In early spring 2020, I reported an article for The New York Times on which I put the tentative headline: “New Coronavirus Is ‘Clearly Not a Lab Leak,’ Scientists Say.”
It never ran.
For two reasons.
The chief one was that inside the Times, we were sharply divided. My colleagues who cover national security were being assured by their Trump administration sources — albeit anonymously and with no hard evidence — that it was a lab leak and the Chinese were covering it up. We science reporters were hearing from virologists and zoologists — on the record and in great detail — that the odds were overwhelming that it was not a lab leak but an animal spillover.
Frankly, the scientists had more credibility.
The other reason my story never ran was that it was 4,000 words long and full of expressions like “polybasic cleavage site,” “RNA-dependent RNA polymerase gene” and “O-linked glycan shields.” Editors would open it, their eyeballs would bleed, and they would close it and find something else to do.
(Back then, editors blanched even at “spike protein” and “receptor binding domain,” but we’ve all had a crash course in virology this year, haven’t we?)
Although it never ran, others like it did elsewhere. The experts all agreed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was not a deliberate weaponization of a previously known virus and that it had no obvious signs of lab manipulation (more details below). They noted that blood sampling showed that brief “spillovers” of animal viruses into humans happen often without causing large outbreaks.
Therefore, they argued, the odds were that this was another virus that got lucky, like SARS and MERS and the 2009 pandemic flu: it had dwelled long enough inside a civet or camel or pig or something to infect human-like cells, and then had hit the big city.
For about a year, that was the general wisdom among science writers. The “lab-leak theory” migrated back to the far right where it had started — championed by the folks who brought us Pizzagate, the Plandemic, Kung Flu, Q-Anon, Stop the Steal, and the January 6 Capitol invasion. It was tarred by the fact that everyone backing it seemed to hate not just Democrats and the Chinese Communist Party, but even the Chinese themselves. It spawned racist rumors like “Chinese labs sell their dead experimental animals in food markets.”
China retorting to Trump administration nonsense with nonsense of its own — such as suggesting that U.S. military officers planted the virus during a visit to Wuhan in October 2019 — did not help.
And now to the present day.
Two weeks ago, my former New York Times science news colleague Nicholas Wade wrote an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (and on Medium) arguing that the lab-leak theory deserves a harder look.
It has since been sent to me a dozen times with notes asking “What do you think?”
My first reaction was dismissive, even though I very much respect Nick as a journalist. (Some of his work is controversial and he can be cranky, but who am I to criticize anyone on those grounds?) I covered the pandemic from its earliest days and I disagreed with his retelling of how the leak-vs.-spillover debate began.
Also, I was offended by some aspects, such as his attacks on Dr. Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, both of whom I have known for years; I know both are dedicated to saving lives, and they have always told me the truth — or what they honestly believed to be the truth at the time, because evidence sometimes changes. They are now both getting death threats, and that is repulsive.
The N.I.H.-funded EcoHealth Alliance does not do dangerous lab research; it doesn’t even have a lab. It hunts for dangerous viruses in the field; its zoologists teach people how to safely gather samples from bats, birds, chimpanzees and other creatures fortified with claws, teeth, beaks, muscles and pathogens.
That’s work I consider as essential as staffing the radar stations that watch for missiles coming over the North Pole. The Trump administration was insane to cut off funding for it. You need to know what’s coming at you. Actually cooking up novel threats is a different matter, of which more below.
I was also bothered by Nick quoting Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To my mind, after being warned about the virus by his Chinese counterpart in the first week of January, Dr. Redfield failed to shout from the rooftops and move mountains — and now 600,000 Americans are dead. He also raised the specter of a flu-Covid “twindemic” that turned out to be virological alarmism.
The deeper I read into the papers and articles Nick cited, the clearer it became how much new information had trickled out in the last year. Not new to the most intense and well-educated followers of this topic, but new to the greater public debate. I include articles like this, this, this, this and this by Yuri Deigin, Rossana Segretto, Milton Leitenberg, Josh Rogin, Nicholson Baker and others.
And more and and more scientists feel misled.
I now agree with Nick’s central conclusion: We still do not know the source of this awful pandemic. We may never know. But the argument that it could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago, when the screaming was so loud that it drowned out serious discussion.
And China’s lack of candor is disturbing. It denies access to the institute’s lab logs and whatever messages were swapped during its own investigations, took down 2018 statements critical of lab biosecurity protocols, retaliated against Australia for advocating an open investigation and sharply restricted the W.H.O. investigators.
Calls for a better probe are mounting. Last week, 18 biologists, including leading and outspoken experts on this pandemic like the Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch and Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki, published a letter in Science calling for a new investigation and demanding that Chinese labs and public health agencies open their records to outside scrutiny.
To my mind, China could be forgiven for its standoffishness in early 2020. It was busy fighting its own pandemic. And if China had, say, arrogantly offered to teach the American C.D.C. how to investigate America’s killer hamburgers — the equivalent of the way the Trump administration spoke to China back then — we would have snubbed them too.
But now, 17 months later, China is persistently acting like a nation hiding something.
Also worrying: the hunt for the spillover theory’s smoking gun — a very closely related natural virus in a human or an animal — has gone on for over a year. Success would mean big prizes for the discoverer — especially from the Chinese government, which could say “See??”
And yet — zip. That doesn’t mean it won’t be found. But by now we might have expected at least some smoking shell casings.
I had been skeptical of the “lab leak” theory because animal spillover is such an obvious answer. Genetics has proven that almost every disease mankind has faced jumped from animals: bubonic plague from rodents, measles probably from cows, whooping cough maybe from dogs, and so on.
Also, the leak idea was just too conveniently conspiratorial.
I’ve covered several pandemics and studied others and one element is consistent: they start in utter confusion that defies any sense that an evil genius at work. Doctors know something’s wrong, but aren’t sure what. That was true when American veterans started dying of pneumonia after a 1976 convention (Legionnaire’s disease); when the Bronx Zoo’s birds started dropping dead in 1999 (West Nile virus); when young nurses fell ill in Mexico City in 2009 (swine flu); when camel butchers died in Saudi Arabia (MERS); and when Brazilian babies were born with shrunken heads (Zika).
This pandemic’s opening days were also shrouded in fog, and yes, there was a government coverup. But it was outed immediately and it didn’t emanate from Beijing.
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