It’s official: Covid can be linked to lab leaks
Published by The i paper (6th March, 2023)
You have to admit it is one hell of a coincidence. Out of all the thousands of cities in the world, and all the millions of places in a massive nation that is home to nearly one-fifth of the planet’s population, the pandemic erupted in Wuhan. A city that is 1,000 kilometres from the nearest colonies of wild bats with similar coronaviruses, roosting in their caves and crevices in southern China. And a city that happened to contain the country’s only maximum bio-security laboratory – the biggest repository of bat coronaviruses in Asia that had known safety concerns and was conducting high-risk research to boost the infectivity of mutant bat viruses in humanised mice.
Little wonder there were instant fears that the lethal emergence of Sars-CoV-2 – the strain of virus that causes Covid-19 – might have been linked to laboratory work in the city. Even the world-famous lead bat researcher at Wuhan Institute of Virology said she never expected ‘this kind of thing’ to happen in her city. Many experts were also suspicious over the strange nature of the deadly new disease – most notably, how it was the only one of more than 200 known Sars-like coronaviruses with a furin cleavage site, which allows its spike protein to bind effectively to cells in many human tissues. It seemed, in the words of one early study, ‘uniquely adapted to infect humans.’
Yet within weeks of the pandemic’s emergence, anyone suggesting the disease sparking havoc around the world might not have been a natural zoonotic virus – crossing over from animals like several previous epidemics including Ebola and the Sars outbreak at start of this century – was being condemned. They were branded at best a conspiracy theorist, at worst an evil racist stirring up hatred against Asian people. Now finally, more than three years later, there is grudging acceptance that both theories for the pandemic origins are valid.
‘The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident,’ admitted its director Christopher Wray last week. One other US intelligence agency agrees; others remain undecided or back natural origin after being asked to examine all evidence by President Joe Biden.
In Britain, by contrast, there is just a thundering silence from our political leaders and spooks. There remains no conclusive proof for either theory, despite strenuous efforts to find an intermediate animal species that might have ‘amplified’ a bat virus for spillover into humans. Yet significant circumstantial evidence has emerged that strengthens the case for laboratory leakage during speculative research in Wuhan. Such fears are intensified by Beijing’s shameful cover-up of early cases and blatant blocking of investigations in Wuhan, despite the desperate need to track down the source to prevent another deadly pandemic.
Behind this question lies a second issue of huge importance, one that reflects badly on the overlapping worlds of politics, journalism and science. For a small group of prominent scientists, marshalled by the powerful chiefs of funding bodies in Britain and the United States, deliberately stifled this debate over birth of the biggest public health crisis for a century – despite their own concerns over research in Wuhan and the virus’s unusual properties. They accused those asking valid questions of spreading conspiracy theories and used their immense influence to dismiss ‘any type of laboratory-based scenario’ as implausible.
Then they were aided by patsy politicians appeasing Beijing, supine journalists so in thrall to contacts that they failed to do their job, and world-famous specialist publications with such close ties to China that they have now ruined their reputations.
This was the real Covid conspiracy that is now unravelling, which I have glimpsed while investigating Covid’s origins since April 2020. I was sceptical at first when one of my editors suggested I take a look at this issue. Like many liberals, I suspected lab leak talk was simply typical of nonsense spewed out by US president Donald Trump. The picture was complicated by wild claims of deliberate leakage and bioweapons swirling around the extremes of politics and fringes of social media. It did not take long, however, to tap into the private concerns held by many scientists.
I discovered how China covered up the initial outbreak and early knowledge of the disease, even critical details of human transmission that could have saved lives if shared with the world. Then I stumbled on key studies from scientists such as Alina Chan in the US and Nikolai Petrovsky in Australia who followed the evidence rather than the crowd.
I disclosed the vested interests of key players in this tawdry saga, published findings by the Drastic team of online researchers who winkled out key evidence to challenge China’s narrative, then details of the science establishment cover-up based on freedom of information findings by US Right To Know, a public health campaign group. More than two years ago, I published the first full exposition of the lab leak theory in mainstream media.
None of this solves the conundrum of Covid’s origins. But that blanket dismissal of a lab leak as dangerous conspiracy theory showed the dangers of partisanship in our divided age since a few powerful scientists with vested interests dazzled many people into adopting a deluded stance. Science, like journalism, depends on fierce debate to test evidence and theories.
Instead we saw the power of consensus and groupthink to stifle free thinking; capture of specialist journalists by their contacts to crush scepticism; the dubious role of technology giants to determine valid grounds for debate; and the risks of scientists and journals following funding sources rather than firm evidence. Think again about Covid’s emergence – and lacking firm proof, how on earth did it take so long for the authorities to admit that it is possible the virus might have been linked to scientific research in secretive Wuhan labs?