In March last year, it was widely agreed by everybody sensible, me included, that talk of the pandemic originating in a laboratory was pseudoscientific nonsense almost on a par with UFOs and the Loch Ness monster. My own reasoning was that Mother Nature is a better genetic engineer than we will ever be, so something as accomplished at infection and spread could not possibly have been put together in a lab.
Today, the mood has changed. Even Dr Anthony Fauci, the US President’s chief medical advisor, now says he is ‘not convinced’ the virus emerged naturally. This month a letter in Science magazine from 18 senior virologists and other experts — including a close collaborator of the Wuhan lab at the centre of the debate, Ralph Baric — demanded that such a hypothesis be taken seriously. Suddenly, too, journalists have woken up and begun writing articles admitting they might have been hasty in dismissing a lab leak as a Trumpian conspiracy theory last year. CNN reported this week that the Biden administration shut down the State Department’s investigation into this.
The turning point, ironically, was the ‘press conference’ on 9 February in Wuhan where a team of western scientists representing the World Health Organisation sat meekly through a three-hour propaganda session at the end of a 12-day study tour. Strictly chaperoned throughout, the western scientists (approved by the Chinese government) had mainly listened to presentations by their Chinese colleagues during their visit and done no research themselves. Yet the result was presented to the world as if it was the WHO’s conclusion.
The press conference was told that the lab leak theory was ‘extremely unlikely’ and would not be investigated further, because the scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology said so during a three-hour visit by the study team. By contrast, the theory favoured by the Chinese government — that the virus reached Wuhan on frozen meat from a rabbit or ferret-badger farm in southern China or southeast Asia — was said to be plausible, despite a total lack of evidence.
So risible was this little stage play that even WHO’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had to backtrack a few days later: ‘All hypotheses remain open and require further study.’ Dr Peter Ben Embarek, who led the study team, added wishfully: ‘I don’t think the press conference was a PR win for China.’ The governments of Britain, America and 12 other countries issued a joint statement expressing ‘shared concerns’ over the study.
The upshot was that far from putting a stake in the heart of the lab leak hypothesis, like Peter Cushing as Dr Van Helsing in a Dracula film, the WHO-China study acted more like Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, galvanising a dead thing into life with a jolt of electricity. Almost every day now brings a new article or broadcast demanding an open-minded investigation. The veteran New York Times and Nature science writer Nicholas Wade pointed the finger squarely at the lab in a long essay published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Two lengthy essays by left-leaning journalists, Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs and Donald McNeil in Medium, have argued that it’s time to revisit the lab theory and that just because Donald Trump thought the virus came out of a lab does not mean that it did not.
The problem is partly that journalists confused two different theories last year: that the virus might have escaped from a laboratory openly doing research that was intended to prevent a pandemic, or that a secret project to create a nasty virus for use as a bioweapon had either gone wrong or succeeded all too well. The latter theory remains implausible; the former has never been so.
After all, the first Sars virus — which is not nearly as infectious — was caught in the lab by scientists at least four times in 2003-04, in Taiwan, Singapore and Beijing (twice). Alarmingly, there is still no clear evidence as to how it happened in three of those cases: no dropped test tube or punctured glove. So there need not be any record of an incident, and the Wuhan scientists who swear that no accident happened might be right, but it still might have leaked.
It was not entirely journalists’ fault that the two ideas got confused. Early in the pandemic, two group of scientists published articles insisting on a natural origin and criticising lab-based theories. Both made little distinction between a leaked virus and an engineered one. In early February 2020, when almost nothing was known about the virus, let alone its origin, Dr Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance drafted a letter to the Lancet that was eventually signed by 27 scientists: ‘We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that 2019-nCoV does not have a natural origin.’ This was taken to rule out the leak of a natural virus from a lab as well as the engineering of a synthetic one.
The language was dutifully echoed by the mainstream media. By raising the possibility of a lab leak, Senator Tom Cotton was accused by the Washington Post of ‘fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has been repeatedly debunked by experts’; the New York Times said the Wuhan laboratory had been ‘the focus of unfounded conspiracy theories promoted by the Trump administration’; and National Public Radio reported that ‘scientists debunk lab accident theory’. In the Guardian, Dr Daszak wrote an article headlined: ‘Ignore the conspiracy theories: scientists know Covid-19 wasn’t created in a lab.’
Dr Daszak, a British-born parasitologist, is an accomplished ‘grantrepreneur’ who built an empire out of hunting viruses and analysing them in laboratories, much of it in China. The EcoHealth Alliance, a foundation he created a decade ago out of a sleepy wildlife charity, has been garnering $17 million a year mainly from the Pentagon, the US National Institutes of Health and the US Agency for International Development — and paying him $400,000 a year. No wonder he wanted to squash any ‘rumours, misinformation and conspiracy theories’, as he put it in his email to fellow scientists. ‘We declare no competing interests,’ said the Lancet statement, which was odd given that Dr Daszak had collaborated closely with, and provided funding for (and shared karaoke sessions with the boss of) the laboratory in Wuhan that was under suspicion.
The other article that convinced many people, including me at first, that a lab theory could be ruled out came from Dr Kristian Andersen at the Scripps Research Translational Institute and four of his colleagues, and was published in Nature Medicine magazine in March 2020. They assembled arguments against the virus having been engineered, relying particularly on the logic that engineering a virus would have left traces in the genome and would have used a known template. Both are arguable, but in any case the paper said little about the possibility of a natural bat virus leaking from a lab by mistake. Yet it was taken by ‘fact checkers’ at Facebook, Wikipedia and in the mainstream media as ruling out that too. For months, therefore, any discussion of lab leaks got tagged as ‘conspiracy theory’.
The lab that has been assiduously and energetically collecting coronaviruses from horseshoe bats for more than a decade, gathering a far larger collection of samples and genetic sequences than any other lab anywhere in the world, just happens to be in Wuhan, as part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Run by Dr Shi Zhengli, it boasted in 2019 of having at least 100 different Sars-like viruses in its database.
We cannot check these samples because the database went offline on 12 September 2019, just before the pandemic began, and Dr Shi persistently refuses to reopen it, arguing that it’s been subject to ‘hacking attempts’. Right… in September 2019? And there’s no other way to show the data? Dr Daszak says he knows what is in the database and that it is of no relevance, which is why he has not asked his friend Dr Shi to share it. Right. When I raised this lack of transparency with a senior British scientist, he said: ‘They are communists, what do you expect?’ It is not clear why that should be reassuring.
The purpose of all these virus hunts and experiments was to predict and avert the next pandemic. At best they failed in that; at worst they might have caused it. It is still possible that somebody got Covid through an animal in a market, which had been infected by a bat. But in the case of the Sars epidemic of 2002-03, it was just a few weeks before scientists figured out that food handlers were catching it from infected palm civets on sale in markets in Guangdong province. And that was before modern high-speed genomic sequencing was invented. Today, with better technology and after 18 months of searching, Chinese authorities have tested north of 80,000 animals in markets, on farms and in the wild all across China and found precisely zero that are or were carrying Sars-CoV-2 (not counting cats, mink and so on which caught it from people once the pandemic was under way). The virus found in two pangolins in 2019 is a dead end: too distantly related, nowhere near Wuhan, and none of the pangolin handlers got sick.
Finding some close cousins of the pandemic virus last year in horseshoe bats in Thailand, Cambodia and Japan led to a flurry of excitement in China that the blame could be laid elsewhere, but no, the closest related virus to Sars-CoV-2 is still one that was swabbed from the anus of a horseshoe bat in a mineshaft at a place called Beng-ping in Mojiang county in Yunnan in 2013. And Dr Shi’s colleagues, who swabbed that bat’s bum in 2013, had travelled all the way from Wuhan, to which they promptly returned with the sample. They were there because six men shovelling bat guano in the mine in 2012 had fallen ill with symptoms like Covid-19 and three died. This was one of seven such trips to the mine: a fact that was figured out by a bunch of amateur investigators called the Drastic group long before the lab admitted it.
So the only known link between Wuhan and the only known source of the only known specimen of the most closely related virus to the cause of Covid-19 is the scientists. It’s highly unlikely anybody else went down the mine and then travelled a thousand miles to that particular city. Yet this bat virus from Mojiang is still not Sars-CoV-2, so either there is a closer cousin out there, or a similar bat virus was brought to Wuhan by scientists and leaked. If we are to avoid another pandemic, we badly need to know which.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works is now out in paperback.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10