Viral, a new book about the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley, investigates whether it was a naturally occurring virus that jumped from animals to humans… or a lab leak. The Daily Mail has published an extract in today’s paper in which the authors describe the role of citizen journalists in discovering the truth that the mainstream media wasn’t interested in.
In the city of Bhubaneswar, India, a man known as ‘The Seeker’ was rifling through a Chinese website.
It was May 18th, 2020, and he was responding to a tweet by an American scientist speculating about the origin of the virus ripping its way across the planet.
And, using login details he’d found online, he was searching through a digital anthology of academic work.
Then, suddenly, he stumbled on a medical thesis which reported how, in 2012, six men fell ill after clearing out piles of bat guano from an old copper mine in Yunnan, in south-western China. Three of the men had died.
The doctors suspected the men had caught a virus that originated in bats, and the case had been investigated by virologists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), more than 1,000 miles away.
The Seeker, a slim 30-year-old with shoulder-length hair, has been accused variously of working for the CIA or Indian intelligence services. But the truth is rather less dramatic.
“I learned how to make search engines work for me,” he told us. “It was more madness than method.”
Motivated by an interest in finding out how the pandemic began and skilled at trawling the internet for clues, he began communicating on Twitter with a group of other internet ‘sleuths’ from around the world – all pursuing the same question: where did the virus that causes COVID-19 originate?
Soon, some of the sleuths had coalesced into a loose confederation known as DRASTIC (Decentralised Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19). And more key findings were quick to follow.
Stop Press: A U.S. intelligence report claims that the lab leak theory is probably correct, given the dangerous nature of the experiments being done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the lax biosecurity protocols. The FThas more.
The Lancet appears to have had a change of heart on the lab leak theory, having published an article calling for an “objective, open and transparent debate” on Covid’s origins – a whole 19 months after writers “strongly condemn[ed] conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid does not have a natural origin“. The idea that the evidence points away from the lab leak theory and towards a natural origin “could [now] literally be reversed”, say the authors of the new article. “There is no direct support for the natural origin of SARS-CoV-2, and a laboratory-related accident is plausible.” The Mail on Sundayhas more.
It was revealed earlier this year that Peter Daszak – a British scientist with long-standing links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology – had secretly orchestrated a landmark statement in the Lancet in February 2020 which attacked “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid does not have a natural origin”.
The now-infamous letter, signed by 27 leading public health experts, said they stood together to “strongly condemn” the theories which they said “do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice”.
They also lavished praise on Chinese scientists who they said had “worked diligently and effectively to rapidly identify the pathogen behind this outbreak… and share their results transparently with the global health community”.
Now, the Lancet has agreed to publish an alternative commentary which discusses the possibility that laboratory research might have played a role in the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
It also directly confronts the efforts of science journals to stifle debate by labelling such theories as “misinformation”. …
[The authors say] the February 2020 statement “imparted a silencing effect on the wider scientific debate”.
And they say scientists, “need to evaluate all hypotheses on a rational basis, and to weigh their likelihood based on facts and evidence, devoid of speculation concerning possible political impacts”.
Science itself, they go on, should “embrace alternative hypotheses, contradictory arguments, verification, refutability, and controversy” and rather than congratulating China on its supposed “transparency”, they call on the secretive superpower to open up.
Last April, Josh Rogin – a reporter for the Washington Post – published an explosive article that lent substantial new credibility to the lab leak theory.
Rogin had acquired cables sent in January of 2018 by U.S. diplomats working in China. Those diplomats had recently visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and the cables they sent warned of safety issues at the lab, as well as the work being done there on bat coronaviruses.
One described a “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory”. The diplomats asked for support from the U.S. Government to help the lab fix its problems. However, their requests went unanswered.
Rogin has now published an essay (adapted from his latest book) which provides additional context for his article on the diplomatic cables.
He begins by noting that, contrary to what many in the mainstream media had assumed, the cables were not leaked to him by someone in the Trump administration. Rogin’s story had actually irked Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who’d been trying to “keep up the veneer of good relations” with China.
The author then reveals that, when he called around to get reactions from officials he trusted, he discovered that “a large swath of the government already believed the virus had escaped from the WIV lab”.
As Rogin notes, any theory of the pandemic’s origin has to account for the location of the original outbreak – a large, dense city far away from the bat caves of Southern China. Yet when Dr Shi (the ‘Batwoman’) was interviewed in March, she said she’d “never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan”.
This rather undermines the claim made by critics of the lab leak theory that the location of the original outbreak doesn’t constitute an important piece of evidence in its own right.
As Alina Chan notes, the population of Wuhan was used as a control group in a 2015 serological survey of coronavirus spillover events in China. Among 240 blood donors from Wuhan, precisely zero had antibodies against SARS-related coronaviruses.
Returning to Rogin’s essay, he says that “large parts of the scientific community” criticised his story in the Post, insisting that most viral outbreaks are caused by natural spillovers, not lab accidents. However, many of the scientists who spoke out to defend the Wuhan lab, it transpired, were “Shi’s research partners and funders”.
What about the claim that WIV researchers had done their work out in the open, so we ought to just trust them that there wasn’t any leak? Rogin was apparently told that many U.S. officials came to believe that “these researchers had not been as forthcoming as had been claimed”. (Which makes sense in light of what the ‘internet sleuths’ have turned up.)
He quotes one U.S. official as saying, “We’ll probably never be able to prove it one way or the other”. Whether this is true or not, the debate is still interesting, and Rogin’s essay is worth reading in full.
Stop Press: A Telegraph investigation has revealed that all but one of the scientists who penned a letter in the Lancet dismissing the lab leak as a ‘conspiracy theory’ were linked to the Wuhan researchers, their colleagues or funders.
As interest has increased in the lab leak hypothesis for the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic it has cast the spotlight upon the behaviours of parts of the scientific community, including the role of peer review, conflicts of interest and the ownership and funding of professional journals. In turn, this can all be considered within national and international political and organisational contexts. ‘Big Pharma’ is also under scrutiny. This article seeks to explain the general nature of the potential threat posed by Big Pharma. It is not a new story. Indeed, it can be usefully discussed with the help of a 60 year-old Presidential address.
On September 5th, 2021, LBC radio host and commentator Maajid Nawaz drew an analogy from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the nation as 34th President of the United States on January 17th, 1961. Maajid Nawaz suggested that the threat to democratic society described by President Eisenhower of the ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ has, at least to some degree, been supplanted by a ‘Big Pharma Industrial Complex’. He also suggested that the behaviours of governments in pursuing Covid related policies, such as the vaccination of 12-15 year-olds and vaccine passports (hot topics across the U.K. over the weekend), could only be properly understood by, as he put it, “joining the dots”. He also noted the existence of a “revolving door” of former Government Ministers, MPs and unelected senior officials exiting public office into highly paid commercial positions with large pharmaceutical and similar companies. He suggested that there is, therefore, enormous scope for conflicts of interest to shape public policy in ways that are not to the advantage of the general population.
Maajid Nawaz is correct. It is often worth considering the perspective of a former U.S. President. Their unique position at the apex of both power and information can sometimes result in statements of timeless wisdom and insight. That is irrespective of their party and how we might personally feel about them and their record. President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address has stood the test of time more than most and it deserves attention now. It should be noted that Eisenhower’s Address was made only 16 years after the end of World War Two, at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. It was not an easy time to be president. Despite 60 years having passed the Address still has the ability to send a shiver down the spine. If there was a modern political ‘prophecy’ we would not have wanted to come to pass it was Eisenhower’s. That it did not come true precisely in the manner feared by Eisenhower is ‘good’ but the way it has come true in the last 18 months is probably at least as bad.
The President declared:
Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.
In the context of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the “miraculous solution” was ‘Lockdowns and Vaccines’. Eisenhower continued:
A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research – these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.
Eisenhower’s experience as both Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe and as President suggested that mono-solutions were typically hubristic and wrong. There are invariably several roads to choose from. It is for scientists to advise on the possible routes, but it is for politicians to ask questions and to choose the route – to decide what should be done. These are two entirely different things. Eisenhower clearly understood this.
Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage – balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.
This could easily have been a useful script for rational governmening during the pandemic. In practice, it was not adopted. The Westminster Government and many others became focussed upon a single dominating issue which, in the absence of balance, let alone a costs-benefits analysis, distorted every element of the political, economic, cultural, health and educational well-being of the nation. No balance. No costs-benefits analysis. Whither “the national welfare of the future”?
Eisenhower was no slouch. As such he considered that the U.S. had hitherto “stood the test” but: “[…] Threats, new in kind or degree, constantly arise. I mention two only.” His “two” were that of the military-industrial complex and the less well known, but similarly important, long term observation that we “cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage”.
The first threat arose because “we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions”. As Maajid Nawaz implied by his reference to the Eisenhower Address, Big Pharma is similarly vast:
“The global pharmaceuticals market is expected to grow from U.S. $1228.45 billion in 2020 to $1250.24 billion in 2021 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 1.8%.” Major companies include Pfizer, Hoffmann-La Roche; Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Bayer, Gilead, Merck and so on. “The market is expected to reach $1700.97 billion in 2025 at a CAGR of 8%.”(“Pharmaceuticals Global Market Report 2021: Covid Impact and Recovery to 2030” – ResearchAndMarkets.com – April 2021 cited here.) It is a large, fast growing sector.
“[…] The global aerospace and defence market is estimated to be valued at U.S. $ 1,600 billion in the year 2025, growing at a CAGR of 3.5% in the period 2019 to 2025.” (“Global Aerospace & Defence Market [(By Region – North America (The U.S. and Mexico), Europe (The U.K., Germany and France) and Asia Pacific (Japan, China & India)] Outlook 2025” – ResearchAndMarkets.com – May 2020 cited here.) It is a large, but maybe not as fast growing, sector when compared to pharmaceuticals.
Just as Eisenhower could say back in 1961: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.” We might say the same of Global Big Pharma. Eisenhower recognised the way in which the military-industrial complex operated: “The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.” Lots of businesses, lots of employees, lots of shareholders (both individual and institutional), lots of lobbying and financing and funding makes influence inevitable. Eisenhower warned: “We recognise the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.” We should take careful note of his use of the word “grave”. That is this something that can place a nation in danger of serious harm. More specifically:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
Once more we can see how this might easily occur in the context of Big Pharma, especially as the scientific and knowledge community is so clearly interlinked and operates both alongside and indeed within the responsibilities that modern Governments have taken on in the name of maintaining and improving public health – as broadly defined.
Eisenhower was clearly extremely concerned:
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
We could easily rewrite this as a manifesto for a new movement or political manifesto in 2021:
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge Big Pharma machinery and Public Health with our democratic freedoms, so that health, security and liberty may prosper together.
In some ways we would appear to be “too late” given the expansion of overt and covert censorship (including self-censorship) which works against the development of a “knowledgeable citizenry”. And the Government already has a well-established, coercive and divisive, agenda relentlessly traveling towards its “miraculous solution”. But at least it provides a useful perspective. Optimistically: we might consider the miraculous solution (and the supposed end result of ‘safety’) to be a mirage which can ultimately be revealed as such – with the happy ending of ‘the Emperor has no clothes’. Pessimistically: the miraculous solution remains a mirage but compulsory travel towards it becomes, or is deliberately made, ever more difficult to resist. The Emperor does not need clothes – no small boys are allowed to attend the parade.
Eisenhower also noted in his Address that:
Research has become central; it also becomes more formalised, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal Government. Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard, there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
While there are exceptions, this observation can be summed up in practical terms as ‘funding is crucial’. Compromises will inevitably take place to obtain it and retain it. Just as the U.S. Government might always seek to fund a ‘defence application’ as opposed to a peaceful application of new technology in Eisenhower’s day, Big Pharma also has an agenda.
Maajid Nawaz referred to an interesting, and rather damning, piece of research in 2018 by Professor Mariana Mazzucato, Director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. It was entitled “The People’s Prescription: Re-imagining health innovation to deliver public value“. That report found the process of developing drugs incentivised high prices and the delivery of short-term returns to shareholders. It did not, as a matter of course, adopt higher-risk long-term research into therapeutic advances into diseases such as tuberculosis. In fact, over half of recently (to 2018) approved drugs had little or no extra health care advantage. A cynic would suggest they were tweaks to create new drugs for wealthier markets. A cure for tuberculosis would probably not be particularly remunerative as the market would be far from wealthy. In short, the research suggested that Big Pharma had little genuine interest in improving public health in accordance with actual needs. They do however like to sell lots of drugs to people in rich countries. We should not forget that singular intent.
Pulling the strands of the story together, one comes to the most ominous and portentous part of Eisenhower’s speech:
The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever-present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
Anyone who has ‘joined the dots’, as Maajid Nawaz suggests we should, from the NIH under Dr. Fauci, allegedly helping to facilitate funding for ‘gain of function’ research on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (making them more transmissible to and between humans) to the labelling of the lab leak hypothesis as a “conspiracy theory” in the Lancet, by a not entirely non-conflicted group of scientists, can see how dangerous this can be to freedom of thought. But as to our “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite”: surely not… our politicians make the public policy decisions so that could never happen… But given all the talk by them of ‘following the Science’ during the pandemic, it apparently has de facto captured public policy. However, this is an illusion as ‘the Science’ is always a bundle of debate. So actually, it appears to be rather more mutually convenient than just a win for the technocrats and Big Pharma. That is especially if we remind ourselves of that revolving door of job opportunities and of what happens when independent science heads in one direction only to meet a politically driven policy miracle heading in the other. The side-lining of the, previously followed, advice from the Joint Commission on Vaccination and Immunisation not to vaccinate 12-15 year-olds in England is a good case in point.
Eisenhower reminds us of something else the pandemic experience has illuminated:
It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system – ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.
This our politicians, at least in the U.K., have arguably rather failed to do. If there are any statesmen or women in the room please can they make themselves known? It would be good if they could do it quickly. Our free society is being undermined daily, nudge by nudge, new restriction by new restriction, micro-pressure by micro-pressure – albeit naturally for our own safety. And as for our taking out a “mortgage [over] the material assets of our grandchildren” the Westminster Government has truly excelled: “U.K. general Government gross debt was £2,224.5 billion at the end of financial year ending March 2021, equivalent to 106.0% of gross domestic product.” The origin of the word ‘mortgage’ imports debt being likened to ‘the grip of death’. Leaving the last word to Eisenhower: “We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”
Cephas Alain is the pseudonym of a retired lawyer.
In a recent article, I noted that many left-wing commentators are still reluctant to concede that Covid might have escaped from a lab. Why? It’s not because the lab leak theory is ‘racist’, or that it makes China – America’s ‘enemy’ – look good.
Rather, it’s because the theory makes ‘experts’ look bad, and – more importantly – makes the right look good. After all, right-wing Republicans have been claiming that a lab leak was possible since early last year. (At the time of course, they were denounced as ‘conspiracy theorists’.)
Donald Trump entertained the theory in April of 2020. If evidence eventually proves him right, the man’s critics (of whom there are plenty in the mainstream media) will have a lot of egg on their face.
While my article relied on anecdotal reports of the left’s dislike for the lab leak, a new study confirms that recent coverage of the theory has been driven by right-wing media.
David Rozado tracked media coverage by counting the number of times relevant terms (‘lab leak’, ‘laboratory leak’ etc.) were mentioned in 12 media outlets. He then computed, for each week since the start of 2021, total mentions as a percentage of all words published that week. This was done separately for each of the 12 outlets.
Rozado’s main figure is shown below. Each colour corresponds to a different outlet: turquoise is Fox News; faded green is the New York Post; grey is the Wall Street Journal; and orange is the Washington Post – the only left-leaning outlet that has covered the lab leak extensively. (For further details, see p. 8 of Rozado’s paper.)
The chart confirms that media coverage of the lab leak was all but absent until May of 2021, when it rose dramatically. A disproportionate share of the recent coverage is accounted for by just two right-wing outlets: Fox News and the New York Post.
In an attempt to explain the trend in media coverage over time, Rozado superimposed lines corresponding to certain key events, such as the publication of the WHO’s report on its visit to Wuhan.
Noting that the coloured bars start to get taller after the publication of Nicholas Wade’s essay on May 5th, Rozado notes “this particular event could have triggered increased media coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis”.
However, it seems more likely that an event on May 14th is what triggered the increased media coverage, namely the publication of a letter in Science signed by 18 experts, calling for a new investigation into the origins of Covid. “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable,” the letter said.
Whichever event or events led to the rise in media coverage, Rozado’s paper provides a valuable insight into the media’s coverage of the pandemic. And it’s worth reading in full.
Back on May 14th, 18 scientists wrote a letter to Science calling for a new investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Among their number was a gentleman named Ralph Baric, one of the world’s leading coronavirus experts.
Baric has been the subject of controversy over the last few months, given that he previously developed a method for engineering bat coronaviruses, and then taught that method to Dr Shi (the “Batwoman”) at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In a recent interview with the MIT Technology Review, he divulges some interesting details about how researchers work with coronaviruses in the lab, as well as how they should do such work.
Baric begins the interview by quashing the suggestion (made by Senator Rand Paul on the floor of the U.S. Senate) that he has ever created a “supervirus”. And later in the interview he states, “there’s really no strong and actionable data that argues that the virus was engineered”.
Okay, so he’s not convinced the virus was “engineered”. But what about the possibility that a virus collected from nature escaped from the Wuhan lab? Baric says, “I personally feel that SARS-CoV-2 is a natural pathogen that emerged from wildlife.”
And he gives the following rationale: “Historical precedent argues that all other human coronaviruses emerged from animals. No matter how many bat viruses are at the WIV, nature has many, many more.” However, this rather unconvincing argument has already been addressed by Zeynep Tufekci in the New York Times.
It’s hardly surprising that “all other human coronaviruses emerged from animals”, given that sophisticated research labs have only been around for a few decades. If we take the period “since the advent of molecular biology”, Tufekci notes, then a large number of outbreaks have been caused by lab leaks (including almost every case of SARS since 2002).
What Baric has to say about the nature of lab work is more interesting. When asked about safety standards he assures the interviewer, “We do everything at BSL-3 plus,” by which he means that he and his colleagues “wear impervious Tyvek suits, aprons, and booties and are double-gloved”.
He then confirms that “the Chinese have done a lot of their bat coronavirus research under BSL-2 conditions”. (Note that BSL-2 has been compared to the safety level of a dentist’s office.) And as Baric notes, “lab-acquired infections occur much more frequently at BSL-2.”
When asked why he signed the letter calling for a new investigation, Baric states, “There must be some recognition that a laboratory infection could have occurred under BSL-2 operating conditions.” And he goes on to say, “If you study hundreds of different bat viruses at BSL-2, your luck may eventually run out.”
The interview with Baric contains various other insights, and is worth reading in full.
A report from Republicans on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the U.S. Congress has said the “preponderance of evidence proves” the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology “sometime before September 12th, 2019”.
The Republican report cited what it called under-reported information about laboratory safety protocols.
It detailed a request in July 2019 for a $1.5million overhaul of a hazardous waste treatment system, which was less than two years old. That request included maintenance on an “environmental air disinfection system”.
It raised questions about how well such systems were working in the months leading up to the outbreak, the report said.
The report said: “Such a significant renovation so soon after the facility began operation appears unusual.”
According to the report, satellite data in October showed a jump in visits to hospitals in Wuhan, along with a rise in people searching the internet for symptoms that could be linked to the virus.
It suggested the virus spread through Wuhan shortly before the Military World Games was held there in late October 2019.
In November, that event became an “international vector spreading the virus to multiple continents around the world” as athletes returned home, the report said.
The two most famous British medical journals are The Lancet (founded in 1823) and The BMJ (founded in 1840). The Lancet – which is arguably the more famous of the two – has come under criticism in recent months for publishing a letter that dismissed the lab leak as a “conspiracy theory”.
Now the Editor-in-Chief of The BMJ has written a surprisingly bold editorial, which is titled ‘Covid 19: We need a full open independent investigation into its origins’. Referencing a longer BMJarticle by the science journalist Paul Thacker, she notes that “suppression of the lab leak theory was not based on any clear evaluation of the science.”
She goes on to say, “We don’t know which theory is right, but a lab leak is plausible and worthy of serious inquiry.” And she concludes by calling for a “a full, open, and independent investigation.”
Thacker’s article, which is much longer, examines the role that scientific journals and journalists played in shaping the now-punctured narrative that COVID-19 couldn’t possibly have leaked from a lab in Wuhan.
The story begins with the aforementioned Lancet letter, published in February of last year. That letter, it subsequently transpired, had been organised by Peter Daszak – president of EcoHealth Alliance – who has funded controversial gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Daszak’s letter helped to stifle debate on COVID origins for more than a year. As the molecular biologist Richard Ebright told Thacker, ‘conspiracy theory’ is a “useful term for defaming an idea you disagree with”. Ebright, incidentally, blames not only The Lancet, but also Nature and Science – the world’s two preeminent scientific journals – for suppressing the lab leak theory.
As an aside, Nature’s role in suppressing the lab leak has been covered extensively by the journalist Ian Birrell. As he notes, “Allegations swirl that it was not down to editorial misjudgement, but something more sinister: a desire to appease China for commercial reasons.”
Returning to Thacker’s article, he suggests two main reasons for the “U turn”, whereby the lab leak went from “conspiracy theory” to plausible hypothesis. The first is that Trump lost the election. Because Trump had endorsed the lab leak theory, Thacker argues, “Daszak and others used him as a convenient foil to attack their critics”. (So much for guilt-by-association being a logical fallacy.)
The second factor is that the WHO investigation into COVID origins, which had gone looking for evidence of zoonotic spillover, came back pretty much empty handed. “More worryingly,” Thacker notes, “members were allowed only a few hours of supervised access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
In the final part of the article, Thacker documents the various media outlets and “fact-checking” organisations that have scrambled to retroactively cover their anatomy. For example, Vox added a correction noting, “Since this piece was originally published in March 2020, scientific consensus has shifted.”
Thacker’s article offers a case study in what happens when scientific journals and journalists neglect their duty of independence, and instead become purveyors of an official narrative. It is worth reading in full.
In February of 2020, 27 scientists wrote a letter to The Lancet, claiming studies “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife”. The authors stated, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”
Fast forward to May of 2020. 18 other scientists – including some of the biggest names in the field – wrote a letter to Science stating, “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable” and we must “take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data”.
Now some of the authors of the Lancet letter have penned a new letter for that journal. As severalcommentators have noted, it’s a rather shameless piece of writing. This is particularly true given that the authors were already criticised for not declaring conflicts of interest.
They begin by describing the context of their original missive: “Unsubstantiated allegations were being raised about the source of the COVID-19 outbreak and the integrity of our peers who were diligently working to learn more about the newly recognised virus.”
Given the location of the first outbreak, and other circumstantial evidence, suggesting the virus might have leaked from a lab was perfectly reasonable. Yet the authors still refer to such suggestions as “unsubstantial allegations”, even though their own theory is just as “unsubstantiated”.
They claim that their peers – by whom they presumably mean scientists at the Wuhan Institute – were “diligently working to learn more about the newly recognised virus”. The implication here is that it was unfair for people to suggest they might have dropped the ball on lab security.
However, these scientists weren’t “diligent” enough to mention that a virus in their database whose genome is 96.2% similar to SARS-CoV-2 was identical to one that had been implicated in an unexplained 2012 outbreak of pneumonia. Nor have they been “diligent” enough to share their lab records with other scientists. Ironically, the authors later mention the importance of “transparent sharing of data”.
They go on to say: “We believe the strongest clue from new, credible, and peer-reviewed evidence in the scientific literature is that the virus evolved in nature, while suggestions of a laboratory-leak source of the pandemic remain without scientifically validated evidence that directly supports it in peer-reviewed scientific journals.”
Since the publication on May 14th of the letter in Science calling for a new investigation into the origins of COVID-19, the lab leak theory has officially gone mainstream. Numerous articles testifying to its plausibility have been published, and President Biden ordered intelligence agencies to “redouble” their efforts to examine the virus’s origin.
One of the best articles that’s been published in recent weeks is a piece by Zeynep Tufekci in the New York Times. Although she doesn’t come down in favour of one theory or the other (lab leak versus natural origin), she does lay out much of the circumstantial evidence for a lab leak. And it’s not in short supply.
To begin with, you have the location of the first outbreak in Wuhan, China – home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (as well as the Wuhan C.D.C.). It would be a remarkable coincidence, many have observed, if the pandemic just happened to get started in a city that hosts one of the world’s major coronavirus research labs.
Some have countered that labs tend to be built where the viruses are. However, this simply isn’t true in the case of the Wuhan Institute, as Tufekci points out. The lab has “been where it is since 1956… It was upgraded and began to focus on coronavirus research only after SARS.” Even Dr. Shi (the “Batwoman”) has said she “never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan”.
Next, you have reports about the rather lax safety standards inside the Wuhan Institute. In 2016, for example, scientists ran experiments on a coronavirus capable of infecting human cells in a BSL-2 lab – a biosafety level that “has been compared with that of a dentist’s office”. And in 2017, a Chinese state-TV story about Dr. Shi’s research “showed researchers handling bats or bat feces with their bare hands”.
Then there is the fact that Dr. Shi, her colleagues and the Wuhan Institute, not to mention the Chinese authorities, have given misleading or incomplete accounts of key events, or have simply withheld information. Aside from the location’s first major outbreak, this is perhaps the strongest piece of evidence for a lab leak. If the virus’s origin is zoonotic, why wouldn’t you let other scientists look over your files?