Was It a Lab Leak? The Mysterious Origin of COVID-19
Where did the virus that changed the world come from?
The prevailing theory for a long time was that wild animals sold as food at a wet market in Wuhan, China, had started the outbreak.
One of the first scientists to seriously question the official narrative was Botao Xiao, who in February 2020 published a pre-print paper arguing that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.”
The author pointed out that there was no evidence that the vendors at the wet market in Wuhan sold bat meat. On the other hand, there were two research labs studying bat-borne coronaviruses located in Wuhan, where a virus could have accidentally infected workers, causing them to spread the disease to the general public. Xiao withdrew the paper two weeks later, after Chinese authorities declared that the lab-leak theory had no merit.
The Chinese government proceeded to clamp down on research into the virus’s origins and ordered the closure of a lab that had shared the virus’s genetic sequence with other scientists in January 2020. The government also forced the lab to destroy its viral samples.
To this day, the Chinese government won’t allow outside researchers to test blood drawn from employees of the Wuhan Institute of Virology who, according to a U.S. intelligence report, were hospitalized for a flu-like illness in November 2019—weeks before the first documented human-to-human transmission. Chinese authorities cited privacy concerns to the World Health Organization (WHO) team that requested the samples.
There’s no direct proof that the virus originated from a lab. But there’s also no such proof that humans first became infected by eating bats or through exposure to pangolins, theories that were treated as unimpeachable fact early in the pandemic.
In February 2020, a group of scientists signed a statement published in The Lancet denouncing speculation about potential nonnatural origins of the virus as “conspiracy theories.”
Only following the publication of leaked emails did it become clear that the scientist who brought his colleagues together to co-sign the Lancet statement was Peter Daszak, head of EcoHealth Alliance, the nonprofit that secured U.S. government funding for controversial research on bat-borne coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak assured his co-signers that the EcoHealth logo wouldn’t appear on the letter and wrote that he hoped “to avoid the appearance of a political statement.”
Daszak also co-authored a June 2020 op-ed in The Guardian headlined “Ignore the Conspiracy Theories: Scientists Know COVID-19 Wasn’t Created in a Lab” without disclosing a potential conflict of interest.
Media coverage following the publication of the Lancet letter overwhelmingly framed discussion of the lab-leak hypothesis as a “conspiracy theory,” often tying it to former President Donald Trump after he and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made public statements promoting the lab-leak theory as the explanation.
“That episode does not reflect well on scientists,” says science writer Matt Ridley, co-author of the new book Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19.
Ridley says that White House COVID-19 adviser Anthony Fauci’s emails, which were made public through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that behind the scenes scientists were taking the lab-leak theory seriously all along.
“A number of leading virologists were talking to each other and were saying to each other, ‘we think this might look a bit like a virus that’s been engineered in the laboratory,'” says Ridley, referencing a January 31, 2020, email in which researcher Kristian G. Andersen says that “one has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered.” Fauci replies a day later, “Thanks, Kristian. Talk soon on the call.”
“And at the end of that phone call, they all did a very rapid volte-face, and started writing articles almost immediately,” says Ridley, referring to an influential article Andersen and his colleagues published in Nature on March 17, 2020, stating that “our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” On March 6, Andersen emailed Fauci to tell him the paper had been accepted for publication, to which Fauci replied, “Nice job on the paper.”
But Ridley says that it’s Daszak’s efforts to obscure his connections to the Wuhan Institute of Virology while publishing attacks on the lab-leak hypothesis that are most alarming.
“It does raise very serious concerns that Dr. Daszak needs to answer,” says Ridley. “I’ve tried to correspond with him numerous times. I’ve never yet had a response…I never said anything rude about him, but he blocked me on Twitter. So I can’t get answers out of him.”
Daszak did not reply to Reason‘s interview request.
Ridley’s writing partner on the new book is the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard’s Alina Chan, one of the earliest and most outspoken public skeptics of the natural-origin hypothesis. She says that when she and her colleagues published a pre-print paper questioning the consensus, she hadn’t been aware of the Lancet letter organized by Daszak. She says she believes it could’ve had a major chilling effect on the scientific discussion in those early days.
“They were saying that anyone saying that this virus didn’t come from nature is a conspiracy theorist,” says Chan. “Other people, when they read this letter, they might have thought, ‘I’m not going to put my neck out to say that this may have come from a lab.'”
Chan, a molecular biologist, argued in the paper that because SARS-CoV-2 was so well adapted to humans, there was reason to be skeptical that it had recently come from an animal. If it had recently come from bats or pangolins, she would’ve expected the virus to have bee
Article from Reason.com