It is a disturbing prospect, like something out of a science fiction novel, but it’s appearing increasingly plausible nonetheless: the cause of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed millions and cost tens of trillions of dollars, may have been a viral escape from a Wuhan, China virology laboratory.
The latest indicator pointing toward a man-made catastrophe—that, until now, has been obscured with the aid of credulous media and scientists—comes from the Wall Street Journal, which reported that U.S. intelligence found that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized in November 2019 with symptoms consistent with Covid-19. That is well before the Chinese government’s claim that the first confirmed case occurred on December 8, 2019. This new report echoes a January 15, 2021 State Department fact sheet that reported several Wuhan Institute researchers became ill in autumn 2019. The steady accumulation of circumstantial evidence has prompted President Biden to order a review.
Early in the pandemic, conservative newspapers, like the Daily Mail and the Washington Times, and Senator Tom Cotton raised the possibility of a Chinese lab leak. The Washington Post dismissed such speculation as a debunked conspiracy theory. The New York Times labeled it a “fringe theory.”
The scientific establishment also weighed in, disregarding early papers from Chinese and American scientists with evidence that suggested a lab leak origin. One group, citing mostly Chinese sources, declared in The Lancet that the coronavirus originated in wildlife, not a laboratory, and praised Chinese scientists and public-health officials “who continue to save lives and protect global health.” Five other virologists in a letter to Nature Medicine stated that “SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” Anthony Fauci, in a May 2020 National Geographic interview, said the evidence indicated that the virus “evolved in nature and then jumped species” and had not escaped from a Chinese lab.
These early reassurances were based on surmise, not facts. They ignored that virologists in China—most prominently, the Wuhan Institute’s Shi Zhengli (“the Bat Lady”)—were actively engaged in gain-of-function research in which naturally occurring coronaviruses collected from bats were manipulated to acquire the ability to infect humans. They ignored that such research often utilizes serial viral passage through lab animals that mimics the process of a natural zoonotic jump between species. When a World Health Organization team visited Wuhan in February 2020, the institute’s staff refused to share data, safety logs, or lab records. Remarkably, that did not stop the WHO from concluding that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely.” Only four of the 313 pages of their report addressed the possibility of a lab accident.
More than a year has passed since then, with scientists assuring for most of that time that SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, emerged naturally. But no scientist, Chinese or Western, has produced a presumed bat source population, an intermediate species that functioned as a viral conduit between bats and humans, or evidence that the virus was present anywhere before it emerged in Wuhan. In contrast, during the 2003 SARS outbreak in China, researchers uncovered evidence of intermediate animal hosts and serologic signs of infections in animal traders within months. Analyses of SARS-CoV-2’s rate of mutation indicate that it likely began spreading several weeks earlier than the official first case date—December 8, 2019—a fact that makes the Covid-19-like illness of three lab workers in November so intriguing.
Scientists are finally beginning to take the possibility of Chinese negligence or malfeasance seriously. In a letter to the journal Science, 18 leading virologists wrote that accidental lab release remains a viable possibility and urged the Wuhan scientists to cooperate fully with additional investigations. One of the signatories, Ralph Baric, is the world’s leading expert on gain-of-function research in coronaviruses and had collaborated with Zhengli in the past. While he believes natural evolution is a more likely explanation than gain-of-function research and a lab leak, he is calling for an open, through investigation of the Wuhan Institute and its safety protocols. Other scientists point out that several peculiar characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 are inconsistent with a natural zoonotic origin and that a lab-leak origin should be investigated. Even Fauci has now admitted that he is “not convinced” Covid-19 developed naturally outside of the Wuhan lab.
Some journalists are also beginning to examine the issue. Science writer Nicholas Wade published an extensive examination of the competing natural-emergence and lab-escape hypotheses. He concludes there can be no definitive evidence for either without examining Chinese data, but that a lab leak is far more likely.
The Chinese authorities are unlikely to allow a thorough investigation, so the true origin of Covid-19 may never be known. But even more disturbing than the Chinese government’s attempts to obfuscate the pandemic’s origins is the way scientists and the media nearly uniformly insisted that a lab leak was out of the question.
Scientists may have been protecting Chinese colleagues that many had worked with and even funded. Perhaps, Western scientists feared that the possibility of Chinese culpability would reflect badly on them and their own viral-gain-of-function research.
Journalists, on the other hand, seemed intent on countering an anti-China, anti-WHO narrative advanced by President Trump and other conservatives. New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli, for instance, recently tweeted (and later deleted) her hope that people would “stop talking” about the lab-leak hypothesis, on account of its “racist roots.” The scientists’ opinions in the early days of the pandemic gave such journalists cover to indulge in their usual Trump-bashing and assert that they were only “following the science,” in contrast to Trump’s allegedly baser motivations.
We’ve seen this pattern play out time and again over the past year. From the value of lockdowns and masks to the likelihood of speedy and safe vaccine development, scientists and experts based their opinions more on intuition than on facts—until the facts finally forced a reversal. And journalists seemed remarkably incurious about those expert opinions, especially when they presented them with an opportunity to criticize conservatives. Both groups, who have frequently decried official “misinformation,” ought to look first to their own failings.
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