When the novel coronavirus, which would kill and sicken millions, first drove the world into lockdown, the idea that it had escaped from a Chinese laboratory was largely pushed aside with derision.
Despite (or likely because of) former President Donald Trump’s repeated endorsements of the theory, the scientific world united behind the explanation that SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID] had developed in bats and, possibly with the help of other creatures, jumped to humans most likely at Wuhan’s wet market. Journalists (this author included) penned articles pushing back against the lab-leak, casting it as an outlandish conspiracy theory.
Recently, however, with President Joseph Biden in the White House and emerging evidence that casts suspicion on the role the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) played in the outbreak, highly respected scientists have called for more thorough investigations into the coronavirus’ origin, saying that the study produced by the World Health Organization (WHO) is sorely lacking.
“Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks,” said a letter from 18 prominent American virologists and other experts in the field, including one of the world’s leading experts on coronaviruses, Dr. Ralph S. Baric, who had worked closely with WIV in the past. “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.”
The latest piece of information generating significant interest in what happened at WIV is a U.S. intelligence document which says that in one week in November 2019 (more than a month before China’s first reported COVID cases), three of the lab’s employees were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms. The appearance of what many suspect was the first COVID cluster among lab staff, many feel, seems like more than a coincidence.
Earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci made headlines when, after a year of being largely dismissive of the lab-leak theory, he gave it credence and endorsed further investigations.
Amid building pressure and reports that his administration had shut down a State Department investigation into what occurred at WIV initiated by the Trump team, last week, President Biden said that he had ordered intelligence agencies to “redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” on the virus’ origin. The President acknowledged that U.S. agencies were divided over whether the species jumping theory or lab-leak is more likely with “low or moderate confidence” in each and that “the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”
WHO Goes to Wuhan
As the world grappled with the challenges of the pandemic, WHO, in its capacity as the United Nations’ body for health matters, began investigating the virus’s origin. This past March, it released a report that dismissed the lab possibility in about four of its around 300 pages saying that it was “extremely unlikely” and focused on scenarios of animal to human transfer.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, said the government has “real concerns about the methodology and the process,” noting that Chinese officials wrote part of the report.
Even WHO’s own director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that the lab-leak theory “requires further investigation” and that the report was not “extensive enough.”
Of the criticisms leveled at the report, most center on the fact that data and access were highly controlled by the Chinese government.
“It seems pretty clear that they were not able to directly access Chinese records and basically relied on conversations with Chinese officials,” said Dean Cheng, a China expert for the Heritage Foundation. “In any Chinese organization and certainly government ones there is a [Communist] Party committee that has an enormous amount of oversight into what is said and what information is shared. If you know anything about how the CCP functions, you should know that you’re not going to get a very frank and open discussion.
“It’s important for scientists to realize that the nature of the regime matters and that [we] are dealing with one that is highly secretive. It’s incumbent on scientists to realize their counterparts do not work in a society that is open about sharing information and to determine how to best incorporate that into their scientific research.”
The scientific community’s suspicions about Chinese openness about medical threats predate COVID and have been present ever since it was confirmed that its government obscured facts of the SARS outbreak in 2012-13.
Much evidence exists that China massively underreported its COVID deaths and infections and a trove of leaked documents showed a government campaign to tamp down alarm over the virus.
Yet, those casting doubt on WHO’s report fault its researchers for seeming to buy China’s story as presented.
“One of the difficulties here is [WHO’s] willingness to settle for guided tours where the host was controlling what they see and what they don’t. It doesn’t seem that any attempt was even made to evaluate the lab’s log in any detail or to gather information that would be important if you were seriously looking to rule out a lab-leak,” said Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, and one of the signatories on the letter asking for a more thorough investigation.
Dr. Fisman said that the report’s short shrift for the lab-leak hypothesis and its openly labeling it as a “conspiracy theory” was to him a “red flag in this whole process [proving] that this possibility was not taken seriously.”
The Chinese government has lashed out against those questioning the WHO report, labeling it “political pressure,” taking a similar line to calls for new investigations.
Yet, there are many scientists around the world who think WHO’s findings are sound.
“I think [WHO] did as good a job as they could have,” said Dr. Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, and a member of the group that produced an early study aimed at showing that SARS-CoV-2 was a natural phenomenon. “[The Chinese] were going to hold onto some private patient data; no country would have let them come in and open the books. Still, they got a lot of good information that will be helpful in determining more about the origins of the virus.”
Conflict of Interest
Another complaint about the WHO report centered on the team’s American representative, Dr. Peter Daszak, president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance. Dr. Daszak is a leader in coronavirus research and has had close ties to WIV and Dr. Shi Zhengli, who directs its Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. In his work to advance the study of bat-borne coronaviruses (well before the pandemic) he directed significant amounts of Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and National Institute of Health (NIH) grants to WIV.
His history with WIV and the fact that Dr. Daszak would be partially responsible for a potential virus leak there moved many to feel that his presence on WHO’s team represented a conflict of interest.
Indeed, from the time of the pandemic’s outbreak, Dr. Daszak has been one of the most outspoken rejecters of suggestions that the virus could have emanated from a lab, calling it “pure baloney” in an April 2020 interview. A February 2020 article in the highly respected British medical journal Lancet which “strongly condemn[ed] conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin” was allegedly penned by Dr. Daszak himself.
As accusations mounted that the Chinese had withheld valuable information form the WHO team, Dr. Daszak denied that such was the case tweeting that he “found trust & openness w/ my China counterparts.”
“Professor Daszek is a remarkable researcher, but he was funneling NIH money to the WIV and had a relationship with Dr. Shi Zhengli,” said Dr. Fisman. “No one expects China to be forthcoming, so you would think that given the difficult position they were starting in that [WHO] would have wanted to avoid such a conflict whether it’s real or perceived.”
The fact that NIH dollars have been used to fund experimentation in Wuhan has also raised questions of conflict of interest, especially given that the organization’s Dr. Fauci and his public dismissal of the lab-leak was treated as fact by the mainstream media. Dr. Fauci explained NIH sponsorship of research in Wuhan saying that if scientists want to study bat-borne coronaviruses you have to go “where the action is.”
Playing With Fire
For those with growing suspicions that WIV is the more likely source of the novel coronavirus, the type of research that both Dr. Daszek and Dr. Shi have engaged in might hold the key. In an effort to better understand how viruses transfer from animals to humans and in some cases to help develop vaccines to fight them, some virologists conduct what are known as “gain of function” experiments, where they adapt animal viruses to be able to sicken humans.
The field has become controversial. Dr. Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard professor and another signatory of the letter calling for more investigations, led calls to halt such research, pointing to their inherent dangers.
“Marc Lipsitch said in 2010 that this is nuts,” said Dr. Fisman. “Why on earth would you take a virus with high case fatality and turn it into something highly transmissible? It was a sort of hubris; they were doing something they knew could have a bad outcome, basically saying that it probably won’t happen.”
Amid rising concern over the risks this form of research involved, NIH suspended funding for them, but whether loopholes existed to allow them to receive grants is a subject of controversy.
The extent to which change-of-function experimentation was going on at WIV is unknown, but in 2018 and 2019, Dr. Shi had publicly discussed experiments to test whether bat-borne coronaviruses could be manipulated to infect humans. This and other similar research done on mice genetically engineered to have human-like lung tissue, are perceive as forms of change-of-function experimentation that some think might have created the new coronavirus.
The Bat Cave
If change-of-function experiments are not intriguing enough, the story of how a SARS-CoV-2-like virus might have gotten to Wuhan is even more dramatic.
In 2012, six miners who had been sent to clear bat guano from a copper mine in China’s Mojiang region fell ill with a virus that caused pneumonia, ultimately killing three of them. Shortly after Chinese researchers drew attention to the episode, WIV sent a team to collect samples from bat droppings at the mine to study the viruses that could be identified in them.
What emerged from their work was the presence of a virus they named RaTG13, which has a genetic pattern similar to SARS-CoV-2. Amid rising interest over the lab-leak possibility, Dr. Shi released a paper arguing that, despite commonalities, the two viruses are too far from one another to be linked. Her position has been backed up by many in the field and Dr. Daszek said that the reason the WHO team showed little interest in WIV was that the viruses under study there were well known and that the closest match, RaTG13, was still a bridge too far from SARS-CoV-2.
Not all are convinced. Former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade wrote a lengthy piece published in the Bulletin laying out evidence for the lab theory including a detailed hypothesis that the virus from the copper mine could very well be the initial source of the pandemic and the debate remains an active one among virologists.
An extensive feature on the mine and WIV experimentation by The Wall Street Journal noted that access to the mine is now blocked and that journalists were warned not to go near the area as there were wild elephants that lay in wait. One of the paper’s own reporters who was able to reach the now shuttered mine entrance was later held for questioning for five hours by police who also deleted a cell phone image of the mine he had taken. The reporter also said that villagers had been warned not to discuss the mine with visitors.
Digging Deeper, But Where?
Dr. Garry, who accepted Dr. Shi’s assertion that RaTG13 was too distant from SARS-CoV-2 to be the culprit, felt that the evidence presented is still not sufficient to justify serious inquiry into the lab-leak theory.
“I think the origins do still need to be investigated, which is something we have continued to do, but there is still no scientific evidence that this virus ever was in a lab and, with limited time and resources, there is no basis to go after that idea,” he said. “It’s based on things that are unknown and that are unknowable. How would you ever know if someone collecting bat viruses had gotten infected and passed it on?”
Moreover, Dr. Garry felt that the chances and evidence pointed squarely to initial theories of a natural species jump.
“It’s so unlikely that a few dozen scientists would get infected rather than the millions of encounters that humans have with bats and other animals that could carry these viruses. If you think about it, lab staff work with heavily protective gear, but trappers and other people dealing with animals do not wear PPE,” he said.
Dr. Garry felt that the lab explanation would require collaboration by too many respected experts to be accepted.
“You’d have to believe that there was some huge cover-up by the best virologists on the planet,” he said incredulously.
Most arguing for more investigations are not asserting that the lab-leak theory is definitive. They are also mostly skeptical that should the leak have occurred, it was likely the result of sloppy handling of medically driven experimentation, and not part of a bioweapon development.
While clear that he did not suspect the origins were rooted in nefarious intentions, Dr. Fisman felt that the facts certainly justified a hard look at the lab-leak possibility.
“I think we all know that there is disinformation out there, but when you have an outbreak in a city with a lab which is the biggest depository for bat coronaviruses and then it gets blamed on a market down the street, that raises some questions. We know that lab accidents do happen,” he said.
Dr. Fisman pointed to early modeling of the virus showing that its rate of spread indicated that the outbreak in Wuhan must have occurred earlier than December, as the Chinese claimed. He also posited that the degree to which COVID was adaptable to humans in its early stages pointed away from the species jumping theory.
“SARS1 had a period where it slowly became more infectious since it had never seen a human before, but this looked more like it had been adapted to humans from the get-go,” said Dr. Fisman.
Much of the present media coverage treated reports of the sick lab workers as the impetus for an about-face on the lab-leak theory, but many feel reasons for legitimate suspicion, which existed since the start of the pandemic, were intentionally quashed by scientists and media as a knee-jerk reaction against all things Trump.
Even as WHO and others failed to prove a direct link between any animal-borne virus and COVID, it was not until early last month when Mr. Wade and another former Times science writer, Donald McNeil, published their arguments for the lab-leak theory that the matter began to gain mainstream interest.
Last week, a Wall Street Journal editorial traced the steps of the media’s initial dismissal of the lab theory.
In January 2020, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton pointed out “that Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus.” As he continued to call on China to show more transparency, the Washington Post’s headline read, “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked” and the Times’ was “Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins.”
Dr. Fisman said that animus against President Trump “absolutely” played a major role in most scientists’ dismissal of the lab-leak theory.
“I think that much of the Trump guidance during the pandemic was wrong and that it cost thousands of lives, but as President, he had access to information that civilians don’t and the desire not to be seen as someone who was parroting Donald Trump was not a good reason to push the evidence aside,” he said. “This is not really new information, people have been whispering about this for more than a year — it was just hard to talk about it out loud.”
Dr. Fisman also said that many scientists were put off by legitimizing the theory due to fears that it would encourage increased animus against East Asians, a card that was played by the Chinese government itself which consistently labeled attempts to link the virus to a lab as driven by “xenophobia.”
Mr. Cheng said that journalists, especially science writers, had been derelict by allowing politics to dictate their judgment of origin theories.
“Science is messy and confusion was to be expected, but there was a rush to judgment in the middle of all this. Science journalism is supposed to be driven by skepticism in the service of delivering the public the best information, but that’s not what happened here,” he said. “It would be nice to see some self-criticism here of how we can avoid dismissing theories as conspiracies just because we don’t like the person saying it.”
More than a year and a half after the outbreak in Wuhan, there is a widespread belief that key evidence has likely been long lost or destroyed, a point noted by President Biden in his call for further investigations. Still, many feel that the utmost effort to uncover what actually occurred is important.
“There’s a lot that might be unknowable, but it’s reasonable to consider lab release and that doesn’t imply that it was intentional or that it was out of malice,” said Dr. Fisman. “If we’re going to work to prevent the next one, we can’t cloud the circumstances under which this one occurred.”