Throughput: The COVID Lab Leak Theory Resurfaces
Since the day COVID-19 emerged, speculation has raged that the virus did not originate in a wet market, as is generally believed, but was accidentally or deliberately leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Institute, China’s first BSL-4 facility, did research on coronaviruses, sometimes in collaboration with overseas partners. It seems a strange coincidence indeed that a novel coronavirus would emerge just down the street from them.
The COVID lab leak theory has been given fuel by China’s secrecy and opacity on the issue. Investigations into the origin of COVID-19 have been restricted and somewhat secretive. However, many virologists continue to believe that a natural origin is still the most likely scenario, given the genome of the virus and the fact that the first cluster of cases broke out at the wet market.1 A report last month summarized the scientific evidence from a variety of perspectives and two major papers in Science this summer laid out detailed evidence of why a natural origin, while not absolutely confirmed, is by far the most likely.
While this COVID lab leak theory fire has burned for a while, the last week saw two deluges of rocket fuel poured on it. The first was the release of a Republican report that claims a lab origin is more likely. The second, related one, was a Vanity Fair/Pro Publica piece that built on the Republican report, citing dispatches about Wuhan’s shoddy operations.
However, the Vanity Fair expose has received considerable pushback:
The article is based heavily on Chinese-language documents that appear to have been mistranslated and misinterpreted, according to Chinese language experts who have piled on via social media since its publication.
It also takes as gospel a report by a rump group of Republican congressional staff members asserting that the pandemic was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.”
The editors and authors of the ProPublica/Vanity Fair article didn’t seem to notice the mismatch in expertise between the proponents of these theories: On the one hand, virologists and biologists publishing in peer-reviewed journals; on the other, “academics and online sleuths.” (Those “academics” tend to work in fields other than virology or evolutionary biology.)
You should read the whole thing. You can also see this Twitter thread from virologist Michael Worobey that details the response to the article that Vanity Fair refused to wait for before publishing.
I should note that lab leaks are actually not that uncommon and a COVID lab leak theory is far from crackpottery. The last person to die of smallpox was killed by a lab leak. In 1979, dozens of people were killed by an anthrax leak. It’s likely the 2001 anthrax attack was a deliberate lab leak. Earlier versions of SARS leaked from labs three times, including once in China.
However, as the LA Times piece linked above notes: there is no evidence here for a lab leak. There’s no smoking gun. There’s no whistleblower. There’s no trail of bodies. Granted, China has not fully cooperated in the investigation. But the natural origin has reams of evidence behind it. The lab origin has … speculation and some suggestive memos. That’s it. So while I would not say a lab origin is conclusively ruled out — and I don’t think it ever will be — it is still far less likely and far less supported by the evidence than a natural origin.
In the end, however, this not really a scientific debate. I mean, there is a scientific debate about the origins of COVID-19 but what is happening in the media has nothing to do with science. It’s political. For the most prominent supporters of the lab leak hypothesis, this is a way of shifting blame away from the poor response in the early days of the pandemic. It’s a way to score points against those damned smug scientists and the liberal media. And, in some circles, it plugs into crackpot conspiracy theories about a “plandemic”.2
Ultimately, while figuring out the origins of COVID-19 is important if we want to prevent future pandemics, it is far less critical than other debates going on right now. Whether from a lab or from a natural origin, a SARS-like outbreak was inevitable. The virological and epidemiological communities had been warning us about it for decades. Multiple presidential administrations of both parties invested resources in trying to prevent or contain one. And it will happen again, maybe with new a disease, maybe with a new strain of COVID-19 itself. And it may be much worse. Most of our resources need to be invested in improving our vaccines, improving our treatments, figuring out what mitigation measures worked and improving our monitoring so that we detect new disease as early as possible. Yes, China has been a poor partner in all of this. Their secrecy at the beginning was a key reason the disease broke out of Wuhan. But the Chinese government is not going anywhere. One way or another, we’re going to have to prepare for the next outbreak. And pontificating about the origins of the virus based on conjecture, mistranslated memos and conspiracy theories is not preparing us for anything other than the next news cycle.