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Why the ‘Wuhan lab leak theory’ is getting a second look

May 25, 2021, 12:45 PM UTC

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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.

Clay Chandler
– clay.chandler@fortune.com

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Eamon Barrett. Reach him at eamon.barrett@fortune.com

EASTWORLD NEWS

Yuan Longping

China’s “Father of Hybrid Rice,” Yuan Longping, died on Saturday at age 91. The agronomist is a revered innovator in China, credited with developing the world’s first hybrid rice—a crossbreed that produces higher yields than normal rice. Yuan’s pioneering work helped China gain food security as the country emerged from years of famine, which had killed millions. CNN

Strait talk

Taiwan is wrestling with a COVID-19 outbreak and needs vaccines, but politics is blocking the way. Governments in Taiwan’s capital Taipei and mainland China’s Beijing both claim sovereignty over the self-governing island. Taipei claims Beijing has blocked Taiwanese officials from dealing with certain vaccine suppliers directly. Beijing has offered to provide Taiwan with vaccines itself, but Taipei is loath to accept. This week Beijing blocked Taiwan’s bid to attend the annual WHO assembly, too, which convened on Monday. Fortune

Deadly race

Marathon running is a prestigious pastime among China’s middle class, but the industrial complex driving the sport’s popularity is under review, following the tragic death of 21 ultramarathon competitors, including champion racer Liang Jing, on Sunday. The runners died of hypothermia after enduring hail and sub-freezing temperatures on a high-altitude course through China’s Gansu province. Now authorities are investigating why local organizers failed to account for the weather. The Guardian

Daw Suu seen

Myanmar’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, appeared in court on Monday, marking her first public appearance since being deposed and detained in a military coup on February 1. The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, have charged Daw Suu with crimes including illegally possessing walkie-talkie radios and violating the state’s official secrets act. If convicted, the 75-year-old Nobel Prize winner could be sentenced for up to 14 years in jail. CNN

MARKETS AND MOVERS

Huawei — Huawei founder and chairman Ren Zhengfei informed staff the telecom company has pivoted to focus on software rather than hardware, as U.S. sanctions against the Chinese tech firm bite.

Nintendo — Banjo Yamauchi, one of the heirs of the Nintendo family fortune, launched the Yamauchi No. 10 Family Office investment firm last year, but granted the firm’s first ever interview to Bloomberg this week.

Olympics — Japanese business leaders are joining the public in opposition to Japan hosting the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. According to Reuters, 70% of corporate respondents to a survey wanted the games either cancelled or postponed.

Fin — Chinese real estate developer Wanda has almost finished selling its shares in cinema chain AMC, earning a last-minute boost from the sudden Reddit-led frenzy over the movie theater’s shares in January.

China crypto — On Friday Chinese Vice Premier Liu He called for a “severe” crackdown on crypto mining and trading, sparking an exodus of mining services from the country. Meanwhile, Hong Kong drafted legislation that would restrict crypto exchanges to servicing only “professional” traders.

S’pore homes — The chairman of City Development, Singapore’s wealthiest developer, warned the government might introduce curbs on the city-state’s real estate market if property prices continue to rise.

Nikkei zero — Nearly 40% of the 225 companies in the Nikkei Stock Average have set goals to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades, as of the end of April. The total now is double the number committed at the end of 2020.

FINAL FIGURE

$1.3 trillion

Some $1.3 trillion of Chinese corporate bond debt will mature in the coming 12 months. The debt load is 30% more than what U.S. companies owe and 63% more than all the corporate debt in Europe. Meanwhile, maturities on Chinese bonds have grown shorter as debt defaults increase, frustrating the central authority’s goal of achieving more long-term financing. Tenors on debt issued in the first quarter of 2021 are down to 3.02 years, from 3.22 years on debt issued in 2020.

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