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Covid-19 Lab Leak Theory Upgraded from Conspiracy to Plausible

Many scientists were discouraged from openly discussing the possibility of a lab leak, which hindered serious investigation

Could the SARS-CoV-2 virus have originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology? The public was informed, until quite recently, that the “scientific consensus” was that the virus that causes COVID-19 likely passed from animal to human and was neither designed nor accidentally released from a lab in Wuhan.

Coronavirus maps disease 2019 situation update worldwide coronavirus spread,World map Coronavirus or Covid-19 Close-up countries with Covid-19, Covid 19 map confirmed cases report worldwide globally.

However, this “consensus” has turned out to be anything but. Several scientists have voiced their concern over the lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), imploring that the “lab leak” hypothesis should not be thrown out. They were largely ignored. Some scientists have even said that they experienced “very intense, very subtle pressures” to avoid advancing the lab leak theory.

It’s advancing anyway, as more evidence accumulates. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported on a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report according to which three workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized in November 2019 with symptoms associated with COVID-19.

On May 14, 2021, the American Association of the Advancement of Science’s magazine Science published a letter signed by some of the nation’s leading virologists — including one who had worked with the Wuhan Institute of Virology on SARS corona viruses — asking for additional investigation into the origins of the pandemic, stating that “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.”

Finally, science writer Nicholas Wade published a detailed article at Medium outlining why a lab leak is a strong possibility. He criticizes the lack of scrutiny of statements by prominent scientists in The Lancet and Nature Communications that call the lab leak a conspiracy theory or highly unlikely.

The State Department’s information, the letter at Science, and Wade’s article, taken together, have forced politicians, science pundits, fact-checkers , media outlets, journalists, and social media platforms to own up to their role in perpetuating a false consensus and spreading misinformation.

I have written here at Mind Matters News, on the ways that the Chinese government has tried to rewrite the narrative on the origins of Covid-19, going so far as to punish anyone who tried to report from Wuhan. In April 2020, I wrote that the biggest problem was that we don’t know what happened in Wuhan because we can’t know.

We weren’t alone. In January of this year, the Associated Press reported on the extent to which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is suppressing public knowledge of their investigations into the origins of the virus. I highlighted two articles that take a tempered and evidence-based look at why a lab leak is possible: one in New York Magazine in particular, was a thorough and well-written case for a lab leak. That article was largely ignored.

Official sources found themselves backtracking

In January, the U.S. Department of State published a Fact Sheet, according to which the U.S. government “had reason to believe several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” At the time, the State Department did not specify how many people were sick, what their symptoms were, or whether they were hospitalized.

Among the backtrackers is Dr. Anthony Fauci. In a May 2020 interview for National Geographic, when Dr. Fauci was asked if he thought there was evidence the virus was made in the lab in China or accidentally released from a lab in China, he answered:

If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats, and what’s out there now is very, very strongly leaning toward this [virus] could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated—the way the mutations have naturally evolved. A number of very qualified evolutionary biologists have said that everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that it evolved in nature and then jumped species.

Nsikan Akpan and Victoria Jaggard, “Fauci: No scientific evidence the coronavirus was made in a Chinese lab” at National Geographic (May 4, 2020)

More recently, Dr. Fauci has said he is now open to an investigation into the lab leak.

Similarly, in February 2020, The Lancet published a statement condemning assertions that the virus does not have a natural origin. It was signed by twenty-seven scientists who appealed to a consensus that the virus had a natural origin. It cites multiple papers and institutions that have determined through genomic studies that the virus had a natural origin.

Of course, even if a virus did have a natural origin, that does not exclude the possibility that it became an infectious agent when it was released from the lab that was studying it. The Lancet statement, like so many statements that termed the lab leak assumption a “conspiracy theory,” conflated an accidental leak of a virus — whether natural, engineered, or a combination of both — with the intentional design of a bioterror weapon.

This week, the Wall Street Journal published an extensive report outlining its own team’s findings about the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The lab has not been forthcoming on its data or other information, but some elements of the story can be pieced together from available evidence.

Past published papers as well as thesis research by two graduate students at the No. 1 School of Clinical Medicine at Kunming Medical University shows that miners from the Mojiang mine fell ill from a SARS-like coronavirus. Shi Zhengli’s group at the Wuhan Institute of Virology obtained samples of the coronaviruses from the bats in the mine. Her group had been combining cultured bat viruses with genetic material from other viruses. It’s debatable whether this constitutes “gain-of-function” studies but the available information is worth a read.

The WSJ editorial board wrote that it is a shame that it has taken so long for the Biden administration to reopen an investigation into the Wuhan Institute of Virology “because the suspicious facts have been apparent from the start.” The board outlined circumstantial evidence that was dismissed because of political preferences rather than the strength of the evidence and pointed out that “news reports relished the divisions between the White House and scientific advisors.” Significantly, previous viral pandemics like SARS and MERS were traced to an animal source but so far, an animal origin for SARS-CoV-2 has not been found: “This scrutiny should have started a year ago, but media partisanship derailed fair discussion. Many ‘experts’ made political calculations and fell prey to groupthink rather than following the science.”

What conclusions are reasonable?

Like many viruses, the original SARS virus passed from animal to human, as did MERS and Ebola. The SARS-CoV-2 virus looks like it came from a bat because the virus’s genetic sequence matches that seen in other SARS coronaviruses found in bats. It made sense to investigate whether SARS-CoV-2 passed from animals to humans.

According to an Associated Press report, the Chinese government oversaw (and kept a tight, secretive grip on) research that sought an animal source for SARS-CoV-2. Apparently, hundreds of samples were taken from the by now-famous Hunan wet market before the place was scrubbed and fortified by local authorities, something that was only discovered when the WHO conducted their investigation. Nothing since then has demonstrated an indigenous animal origin.

Wet markets are problematic in themselves for a number of reasons, as the video illustrates. But Wuhan, in China’s interior Hubei province, is also the location of one of China’s two BSL-4 laboratories (cleared for work with dangerous viruses), as well as several other high-security laboratories. Wuhan’s BSL-4 lab works on coronavirus pathogens, including SARS from bats.

Lab leaks happen. For example, in January of this year, Nicholson Baker, who has written about biological and chemical warfare based on public historical records of past lab accidents, wrote an article for New York Magazine making an excellent case for why a lab leak is plausible. He does not believe that SARS-CoV-2 is a bioweapon, but based on his research of past lab accidents, he is confident that this pandemic was caused by an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology:

“A lab accident — a dropped flask, a needle prick, a mouse bite, an illegibly labeled bottle — is apolitical. Proposing that something unfortunate happened during a scientific experiment in Wuhan — where COVID-19 was first diagnosed and where there are three high-security virology labs, one of which held in its freezers the most comprehensive inventory of sampled bat viruses in the world — isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s just a theory. It merits attention, I believe, alongside other reasoned attempts to explain the source of our current catastrophe.

Nicholson Baker, “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis For decades, scientists have been hot-wiring viruses in hopes of preventing a pandemic, not causing one. But what if …?” at New York Magazine (January 4, 2021)

Baker talked to several experts who doubted the claimed consensus that SARS-CoV-2 originated outside a lab. Alina Chan with MIT and Harvard believes a lab leak is a reasonable assumption but she is also pessimistic about knowing for sure. Jonathan King, a molecular biologist and biosafety advocate from MIT, said that he and some colleagues were concerned about a lab leak but they had experienced subtle and intense pressure to not speak out. Baker also talked to three other molecular biologists and immunologists, one from NIH, another from University College of Medicine in Adelaide, Australia, and another from Rutgers, all of whom thought the lab leak was a valid possibility.

Due diligence would require investigating the labs in Wuhan once an outbreak was confirmed. If such an outbreak had started in Atlanta, Bethesda, or Fort Collins within some radius of the BSL-3/4 labs located in those regions and the pathogen had even a remote similarity to the ones those labs were working on, there would certainly have been an investigation. Global accountability is one of the expectations of a biosafety lab.

One of the signatories of the letter in Science, Ralph Baric, who worked with the WIV on developing an artificial coronavirus that can invade human cells, told the WSJ:

“A rigorous investigation would have reviewed the biosafety level under which bat coronavirus research was conducted at WIV,” he said. “It would have included detailed information on the training procedures with records, the safety procedures with records and strategies that were in place to prevent inadvertent or accidental escape.”

Jeremy Page, Betsy McKay and Drew Hinshaw, “The Wuhan Lab Leak Question: A Disused Chinese Mine Takes Center Stage” at Wall Street Journal(May 24, 2021)

None of that happened. Baric believes SARS-CoV-2 likely came from an animal, but that there should be further investigation and more transparency.

Unfortunately, the scientists and other experts who took a tempered, non-committal, or nuanced position on whether the virus came from the lab were not the ones the media preferred to quote. Zeynep Tufecki, one of those tempered voices, points out that “many eminent experts are too busy for Twitter and some questions are complex”:

Many top media outlets took this group of critics’ dismissal of a version of the lab leak hypothesis and then acted like that dismissal was universal and a scientific consensus, which it wasn’t, or was conclusive, which it couldn’t be simply because we… don’t know. We certainly didn’t have the evidence we need to be so conclusive, especially not at the time.

In addition, press reports suggested that everything that fell under the umbrella of the term ‘lab leak,’ which has been a conceptual mess, had also been dismissed, although it hadn’t been, even by some of the original opponents of that particular version.

Zeynep Tufecki, “How the Twitter/Media Feedback Loop Can Work to Undermine Our Understanding” at The Insight (May 27, 2021)

Unfortunately, for the better part of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, people were labeled “anti-science” and accused of racism and spreading misinformation if they suggested that a lab accident may have caused the pandemic. Tufecki puts the blame on journalists for perpetuating a false consensus:

In the meantime, the reporters did not do the leg work to separate the pieces of the question or seek a broad range of experts. If they had, they might have realized that many experts were quiet on the topic partly because they didn’t want to die on this hill last year, and partly because many were actually eminent experts [who were] very very busy doing work on the pandemic itself. Unfortunately, many media outlets failed to do the work necessary to pull themselves out of the tight Twitter/media feedback loop that dominates so much of our media coverage.

Zeynep Tufecki, “How the Twitter/Media Feedback Loop Can Work to Undermine Our Understanding” at The Insight (May 27, 2021)

Rarely do we get to see how deafening the echo chamber really is. Claims of “scientific consensus” are used subversively to silence unwanted but evidence-based opinions. It is ironic that the same groups that decry the spread of misinformation and perpetuation of conspiracy theories have been judged by their own standards in this crisis and found wanting.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Covid-19 Lab Leak Theory Upgraded from Conspiracy to Plausible