Viral, a gripping book by Matt Ridley and Alina Chan, examines the heart of the investigation into Covid-19’s origins and the question that has been occupying scientists all over the world. 

Was this a natural disaster, as we first believed, a naturally occurring virus that jumped from animals to humans…or the laboratory leak of a possibly engineered coronavirus — and a cover-up of epic proportions? 

MATT RIDLEY, an exclusive essay for The Mail, reveals how the authors arrived at their explosive conclusions.

A man known as “The Seeker” was browsing through a Chinese website in the Indian city of Bhubaneswar.

It was May 18, 2020. He was responding to a tweet from an American scientist, who speculated about the origin of the virus that was ravaging the planet.

He used login details he had found online to search through a digital anthology for academic work called

Then, he suddenly found a medical thesis. It reported that six men became ill in 2012 while clearing out piles de bat guano at an old copper mine in Yunnan. Three of the men were dead.

The doctors suspected that the men had been infected by a virus that originated from bats. They had the case examined by virologists from Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which is more than 1,000 miles away.

The Seeker, a slim 30-year old with shoulder-length locks, has been accused of working for either the CIA or Indian intelligence agencies. The truth is less dramatic.

He explained that he had learned how search engines could work for him. “It was more madness that method.”

Motivated by an interest in finding out how the pandemic began and skilled at trawling the internet for clues, he began communicating on Twitter with a group of other internet ‘sleuths’ from around the world — all pursuing the same question: where did the virus that causes Covid-19 originate?

Soon, some of those sleuths gathered into a loose confederation known DRASTIC. (Decentralised Radical Automatous Search Team Investigating Covid-19). More important findings followed.

On July 8, 2020, in response to another query on Twitter — this time from a technology consultant in Madrid, called Francisco de Ribera — The Seeker drew his attention to another database: the Chinese National Genomics Data Centre, known as BigD.

Ribera would need this intervention to find details about the work of Chinese scientists. He knew that company auditors used an old trick: Pay attention to serial numbers on invoices. A missing number could indicate a missing document.

So he began to create a huge spreadsheet that included every virus sample ever referenced by WIV scientists in papers and seminars or their genetic database. No small feat.

Aerial view shows the P4 laboratory, left, on the campus of the now infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology in China's central Hubei province

Aerial view of the P4 laboratory on the campus of China’s now-infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology, in central Hubei province 

Ribera found eight other viruses that were similar to the one that causes Covid-19 in August 2020 using data from BigD. These viruses, Ribera determined, must have come from Wuhan scientists and had been collected in 2015 from the Yunnan coppermine where the three men died in 2012.

This is an important fact. Yet, the documentation was not available. WIV scientists confirmed Ribera’s right in November 2020.

Could it be possible that, despite being isolated, Ribera, Seeker and Ribera had done more than just the Chinese government, Western scientific establishments and the World Health Organisation, (WHO) to shed light into the origin of the Covid-19 epidemic?

In researching our new book, my co-author — Alina Chan, the U.S. scientist whose tweet attracted the crucial attention of The Seeker — and I think that how the pandemic started may well be the keenest mystery of our lifetime.

This saga will always be part of human history. It has caused the deaths of millions, sickened hundreds upon millions, and drastically changed the lives of nearly every person on Earth.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that if we don’t know how it started we are unable to prevent it from happening again.

Until May 2021 — with rare exceptions such as the Mail’s Ian Birrell — scientists, government officials, broadcasters and journalists all largely assumed as fact that a natural ‘spillover’ event from a wild animal was by far the most likely way the virus first infected a human.

In fact, members of the scientific establishment repeatedly insisted to journalists that any alternative theory of a laboratory leak was ‘conspiracy theory’, even while — we now know — in private they shared strong doubts.

The WHO took a year even to begin to investigate other theories — and when it did, their conclusions echoed a narrative favoured by Chinese authorities, that the virus may even have reached Wuhan on frozen food from a source outside China, and that a lab leak was ‘extremely unlikely’. 

They came to this conclusion without exploring the possibility.

We now know that the pandemic was caused by a laboratory leaking. This is partly due to the clever work and months of research.

WHO scientists believe farms and caves might have played a role with bats spreading COVID-19. A now-cancelled grant from the National Institutes of Health allowed researchers associated with the EcoHealth Alliance to gather samples from bats, which can carry viruses that jump to other animals and humans (Pictured: Scientists from the Ecohealth Alliance study a bat)

WHO scientists believe caves and farms may have been responsible for bats spreading COVID-19. Researchers associated with the EcoHealth Alliance were able to collect samples from bats through a grant that was cancelled by the National Institutes of Health. This virus can jump to other animals, humans, and even plants. (Pictured – Scientists from Ecohealth Alliance examine a bat.

We acknowledge that a natural-origin theory remains plausible and deserves proper investigation. 

We can’t know until China’s government allows for a credible and thorough investigation. There are many avenues of inquiry that can be used to investigate the matter, even if China is limiting them.

Scientific consensus is that Covid-19’s ancestor must have been a bat at the beginning. 

Close relatives of the SARS virus-CoV-2 virus were found in the wild. They are almost all found in horseshoe and saddle bats. 

The SARS virus — which caused the 2003 epidemic — is a close cousin and also originated in horseshoe bats. SARS quickly made it clear that food handlers were the first to become infected.

Palm civets, small cat-like animals that are farmed for the table in southern China, were found to be infecting people — though how they acquired a bat virus still remains unclear.

It was initially assumed that the same thing had occurred at the Huanan Seafood Market, Wuhan, where the majority of early cases were reported by people who had been working or shopping there.

Yet, despite testing markets, farms and no fewer than 80,000 animal samples spanning dozens of species across China, no evidence has emerged for a similar chain of early ‘zoonotic’ infections — transmitted from animals to humans — in SARS-CoV-2. The virus has been found in hundreds of animal carcasses taken at the market.

While the Chinese authorities are not revealing the professions for the first infected persons, we know that many of them, including the first cases, were not exposed to the market.

It was in May 2020 when Alina discovered that, compared with the 2003 SARS virus which evolved rapidly in the early months as it adapted to human beings, the virus causing Covid-19 seemed — rather unusually — to be already well adapted to infecting human bodies from first detection in Wuhan.

Then, where did the virus get its acute ability for infecting and transmitting among people? Could it have happened in a laboratory

U.S. intelligence sources claim that three of the Covid-19 early cases were Covid-19 victims who worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

We have to wonder if it is a coincidence that a bat derived SARS virus found its way into a city with the largest research programme for such viruses and the largest laboratory collection of SARS-like bat-derived coronaviruses. It is located over a thousand miles away from the region in China where similar viruses are found naturally.

A team of researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the EcoHealth Alliance trap bats in Guangdong, China, in January 2020

In January 2020, a team of researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and the EcoHealth Alliance, trap bats in Guangdong (China).

Wuhan, Hubei province, was not chosen for this research, as such viruses can be found there naturally. 

The thousands of bats tested there have not found a related virus. Additionally, a survey conducted before the pandemic revealed that there were no antibodies in Wuhan for SARS-like diseases.

In reality, WIV scientists led Dr Shi Zhengli (now called ‘Bat Woman” in the media) regularly made the long trip from Yunnan to collect thousands of samples from wild animals and people for study back at Wuhan. 

They didn’t always wear full protection as they handled thousands upon thousands of bats, swabbing their noses and generally getting closer to them than normal humans.

We now know, thanks to the sleuths (as we didn’t in February 2020), that Dr Shi at the WIV had a batch of viruses very similar to SARS CoV-2, which was taken from an abandoned copper mine in Mojiang County, Yunnan. This is where three workers died in 2012 from SARS-like symptoms after they shoveled bat guano.

This mine is 1,171 kilometres (1,885 miles) from Wuhan. It is also as far as London from Rome. Between 2012 and 2015, the Wuhan scientists visited this mine at least seven times to collect bat samples. 

While we don’t know if they continued beyond 2015 or not, most of Dr Shi’s viruses pre-date 2016. We don’t know what other viruses they might have found in the period 2016 to 2019. 

The mine itself is surrounded by a wall of secrecy. To this day Dr Shi and her colleagues have refused to confirm its exact location, though — again thanks to DRASTIC — it is no longer a secret.

It remains off limits to foreigners, and is heavily guarded. Journalists who tried to visit it have been stopped by police and impeded by vehicles that were allegedly damaged.

Hardly a approach that inspires confidence and irrelevance in the site’s innocence and irrelevance.

WIV have not been forthcoming with crucial information about the viruses that they collected while there, or what they did back in the laboratory.

They changed the name of one virus and failed to disclose eight others for 11 month post-pandemic. They also implied that they had only been sequencing their genomes since 2020, when databases show they have been doing so since at most 2017.

The WIV had more than 22,000 wild animals samples from the search for unknown pathogens, mostly from southern China, by 2019, 

Strangely, this data became unavailable to users outside of the WIV on September 12, 2019, just prior to the pandemic. This fact was discovered by Charles Small, a key sleuth in Britain.

To dispel rumours that SARS-CoV-2 was derived using one of their specimens the WIV could easily share their data with other scientists. It is also absurd that they claim there were hacking attempts.

Furthermore, if you hide the data during a pandemic, what’s point in collecting viruses with pandemic potential?

However, Wuhan has a detailed record that documents the research done there. This record is not lost. The scientists presented a detailed record of coronavirus research in Wuhan on paper after paper. It was comprehensive, innovative, and largely successful.

Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli is seen inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, capital of China's Hubei province, on February 23, 2017

Shi Zhengli, a Chinese virologist, is seen in Wuhan’s P4 laboratory, capital of China’s Hubei province.

They did more than just bring viruses into the laboratory for storage. They sequenced their genomes, created ‘infectious-clones’ of them, and grew live viruses inside cells. 

They also synthesized and modified their DNA to insert certain sequences. Finally, they ‘hybridized’ (combined some of them) and used these hybrid viruses to infect human lungs cells and mice genetically engineered with human versions of the genes.

These experiments were designed to help us understand the risks that each virus poses and to eventually develop a vaccine to combat all SARS-like viruses. The work could have unintentionally produced a more virulent and infectious form of a virus.

Scientists have discovered bats with viruses linked to SARS-CoV-2, in Thailand, Cambodia and Japan, Laos, eastern China, and in one case, they were more distantly related than the ones from Mojiang mine.

Last month, a Laos virus called BANAL 52 was discovered. It is believed to be of natural origin and has the closest’spike protein’ (the key that unlocks the doors to cells) to the one found in SARS-CoV-2.

But — and this is key — even this virus cannot be the direct ancestor of SARS-CoV-2: it lacks a crucial genetic sequence and one that some people think might even be a smoking gun.

This genetic feature is known as the ‘furin-cleavage site’. This feature allows the virus to make a critical change in its shape and slip into different types of cells more easily. It is what makes Covid-19 so infectious.

Importantly, a furin-cleavage site has never before been seen in a SARS virus-like virus.

So it is, at the very least, intriguing to discover that the practice of deliberately inserting furin cleavage sites into viruses has become a bit of a hobby in recent years among virologists — including those in Wuhan.

This manipulation was used to make it easier to grow viruses in different animal cell types in the laboratory.

A furin cleavage site from Dr Shi’s WIV research was used to create a MERS-like Coronavirus. It was created by scientists in America and Dr Shi’s WIV lab.

Most notably, Dr Shi failed to mention the show-stopping furin cleavage site when she first described SARS-CoV-2’s DNA in January 2020.

It was a shocking omission from someone who had recognized the importance and used it in her own research on genetic manipulation.

Other scientists from France, Canada, and China were able to point out that this virus was the first SARS-like. It has a furin cleavage site which makes it highly infectious.

Then, in September this year, DRASTIC made perhaps their biggest scoop yet — and it concerned this very feature of the virus.

They discovered a grant proposal from Dr Shi’s close friend, and collaborator, Dr Peter Daszak. This British-born scientist runs the EcoHealth Alliance in New York, which funnels government money into research on viruses that infect bats and other animals in Wuhan.

The proposal requested $14.2 million (£10.4 million) in March 2018 from the U.S. Department of Defense. Dr Shi Zhengli was among the subcontractors.

Although the application was rejected, it contained the EcoHealth Alliance’s first written statements that it and its collaborators intended to genetically engineer novel sites for SARS-like viruses.

Yet, Dr Daszak didn’t reveal this crucial piece of information when he wrote a letter to The Lancet on February 2020 in which he claimed (without revealing his competing research interests), that scientists had already ‘overwhelmingly concluded that this coronavirus originated from wildlife’. 

Dr Daszak was later appointed to the WHO’s Wuhan joint study panel.

Scientists must take precautions when working with viruses in labs. Researchers wear protective clothing at biosecurity level 4.

Pressurized suits: At ‘level 3,’ they use fixed gloves to reach inside sealed cabinets. At level 2, they sometimes wear latex gloves.

Worryingly Dr Shi stated that her experiments in growing bat-borne viruses within human cells were done at biosecurity level 2, which is completely inappropriate for protecting laboratory workers from an airborne virus such as SARS-CoV-2. 

Research accidents do occur. They do happen, and they are common in some of many laboratories around the globe.

Multiple accidental releases of SARS, influenza, smallpox and other pathogens, including anthrax, anthrax and smallpox, have occurred in well-maintained laboratories. It is an occupational danger in research like this.

In 2003 and 2004, at least four laboratory leaked cases of SARS were reported in Singapore, Taiwan, Beijing. In one case in Beijing, the laboratory-acquired disease was only discovered a month later. 

Nearly 1000 people had to be quarantined. 11 fell sick and one, the researcher’s mother, died.

SARS-CoV-2, which is more infectious than SARS, can spread to pre-symptomatic or mildly symptomatic people. It is therefore a prime candidate for laboratory escape.

It is not surprising to see the scientific establishment be uneasy at the possibility of a pandemic being averted by scientific research.

Yet, it seems that the WHO, the western scientific establishment, and China’s government are not motivated to seek out the truth that could help to prevent future crises.

Still, with political will — and as the independent sleuths have shown — routes of investigation exist that would find out conclusively how this pandemic started.

We can but hope the truth will — one day — come out.

VIRAL: The Search For The Origin Of Covid-19 by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley is published by Fourth Estate on November 16 at £20. © Alina Chan and Matt Ridley 2021. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid to 13/11/21; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit Call 020 3176 297