Demon in the Freezer?

John Ellis
3 min readJan 25, 2020

I posted this as a News Items update earlier today:

This just in, via The New York Times: “In a sign of how the spread of the coronavirus has deeply shaken China, the nation’s top leader, Xi Jinping, convened a meeting of the Communist Party leadership on Saturday to begin an offensive to stanch the spread of the outbreak, improve treatment of victims and speed supplies to areas under lockdown. ‘We’re sure to be able to win in this battle to beat the epidemic through prevention and control,’ Mr. Xi said, according to an official summary delivered on Chinese television.”

Mr. Xi went on to say: “Confronted with the grave situation of this accelerating spread of pneumonia from infections with the novel coronavirus, we must step up the centralized and united leadership under the party central leadership.

I take the first quote to mean that Mr. Xi is not certain that China will “be able to win in this battle.” The second quote raises the stakes (for him and his leadership team), while squarely placing the blame for the “accelerating spread of pneumonia” on local Wahun officials.

Hanging over the coronavirus “outbreak” is the terrifying possibility that the disease was not the result of bat soup or bad fish or snake tartar, all of which have been mentioned as possible sources of the rogue pathogen. Here’s News from roughly three years ago:

A laboratory in Wuhan is on the cusp of being cleared to work with the world’s most dangerous pathogens. The move is part of a plan to build between five and seven biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) labs across the Chinese mainland by 2025, and has generated much excitement, as well as some concerns.

Some scientists outside China worry about pathogens escaping, and the addition of a biological dimension to geopolitical tensions between China and other nations. But Chinese microbiologists are celebrating their entrance to the elite cadre empowered to wrestle with the world’s greatest biological threats….

BSL-4 is the highest level of biocontainment: its criteria include filtering air and treating water and waste before they leave the laboratory, and stipulating that researchers change clothes and shower before and after using lab facilities. Such labs are often controversial. The first BSL-4 lab in Japan was built in 1981, but operated with lower-risk pathogens until 2015, when safety concerns were finally overcome…..

The Wuhan lab cost 300 million yuan (US$44 million), and to allay safety concerns it was built far above the flood plain and with the capacity to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake, although the area has no history of strong earthquakes. It will focus on the control of emerging diseases, store purified viruses and act as a World Health Organization ‘reference laboratory’ linked to similar labs around the world. “It will be a key node in the global biosafety-lab network,” says lab director Yuan Zhiming.

There has been no suggestion (yet) that an accident occurred at the BSL-4 lab in Wahun. But accidents of the kind have happened before. And if you don’t want to sleep tonight, click on this article (‘Demon In The Freezer’) to get an idea of the possible gravity of the situation.

If an accident did occur at the BSL-4 lab in Wahun, then it’s not just a global health crisis (which, two days ago, the World Health Organization idiotically said it is not), it’s an existential political crisis for Mr. Xi.

Here’s hoping that bad bat soup is the cause of the outbreak.



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.