If, like me, you have left your Christmas shopping to the last minute, consider gifting the ground breaking book, by Australian journalist Sharri Markson, on the origins of the coronavirus. Her book has been a worldwide hit. Titled What really happened in Wuhan? it is the most gripping description of how the world descended into the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu.
For most, this will be a topic you think you know much about. The coronavirus has been the number one story for nearly two years, and many of the stories Ms Markson broke have been widely reported. There is still many unanswered questions though that this book explores, as well as just being a rollicking, “inside the room” account of how this all happened.
The book starts on 22 November 2019 - six weeks before China would confirm to the World Health Organisation a new virus. On that night, Chinese dissident, Wei Jingsheng, visited his fellow anti-CCP activist, Dimon Liu, for dinner in Washington DC.
Wei had grown up inside one of the Chinese Communist Party’s 500 founding families. But he had been imprisoned and tortured for 14 years after writing an essay in 1978 that described Deng Xiaoping as a dictator. He was thrown back in jail in the mid-1990s after meeting with a US official about human rights abuses. Finally Wei was extradited to the US in 1997, as part of China’s negotiations with the US, to join the World Trade Organisation.
Wei maintained impeccable contacts within China, and, as Ms Markson recounts, after enjoying a rib-eye steak, stir fried bean curd and Chinese barley, Wei said to his friend “There is a new, dangerous virus spreading in China. There is a lot of talk about people getting sick. All my friends are speaking about it. It seems to be in Wuhan.”
Six weeks later, on 2 January 2020, Wei returned to his friend for lunch. Wei told her of “Shi Zhengli”, a scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and told his friends “I know the PLA [the Chinese military] has been doing research on biological warfare since the 1960s ... the laboratories in Wuhan are very suspicious.”
Sharri Markson would later break the story of Shi, the so-called bat lady, and her work with coronaviruses in bats at Wuhan.
Both Wei Jingsheng and Dimon Liu were well connected in DC, and they raised concerns with Trump officials and Senators. So why did the world not wake up to the threat until it was too late?
First, the US political class was distracted by the impeachment of Donald Trump, associated with now discredited claims of his ties to Russia. I was in DC in late November 2019, to talk about how to reduce China’s control of rare earths, and while in then Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff’s office, he showed me how his entire boardroom table was filled with folders on impeachment.
In late January 2020, while the impeachment hearings were at their height, the Trump administration held a briefing on coronavirus for the 100 Senators in Congress. Just 5 Senators turned up.
The other reason we may have missed the early warning signs is because so many western scientists were working with the Wuhan laboratory before 2020. Ms Markson’s book is at its forensic best as she details the labyrinth of these connections, including awarding US Government funding to 60 research projects in Wuhan, and the assistance provided by our own CSIRO to Wuhan scientists.
These conflicts almost certainly played a role in downplaying the early signs that this virus may have come from the Wuhan lab. When a Trump administration official raised the prospect of banning travel from China - based on the information he had received from Wei - he was shut down because Dr Anthony Fauci told the meeting coronavirus was not yet a serious problem.
There is much more in this book, including the most accessible description of whether Covid-19 was made in a lab. Perhaps the book’s most important contribution, however, is its own early warning about the need for us to re-evaluate our relationship with China. The coronavirus has proven that the Chinese Communist Party cannot be a trusted partner and, for now at least, China is not a safe place to do business.