Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, by David Quammen (Simon & Schuster, 469 pp., $29.99)
In the three years or so since Covid-19 appeared, it has become increasingly clear, despite the protestations of virologists who do this kind of work, that the causative virus was probably the result of genetic manipulation in a lab. In other words, it is not a natural virus that spilled into humans from some wild animal host, but one that escaped from the Chinese laboratory in which it was being souped up as part of a high-risk scheme to predict future epidemics.
The case that Covid originated in a lab is not yet proven, but as circumstantial evidence goes, it’s pretty good. Few people appreciate quite how compelling this case is (see the outline below) because science journalists who work for the mainstream press have, by and large, failed to present it in full to their readers. Virologists, and through them most other researchers dependent on government grants, are not so keen to accept their community’s complicity in creating a pandemic that has caused upward of 6.5 million deaths. Driven by the position of their sources and the political leanings of their proprietors, mainstream science journalists have largely ignored each new piece of evidence pointing toward the lab-leak explanation, while uncritically overplaying the virologists’ self-serving arguments for the virus’s natural origin.
A particularly egregious example of this asymmetry is David Quammen’s Breathless. Quammen is a well-regarded and widely published writer about viruses and natural history, but he has grown too close to his sources, as many science writers do. He fails to consider the possibility that scientists can be swayed by the same monetary or careerist motives that drive lesser mortals. The lab at Wuhan, where researchers were manipulating Covid-type viruses, received funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Could Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci, the NIH’s senior officials, have had any possible motive for suppressing their experts’ initial conclusion that the Covid virus was probably artificial? Could that explain why they apparently told no one else in government about their experts’ findings and excluded from their discussions then-CDC director Robert R. Redfield, who believed from the start that the virus was a lab escapee? Quammen does not think to raise such impolite questions.
The book showers positive epithets onto virologists who argue against the lab-leak scenario. Quammen praises as “highly respected” Edward Holmes, one of the initial group of experts who concluded that the virus was man-made but two days later changed his mind—on the basis of no known evidence but after a teleconference with Fauci and Collins on February 1, 2020. Michael Worobey is “rigorous, smart and judicious,” with a “quietly dauntless streak in him” and “steely attentiveness.” And if that weren’t enough, “his reputation is sterling and his mind is open.” This gusher of praise is Quammen’s attempt to bolster the credibility of a contentious article in which Worobey asserted that the virus must have passed naturally from animals to people in the Wuhan wet market. That argument indeed needs all the boosting it can get because no infected animal was found in the Wuhan market, and it’s impossible to exclude the likeliest explanation for Worobey’s data—namely, that the market just amplified an infection that started earlier and elsewhere, as even Chinese authorities assert.
Quammen goes furthest astray in his treatment of Peter Daszak, a central and still-enigmatic figure in the story of Covid’s origins. Daszak is president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. His agency was the intermediary between Fauci and Shi Zhengli, the chief expert on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Fauci could have given money to Shi directly but did so via Daszak, perhaps in part because domestic grants attract less regulatory scrutiny than foreign ones.
As part of the effort to squelch the lab-leak conjecture, Daszak organized a February 19, 2020, letter to the Lancet, a leading medical journal. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” wrote Daszak. “We declare no competing interests,” he and his co-signatories concluded. Of course, a gross conflict of interest did exist, one not declared to readers: Daszak funded and supervised Shi’s lab and would be held to account if that were the virus’s source.
But Quammen can’t bring himself to condemn even this ethical lapse. The best he can manage to say about the incident is, “Whether that constituted a conflict is another question.” Then comes the remarkable revelation that Quammen has known Daszak for many years and that “he is a friend of mine.” Too bad the reader is given this pertinent information only on page 294 of the book. No wonder almost everything Quammen has written until that point is an attempt to get Daszak off the hook for failing to supervise the ultra-high-risk work he was funding in alarmingly low-level safety conditions at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“I’m aware that journalists are not supposed to have friends,” Quammen writes plaintively of his relationship with Daszak. Not so—journalists just shouldn’t write about their friends if they cannot do so objectively.
Quammen interviewed many people on the natural origin side of the debate, including Shi, who has been inaccessible to most Western journalists. But he ignored serious critics of virus enhancement, known as gain-of-function research, such as Richard Ebright. Far from addressing the strongest parts of the lab-leak case, Quammen discusses only aspects of it that have never been taken seriously, such as the charge that the Covid virus was engineered from its close bat relative, a virus known as RATG13.
Readers may perceive that Quammen’s book is a work of advocacy, but many will be baffled as to what case he is attacking, because he never states it clearly—an omission his account shares with many others.
Here, briefly, is the case for the lab-leak origin.
Collins and Fauci have advocated since 2011 for the benefits of enhancing natural viruses in the lab with the hope of predicting future epidemics. From their powerful bureaucratic positions—they fund most virology research in the U.S.—they outmaneuvered critics who argued that the risks of creating novel infectious viruses were sky high and the benefits nugatory.
From 2014 onward, Fauci gave money, via Daszak, to researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to collect bat coronaviruses in the wild and to manipulate the viral genomes in the lab. The goal was to see which held the greatest potential for infecting people.
In 2018, the Wuhan researchers applied to DARPA, a Defense Department agency, for a grant to construct novel, SARS-like viruses. Their plan was to take genetic elements such as the one known as the furin cleavage site and to insert them into a specific position on viral genomes. That position, a single point on the virus’s 30,000-unit long genome, is called the S1/S2 junction of the virus’s spike gene. Many viruses have furin cleavage sites, but none of the 300 known members of the SARS-like family of coronaviruses do. This is important because viruses often swap genetic elements with other viruses of their own family, but they cannot naturally acquire elements that their family does not possess.
In 2019, a novel virus, SARS-CoV-2, emerged in the city of Wuhan, home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and launched the Covid pandemic. The virus’s most unusual feature and a cause of its infectivity is a furin cleavage site inserted at the S1/S2 junction of its spike protein, just as outlined in the Wuhan virologists’ proposal to DARPA. The genetic coding of the virus’s furin cleavage site is designated in a sequence of units common to human cells and supplied in laboratory kits, but it is very rare in coronaviruses and unknown in the SARS-like coronavirus family.
Though viruses spill over from animal hosts to people quite often, they usually leave a trail of evidence when they do so. In the case of the SARS1 epidemic of 2003, virus researchers were able to trace the host population of wild bats, the mutations in the virus as it adapted from bats to civets and then to people, and the immunological traces it left in the human population. If SARS-CoV-2 has a natural origin, we should expect the same pieces of evidence to emerge. In three years, none has.
All this information, including the critical DARPA grant application, was available before Quammen’s book deadline. In telling only one side of a story that has two, he and many of his fellow science writers have failed their readers.