Why the ‘Wuhan lab leak theory’ is getting a second look
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On Jan. 30, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus, the mysterious infection that claimed its first victims in the Chinese city of Wuhan, to be a “public health emergency of international concern.”
That same day, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R–Ark.), at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested the virus had originated not from wild animals sold in the city’s wet market, as Chinese officials had asserted, but instead had escaped from a top-secret government laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“I would note that Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus,” Cotton declared.
The lab leak thesis was quickly embraced by President Donald Trump and his allies. But it drew immediate scorn from public health experts, Trump’s critics, and much of the U.S. press.
A host of leading virologists stepped forward to argue that it was far more plausible that the infection had leapt naturally to people from a bat or another animal like a pangolin than that it had accidentally leaked from a laboratory. After all, previous coronavirus outbreaks like SARS were caused by a virus spreading from animals to humans. Many pundits dismissed the idea of a lab leak as a ridiculous, even racist, “conspiracy theory” designed to deflect attention from Trump’s own failure to contain the virus at home.
And yet, in recent months, the lab leak thesis has inched its way from the lunatic fringe towards the credible center of American public discourse.
The reasons are complex. One is that, after more than a year of searching, scientists have failed to identify a definitive, natural source of the virus. As former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Monday: “People a year ago who said, ‘This probably came from nature, it’s really unlikely it came from a lab,’ maybe a year ago that kind of a statement made a lot of sense because that was the more likely scenario. But we haven’t found the true source of this virus…It’s not for lack of trying; there has been an exhaustive search.”
A second issue is the steady accumulation of circumstantial evidence suggesting a possible link between the outbreak and the Wuhan lab. Compounding both factors is the global scientific community’s mounting frustration over China’s reluctance to cooperate with efforts to learn more about conditions and research activities inside the Wuhan facility.
That frustration was manifest in a letter published this month in Science by 18 scientists critiquing the findings of a World Health Organization investigation into the pandemic’s origin. The WHO investigation was carried out in cooperation with the Chinese government in January and the group published a report on its findings in March.
The official report concluded it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus had escaped from a government laboratory. But in their recent letter, the 18 scientists—who work at universities in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, and Switzerland—argued the WHO had not received sufficient access and data to fully evaluate the possibility of a lab leak.
“Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable,” they wrote. “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.”
China decries claims that the Wuhan Institute was the source of the outbreak as “pure fabrication.” In an interview Saturday, Wang Yanyi, the lab’s director, said the institute did not receive a clinical sample of Sars-Cov-2, the virus behind the pandemic, until Dec. 30, 2019. “We didn’t have any knowledge before that, nor had we ever encountered, researched, or kept the virus,” Wang said. “In fact, like everyone else we didn’t even know the virus existed. How could it have leaked from our lab if we never had it?”
The Wall Street Journal stoked the debate about the possibility of a lab link Sunday with a story citing “a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report,” which revealed that three Wuhan Institute researchers had became sick enough to seek hospital care in November 2019, exactly the moment many epidemiologists and virologists believe SARS-Cov-2 began to spread in Wuhan.
When asked about the Journal story at a briefing Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the “international community” has concerns about the U.S. biolab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, which China often suggests was the real source of the virus. “What is the real purpose for the U.S. to continue to play up the so-called ‘lab leak theory’?” he said. “Does it really care about the origin-tracing of the virus or just want to divert attention?”
On Monday, the Journal followed with a long feature highlighting “unanswered questions” about six miners who fell sick with a mysterious illness in 2012 after clearing bat guano from a mine in Yunnan province.
Former New York Times health correspondent Donald G. McNeil, Jr., one of the most authoritative bylines on the pandemic beat, published a fascinating essay earlier this month explaining why he’s changed his mind about the lab leak thesis.
“I had been skeptical of ‘lab leak’ theory because animal spillover is such an obvious answer,” McNeil writes. “Also, the leak idea was just too conveniently conspiratorial.” But now he thinks the idea deserves a hearing: “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 don’t miss this piece, published Monday in New York magazine, in which Trump critic Jonathan Chait excoriates America’s “liberal media” for allowing its hatred of Trump to blind it to the possibility that the lab leak hypothesis, however bigoted, might contain elements of truth. “Reporters looked at the uncertainty and fell back on an impulse to straightforwardly call out racist lies, even though the evidence to call it lies was quite threadbare,” he writes.
More Eastworld news below.
This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Eamon Barrett. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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