Good news, everybody — you can finally post what you always thought about how the pandemic started on Facebook without being muzzled.
The Silicon Valley giant, which has around 2.85 billion users, banned posts that claimed COVID-19 was manufactured. But now, according to a company spokesperson, “In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps.”
The “lab-leak” theory — that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China — has gradually gained mainstream acceptance in the months since Trump lost the election. Nicholson Baker horrified New York magazine readers in January by bringing up the hypothesis. Then, more voices joined the chorus this month: Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin, 18 scientists in a letter to Science magazine, former NYT writer Donald McNeil, Jr. on Medium. Anthony Fauci U-turned on his earlier stance and said he was “not convinced” that the virus developed naturally outside of a lab. This week President Biden issued a statement describing how in March he asked Jake Sullivan to “task the intelligence community to prepare a report on their most up-to-date analysis of the origins of COVID-19, including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or a laboratory accident.” Biden said that in this report the intelligence community had “coalesced around two likely scenarios” but has not reached a conclusion.
In March last year, it was widely agreed by everybody sensible 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 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 center 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.
Ironically, the turning point was the press conference on February 9th in Wuhan, where a team of western scientists representing the World Health Organization 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 “implausible” and would not be investigated further because the Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists said so during a three-hour visit by the study team. By contrast, the theory favored 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 ridiculous 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: “I don’t think the press conference was a PR win for China.” Britain, America, and 12 other countries issued a joint statement expressing “shared concerns” over the study.
Almost every day now brings a new article or broadcast demanding an open-minded investigation of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 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 on Medium, have argued that it’s time to revisit the lab theory. 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 groups of scientists published articles insisting on a natural origin and criticizing 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 27 scientists eventually signed: “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 and the engineering of a synthetic one.
The mainstream media echoed the language. By raising the possibility of a lab leak, Sen. Tom Cotton was accused by the Washington Post of “fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that experts have repeatedly debunked;” 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 analyzing 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 garnered $17 million a year, mainly from the Pentagon, the National Institutes of Health, and the Agency for International Development — and paying him $400,000 a year. No wonder he wanted to squash any “rumors, 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 the laboratory in Wuhan that was under suspicion.
The other article that convinced many people 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 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, happens to be in Wuhan, as part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Run by Dr. Shi Zhengli, it boasted in 2019 having at least 100 different Sars-like viruses in its database.
We cannot check these samples because the database went offline on September 12, 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 this lack of transparency was mentioned to one senior British scientist, he said: “They are communists, what do you expect?”
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 a bat had infected. 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 civets — a type of cat found in southeast Asia — 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 underway). The virus found in two pangolins in 2019 is a dead-end: too distantly related, nowhere near Wuhan, and none of the pangolin (type of anteater) 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 rear in 2013, had traveled all the way from Wuhan, to which they promptly returned with the sample. They were there because six men shoveling 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 a bunch of amateur investigators figured that out 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 traveled a thousand miles to that particular city. Yet this bat virus from Mojiang is still not SARS-CoV-2, so either 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.
Wait a minute: what about that “other” conspiracy theory about the origin of COVID-19? You know, that one in which gain of function, funded (at least in party) by Dr. Fauci’s NIH grant, was actually used to drastically increase the infectious elements of SARS-CoV-2 to the level at which it had attained when “released” from the Wuhan lab.
Still today, no one can claim absolutely that such a process did not initiate what the world has been facing for more than a year. And if that’s true and the Chinese Communist Party is involved, we’ll probably never be able to confirm so.
So the conspiracy theories march on!