even says that he is split 50:50 between lab leak and natural origin and that Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney is even 60:40 lab leak.

The doubts and open-mindedness of the other participants elicits an obviously pissy response from Drosten. “Can someone help me with one question,” he asks, “didn’t we congregate to challenge a certain theory, and if we could, drop it? …Are we working on debunking our own conspiracy theory?”

As the journalist Milosz Matuschek has pointed out in an article for the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche, the FOIA release could prove to be a problem for Christian Drosten. For in a sworn statement to a German court, Drosten has insisted that he 

had no interest in steering the suspicion about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a certain direction. In particular, I had and I have no personal interest in ruling out the so-called laboratory thesis as origin of the virus. If there were indications for the correctness of the laboratory thesis, I would vigorously defend it in the scientific and public discussion. 


Postscript: We now know that the above photo of Christian Drosten and Shi Zhengli does not come from a Tongji Medical College event, but rather from a 2015 symposium in Berlin which was organized by none other than Ulf Dittmer, who would subsequently become the co-director of the German-Chinese virology lab in Wuhan. At the time, Dittmer was the director of a German-Chinese research network which included the Wuhan Institute of Virology as partner. See my follow-up article here, and for still more details, my more recent article here.

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