The Origins

I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.

—Abraham Lincoln

Xiaohongsan, China

The Wuhan Institute of Virology

December 2019

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Researchers in full hazard gear moved quietly beneath the fluorescent lights of the giant concrete building that housed the Wuhan Institute of Virology. White space suits. Giant green gloves. White plastic boots like a child would wear for puddle jumping. Overall, the effect would have been comical . . . if the lab hadn’t been filled with deadly pathogens.

The researchers were used to the air of danger that pervaded the facility. Just one of the invisible particles that they handled every day could wipe out an entire city. Incidentally, there was a city of eleven million people surrounding them. The responsibility was heavy—and to some, they weren’t up to the job.

The world had heard of SARS in the early 2000s. In 2012, there was the report of another coronavirus outbreak (this one called MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). But while the world was distracted by a virus associated with camels, few knew that a potentially deadly SARS strain had been detected in China in 2013. This pathogen—code-named WIV1 (and named for the Wuhan Institute of Virology)—attracted little attention except from the US and Chinese researchers funded by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and Anthony Fauci. By 2015, Dr. Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina and Dr. Zhengli Shi of Wuhan had performed research that had concluded ominously that the Wuhan coronavirus was “poised for human emergence.”

If it was going to happen anywhere, Wuhan seemed a likely place. As early as 2016, American researchers found that China was suffering from a “shortage of officials, experts, and scientists who specialize in laboratory biosafety.” The greatest concern was that lab researchers who were accidentally infected through lax safety protocol could then inadvertently spread rare diseases throughout their community. Still, that nation’s leaders seemed intent on pressing forward with ever more biomedical research.

When the Wuhan Institute of Virology first officially opened in 2017, scientists around the world warned that operations at the $44 million lab were a recipe for disaster. The SARS virus had escaped from a major lab in Beijing multiple times, and despite the government’s promises of unparalleled safety in Wuhan, the risk to the rest of the world was obvious: Wuhan would be home to more than 1,500 virus strains. Could a deadly virus escape right under the noses of the researchers?

Early indications were not good. According to the US State Department, American Embassy officials in Beijing recorded at least two official warnings about the lab’s insufficient safety measures in early 2018. However, it wasn’t just the Americans raising alarm. Although Chinese media have historically been slow to admit the failure of government projects, even the propagandistic national press reported that security inspections had discovered several incidents and accidents at the lab in Wuhan.

One security review in particular concluded that the lab had failed to meet national standards in several categories, especially as it concerned the handling of the bats that had been captured for study of the coronaviruses they carry. Researchers admitted to investigators that there had been bat attacks that left them splattered with bat blood or bat urine on their skin. That kind of bat-to-human contact was exactly the kind of interaction that the outside world feared. Even a less-noticeable bat interaction with another lab animal could cause a chain reaction of infection—one that could potentially cripple the entire world.

Still, in the face of a moratorium making much of that kind of research off-limits in the US, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) continued to funnel money to Wuhan to study coronaviruses in bats. More alarming, the study also funded research into mechanisms that would make bat-derived coronavirus deadlier to humans. The NIH grants to the EcoHealth Alliance, which funded research in Wuhan, would continue up through April 2020. This wasn’t random.

In 1999, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) under the leadership of Dr. Anthony Fauci began funding research into recombinant coronaviruses. Their specific aim was to create “infectious, replication defective, coronavirus.” In short, they sought to use coronavirus as a technology that could infect humans without a high risk of transmission. This work, done at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, resulted in US Patent 7,279,327: “Methods for Producing Recombinant Coronavirus,” filed in 2002 before Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) existed.

Research into coronaviruses had been heavily funded as a means to harness the highly manipulatable virus for several potential applications in both medicine and bioterrorism. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) jumped to file patents on the gene sequence of the coronavirus itself. Although naturally occurring phenomena cannot be patented, any scientific procedure used to study one can. Patenting coronavirus meant that the CDC could control future study—and future vaccines. Based on the number of coronavirus patents that arose in the late 1990s, they foresaw a busy—and potentially profitable—future for that viral family.

All that was likely swirling in the mind of lab director Wang Yanyi in December 2019. An unexplained wildfire of pneumonia had been spreading across the Wuhan metropolitan area for weeks, and doctors had traced it all back to a coronavirus. Yanyi and his team had been tasked with finding out if this coronavirus was a long-buried strain that had resurfaced, or if it could be something new—and therefore much more dangerous.

The results of their initial research were disturbing: This virus did have 96 percent genetic similarity to a strain of coronavirus that had been isolated from bats nearly twenty years before. However, beyond that, it appeared to be something entirely novel.

Samples of the virus reportedly collected from patients arrived in Wuhan on December 30, 2019, and the lab’s scientists had reported the viral genome sequence by January 2, 2020. The news of the novel coronavirus was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on January 11. According to a Stat News Report article released on January 11, Chinese national media reported the first official death from the virus.1

On July 9, 2021, Organic Consumers Association reported that Dr. Ralph Baric, the NIAID, and Moderna entered into a Material Transfer Agreement to start making a new coronavirus vaccine on December 12, weeks before the “pathogen” was isolated.2

Lab director Yanyi and the rest of the world now knew what they were dealing with. But where did it come from, and how did it start infecting humans? That was probably a less important question than this one: Was it too late to stop it?

Ojai, California

The sleepy mountain town of Ojai, California, couldn’t be farther away from a Chinese coronavirus research lab. About an hour and a half up the road from Los Angeles, Ojai is far removed as well from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood. Getting there involves a slow and steady journey up a winding mountain road, a drive that requires a literal change of pace. As you motor through the natural arches of centuries-old trees, sparkling lakes pop out from behind the bends. Charming farmhouses are nestled in the greenery. Then, suddenly, there is a small town seemingly dropped into the forest out of nowhere.

Spanish-style adobe buildings with wooden signs line the one narrow thoroughfare of commerce in the city. Vegan restaurants live happily alongside coffee shops, tax preparation firms, lawyers, and design studios. Tucked away on a small side street, at the top floor of a dark and nondescript commercial building, was the office of Elevate Productions.

Elevate was the brainchild of Mikki Willis, his wife, producer Nadia Salamanca, and an international team of collaborators. The road to its creation was a rocky one for Mikki, who experienced the deaths of his brother and mother just a few years before coincidentally finding himself at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Although his experiences were ones that might have turned another man bitter, Mikki ultimately found a deep sense of connection and meaning in the experiences. Frustrated that the news media did not seem interested in telling the positive stories of humans working together in 9/11 rescue efforts—focused as they were on the tales of tragedy and terror—Mikki abandoned a promising career as a hotshot Hollywood director to tell stories about the good in life—and to encourage others to do the same.

“Before my experience at the World Trade Center, I was driven to obtain all the material fetishes we’ve been wired to see as symbols of success. All that stuff they strive for in Hollywood,” Mikki told me in an interview. “But there I was, standing on the rubble of what was an international symbol of power just moments before . . . watching exotic cars being flipped and crushed by rescue vehicles, while body parts lay scattered around me. . . . Suddenly my life goals felt insignificant.”

He continued, “It was a snap to grid moment for me. I could no longer do the work I was doing before. I was living someone else’s dream. If I was going to remain in ‘the business,’ I’d have to be involved in something more meaningful.”

In 2005, that declaration took the shape of what would come to be called the Elevate Film Festival. “It was more of a guerrilla filmmaking competition than a traditional film festival,” Mikki explained. “The object of the game was to challenge filmmakers from around the world to produce a short film in a micro amount of time. We gave each filmmaker a small budget, then sent them out into the world to find stories that would lift the human spirit.

“Tired of all the negative news and depressing narratives, our goal was to inspire artists and storytellers to focus on the upside of humanity—all of the innovators, heroes, and great things happening around the world.”

What started as a small gathering in a local yoga studio rapidly attracted audiences of up to 6,000 people, filling arenas such as L.A.’s Nokia Theater. As director of the festival, Mikki was tasked with developing each film assignment. One such film assignment was a documentary about urban farmers. “Most of the farmers were immigrants—some legal, some not— and they had developed a beautiful garden, right in the middle of the most industrial areas of South Central Los Angeles. They turned a concrete jungle it into an incredible oasis where they were growing and selling organic food to benefit the entire community,” he explained.

Just as the gardens were in full bloom, the owner of the land, a real estate mogul, decided to sell the entire block. “We created a short film titled South Central Farmers, then blasted it out to help raise awareness. Overnight, media and thousands of people showed up to stand in solidarity with the farmers and families who relied on the gardens to survive. It was my first experience of producing a piece of media that caused people to take right action. It lit a fire in me!” Mikki explained.

“I began to pay attention to things that I had always avoided,” he continued. “Like politics. Though I was deep into my thirties, I had never voted. Barack Obama was the first candidate to inspire me enough to take that leap. I was so enamored by his hypnotic presence that I teared up the night he was sworn in. I was certain that this beautiful family man would deliver on his promise of ‘Hope and Change.’ By the end of his first term, it was clear that he was like all the rest. A politician. I didn’t think I’d ever vote again.”

Then, along came Bernie Sanders. “People who I love and trust swore that he was different,” Mikki said. They sent links to videos of Bernie dating back decades. His message was consistent. He took me back to my childhood. He spoke about single mothers and how those on the bottom need to be lifted up. I remember thinking, ‘I wish we had him when I was a child!’”

Ever intent on sharing solutions with his friends and fellow activists, Mikki began to promote Sanders online and became active in various Internet groups related to the campaign. When he heard that Sanders would be making a campaign stop in Ventura, CA—a short drive from Ojai—Mikki set out to attend his first political rally. He wouldn’t be attending just as an observer, though. He intended to film the proceedings. After asking for and receiving permission from the Sanders camp, Mikki showed up on the big day with his camera in tow.

Prior to the rally, he filmed a press conference hosted by celebrities. “An old RV pulls up and out steps Rosario Dawson and Shailene Woodley,” he recalled. “I was behind my camera when Rosario looked directly at me. Her eyes got big, and she mouthed the words, ‘Oh my God,’ then waved to me. I looked over my shoulder to see who she was waving to. There was no one behind me.”

“She came right up to me and said, ‘I love you,’ then gave me a big bear hug. I figured she had me confused with someone else, but I wasn’t about to reject that hug. I said, ‘I love you too!’ And I meant it. I had always admired her onscreen, and I’d seen her on video speaking at Bernie rallies. I just wished that I was whoever she thought I was.”

As it turned out, Dawson knew exactly who Mikki was. He had been making home movies and posting them on his Facebook page. One of those videos even reached 100 million views—and one of them was Dawson.

In the one-minute clip, Mikki is seen in the car with his sons, Azai and Zuri. Speaking directly to his cell-phone camera, Mikki explains that Azai had received two of the same birthday gifts at his party, so the duo went to the toy store to exchange one of them. Azai’s choice? A doll made in the likeness of “Ariel” from The Little Mermaid.

“How do you think a dad feels when his son wants to get this?” Mikki asked in the video, posted on YouTube on August 23, 2015. Smiling big in the background, Azai chimes in, “Yeah!” Mikki responds, “Yeahh! I let my boys choose their life. . . . We say, ‘Yeah! Choose it. Choose your expression. Choose what you’re into. Choose your sexuality. Choose whatever.’ And you have my promise, both of you, as we sit in this car—this hot car in this parking lot—you have my promise forever to love you and accept you no matter what life you choose.”

Mikki had been recording sweet moments with his sons almost since their birth, but there was something special about that clip. The video went around the world, and Mikki was invited on major TV shows to talk about his favorite subject: fatherhood.

He soon learned, however, that his message was being misconstrued. It was the line “choose your sexuality” that was at the center of the brewing storm. “I didn’t expect my sons, who were only two and four at the time, to understand what those words meant. It was a message intended to reach them once they were mature enough,” Mikki explained. “I simply wanted my boys to know that the world and their personal choices could never dilute my love for them. What I wasn’t aware of at that moment in time was the emerging agenda to erase gender identities.”

“Let me make this point crystal clear,” he continued. “I am about personal freedom. It’s not my job to judge others for the way they live their lives, so long as they are not doing harm to others, or our environment. How can I expect to live free if I don’t grant that right to others? Be who you were born to be. If your choice is to live as a straight person—do your thing. A gay person—cool. Gender fluid— you do you. But let us be wise enough to recognize the potential hazards of allowing any new ideology the power to erase our nature. After all, in my humble opinion, it’s our separation from Nature that’s at the root of every issue we’re currently dealing with.

“To me, the term ‘sexuality’ refers to the style in which we choose to express our uniqueness as beings capable of procreation. My sons are boys,” he said. “One day they will be men. My job is to guide them to become the best men they can possibly be. If for any reason one or both of them choose to express characteristics that fall outside of what might be traditionally defined as masculine, I will fully love and support them. Again, it’s about freedom. Freedom to choose. As a former rebellious young person, and now a parent, I’m clear that the more I attempt to mold my boys into my vision for them, the more they will push in directions that they may not otherwise choose for themselves. My job is to always be there for them, and out of the way at the same time.”

Mikki’s home movies struck a chord with a generation hungry for healthy father role models. Dawson had been one of the people tracking Mikki’s videos. “She said, ‘I share your videos with everybody,’” he said. “I remember thinking, Oh, wow. She really does know me. This is amazing!”

From then on, Dawson took Mikki under her wing, walking him around the event and making introductions. She also connected him with actress Shailene Woodley, who bonded with him over his activist roots. They’d only just met, and they were already fast friends and colleagues.

“Shailene and Rosario said, ‘We’re doing a US tour. Come with us!’” Mikki recalled. “I dialed my wife, Nadia, to see how she felt about me going on the road. Unsurprisingly, she said, ‘Oh my god. Do it.’ My wife is amazing. I rushed home, packed up, kissed my family good-bye, then hit the road.”

Although he was never officially hired by the campaign, Mikki had carte blanche because of his association with the campaign’s most prominent supporters. “I’m backstage. I’m onstage. I’m wherever I want to be,” he said. “I wasn’t officially hired by the campaign, nor was I ever offered pay. At the chance that this gruff old guy could bring balance to our topsy-turvy country, I was happy to pay my own way and to work for free. I created a series of short promotional videos to boost support of the blooming grassroots movement.”

However, not everyone was as enthused. Mikki began to receive messages from friends who were concerned to see him latching his cart to the Sanders train. A few of those warnings were from people who had immigrated from socialist countries. One was from Sanders’s home state of Vermont and knew Bernie and his family personally. Mikki believed in the vision so deeply, it was hard for him to even consider the warnings.

“I was not open for debate,” he told me. “In so many words, I told my friends, ‘I really appreciate your time and effort, but I’ve encountered Bernie, his wife, and even his grandchildren, and I really like the man. So thank you, but this doesn’t change anything for me.’”

One friend went so far as to claim that Sanders—an outspoken critic of Hillary Clinton—would end up endorsing her. At the time, Mikki found that utterly unthinkable.

“My friend said, ‘Bernie will eventually endorse Hillary Clinton,’” Mikki remembered. “That’s when I said, ‘Alright. Now I know I shouldn’t listen to you because that’s ludicrous. There’s no way in hell. This man has spent most of his career fighting against people like Hillary Clinton and corrupt organizations like the DNC. You’re wrong.’”

“Though I was fairly new to the world of politics, I was well versed in the history of Bill and Hillary,” Mikki explained. “My mother was from Arkansas. Her brothers—my uncles—had direct experiences with the Clintons. I heard the legends of organized crime and corruption since I was a young boy. As an adult, I looked into those claims and found mountains of supportive evidence. As much as I’d love to see our nation in the hands of a good woman one day, Hillary Clinton was not the one.”

The moment of truth came in late July 2016, when Mikki and the rest of the Sanders tour stopped in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. Sure enough, Clinton was declared the nominee. Sanders conceded and forfeited his campaign contributions, later signing a pledge of loyalty to the DNC.

“I was with a large group of loyal Bernie supporters when he conceded to Clinton,” Mikki said. “No one could believe what had just happened. We were crushed. I booked a red-eye that night and went straight home.”

Any shred of hope that politicians could help change the world was destroyed for Mikki that day. Still, he held onto the belief that regular everyday people could create meaningful transformations—and that film could be a powerful way to showcase them.

Through his friendship with Shailene Woodley, Mikki got drawn into the story of the North Dakota protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, flying north to capture the protests on film. There, he also became an ally of the Lakota People’s Law Project and began creating short films with tribal elders to bring awareness to the situation in North Dakota, and the legal plight of protestors who had been arrested.

“We made videos for each ‘Water Protector’ that was facing bogus felony charges,” Mikki told me. “We had a 100-percent success rate. Charges were either reduced to misdemeanors or dropped altogether. Experiencing the power and potential of filmed media and honest storytelling to bring justice for innocent people turned up that fire in me.”

Fulfilling as it was to make a difference in the lives of the Lakota People, it was also the beginning of a new era for Mikki—and for those who would see his films. “That is what turned me on to this area of my work that I now refer to as forensic filmmaking,” he explained.

In January 2019, Mikki thought he had discovered another underdog in Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist who got into a standoff with teens from Covington Catholic High School during a day of protests in Washington, D.C. A video clip showing high school junior Nicholas Sandmann facing off with Phillips had gone viral, and Mikki was ready and willing to pile on to the “canceling” of Sandmann and his classmates that was happening online.

“I set out to make a video to further support the Native Americans that were impacted by what I thought was a horrific hate crime,” he said. Mikki tasked his team with gathering every video clip of the incident that was captured that day. What he found shocked him.

“A couple of days into watching all of the footage, it became clear to me and my team that the kids were set up,” he said. “They had never surrounded Native American elders. They never chanted, ‘Build the wall,’ like all the headlines claimed. They didn’t even speak a single derogatory word. The boys were targeted for wearing red Make America Great Again hats, which they bought from a street vendor earlier that day, just so they could identify their fellow classmates while exploring Washington during a field trip together.”

Those red hats, Mikki believed, made the boys political targets. “In the eyes of the media and those infected by it, those boys represented everything wrong with America. They were male. They were white. They were Catholic. Worst of all, they were seen as mascots for Donald Trump,” he said. “That makes them subhuman.”

Mikki was faced with a major conundrum. He thought, “I’ve never done anything that could be perceived to support the political right, Republican, or any part of that world. If we tell the truth, we will be thrown into that dreaded basket of the deplorables, and that’s the most dangerous place you can be right now. But these are 15-year-old boys.”

“Not only were they minors,” he continued. “But also, they were clearly innocent of the crimes they were being publicly persecuted for. I had their personal cell-phone videos that allowed us to isolate what the students were saying to one another and to the mob that surrounded them. For a large group of teenaged boys, they were extremely well behaved. The only potentially distasteful moment we could find was when the boys began doing the ‘tomahawk chop,’ a hand gesture commonly used by fans of sports teams such as the Florida State Seminoles, the Atlanta Braves, and the Kansas City Chiefs. Were the boys being disrespectful, or were they simply trying their best to relate with a culture they had only experienced through television?

“According to a parent who was present as a chaperone that day, the boys had no idea that such a widely accepted hand gesture could be seen as symbol of disrespect. She insisted that the boys were loving the beat of the native drum and were only trying to bridge the communication gap,” he continued. “My team and I were faced with a very tough decision: scrap the project or cross a line that we may never be able to return from. We chose to cross that line. As a father of two young boys, I just could not bring myself to look the other way.

“So, the man who had devoted weeks and months of his life to the Bernie Sanders campaign, who had stood alongside protestors at Standing Rock, and been on the side of progressive activism for years, put out a video that told a different kind of story. At least, it would have seemed like a departure to many who knew him. Still, to Mikki, it was the same kind of story: one about underdogs who deserved to have the truth of their story told in the face of a chorus of much louder voices.

“The fifteen-minute video went viral,” Mikki explained. “People swiftly discovered that this Nathan Philips had never fought in Vietnam as he claimed on camera more than once. It was also revealed that he had done this sort of thing before and has an MO of crying victim, then raising thousands of dollars through crowdfunding.”

“As expected, the haters came at us,” Mikki continued, “accusing us of siding with racists, white supremacists, the colonizers, Nazis, etc. As I dug deeper to understand how so many people were willing to throw innocents kids under the bus, I discovered that the vast majority of the complaints came from white people.

“Several of my Native friends reached out to thank me for helping to draw a distinction between them and what was clearly another hate-hoax. Few within my political party saw it that way. Overnight, I went from being a hero of the left to their latest villain.

“It was shocking to experience firsthand how fragile so many of my relationships were,” he continued. “People who were never shy in expressing their love and appreciation for me were suddenly trying to destroy me. This was the first time that I received death threats. But not the last. Not one person was interested in learning what led me to create that video. No one wanted to see any evidence that conflicted with the mainstream narrative. Though it was all right there on video, they could not see beyond those red hats.”

It was that experience that led Mikki to begin producing a feature-length documentary called The Narrative—an investigation into the ways that American media distorts the truth and leverages our differences to divide us. Speaking to whistleblowers and counterculture activists around the world, Mikki soon saw a common thread emerging: the world was headed for a major disaster.

“I was in the process of interviewing whistleblowers from the major alphabet agencies, as well as big tech,” Mikki explained. “Several of them were saying, ‘Get ready. Something’s coming. Any day now we’re going to have another 9/11-sized event.’” A few weeks later, the pandemic hit.