What a Wuhan lab leak would really mean

Published by UnHerd (26th May, 2021)

It has taken 17 months since the new coronavirus supposedly erupted, but the lab leak hypothesis has finally come in from the cold. At first it was dismissed as a crazy conspiracy theory promoted by ranting right-wingers and nasty Sinophobes; a stance inflamed by some of the wilder claims made about the deliberate release of bio-weapons and the determination of some scientists to assist the Chinese cover-up. But now an increasing number of credible scientific voices are calling for a full investigation into whether  this global catastrophe was the result of some kind of human error at a Wuhan laboratory.

The ground began to shift late last year when Stanford microbiologist David Relman published a superb paper setting out why we should investigate seriously the possibility of a lab leak alongside natural zoonotic transmission, backing the small handful of brave scientists who had been making this case to the scorn of the medical establishment. In recent weeks several more leading experts — including Nobel-winning virologist David Baltimore, influential Cambridge geneticist Ravindra Gupta and Ralph Baric, the US epidemiologist who carried out controversial experiments on coronaviruses with Wuhan researchers — have gone public with similar demands. Even Anthony Fauci, the top US expert on infectious diseases heading its pandemic response, now concedes the virus could have come from a laboratory spillover event.

It is depressing it has taken so long for the world of science, supported by most journalists and politicians, to start accepting the basic truth that no theory should be discounted without evidence — especially given the seriousness of the issues at stake and history of leaks from laboratories. A spate of strong articles seems to have suddenly changed the media narrative, despite mostly reheating material familiar to those of us who have been tracking this story for months. The latest Wall Street Journal  story, for example, about three Wuhan researchers allegedly falling suspiciously sick in November, builds on facts revealed by David Asher, former lead investigator for the State Department, in interviews two months ago with both the Australian journalist Sharri Markson and myself.

But what would it mean if the lab leak hypotheses proved correct? The result would be uncomfortable not just for the Chinese Communist Party, which would be guilty of overseeing arguably the biggest cover-up in history of an event that caused economic chaos, millions of deaths and misery around the world. It would shake science to its foundations for carrying out risky research despite clear warnings of the dangers, and then collaborating in an epic whitewash. And it would challenge a media that meekly accepted the establishment view rather than doing its job of asking difficult questions — a failure even more serious than the Iraq War intelligence debacle. Indeed, much of science and the media already look sadly tainted by their failures on this front, regardless of the outcome.

We still have no hard proof how this wretched pandemic emerged in that central Chinese city. We do know, however, that determined efforts in both China and the wider world to prove that Covid-19 had a natural zoonotic origin have failed so far to find an intermediate host animal that might have turned a bat virus into such a lethal, well-adapted pathogen for human beings, despite testing 80,000 samples. We know that Chinese officials were guilty of an initial cover-up that inflamed the impact of the disease with devastating global consequences, and that Beijing promoted false theories, smeared critics and expelled foreign reporters. We also know that the World Health Organisation’s collusion with the Communist regime has undermined its credibility.

On the flip side, there is also a body of circumstantial evidence and strange events pointing to a possible accident. These range from the sudden removal of a key virus database in mid-September through to admissions of serious safety concerns in Wuhan’s labs and a hastily censored paper by two Chinese scientists blaming a lab leak. There is also, of course, the coincidence that this pandemic began in a city that is home to Asia’s biggest bat coronavirus research at Wuhan Institute of Virology as well as several other key research centres, yet hundreds of miles from the southern Chinese caves where samples are collected from the creatures. Occam’s Razor certainly points to one of the labs.

Given that so many months have passed, and the Chinese state is so ruthless in its efficiency, it is probable we will never obtain a definitive answer to the question that is so important for protection against future pandemics. If we could ignore the cover-ups, it would almost be more comforting to know these events were caused by human error rather than another new disease sparked by interaction between animals and people on our crowded planet.

Yet let us imagine there is a document, a whistleblower or some kind of scientific breakthrough that proves there was a laboratory accident. What then? Clearly the biggest issues would confront the Chinese leadership. There were signs it was rattled early in the pandemic: first by the outbreak itself, then by the outburst of public fury — even among state officials — after the death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan ophthalmologist detained for trying to warn his students over emergence of a new disease in their city.

Some analysts believe the shocks could be so seismic that President Xi Jinping would be deposed in a bid to recover face — and possibly that the entire Communist apparatus of control might crumble amid intense public anger. These views highlight the geo-political importance of the debate over the origins issue. Yet Bill Bishop, publisher of the daily newsletter Sinocism, argues that Beijing would blur the debate sufficiently to repress dissent among both its citizens and — armed with its immense economic power — the wider global community. “Would it make China a pariah state? Probably not because they are too big and powerful,” he said.

Bishop — an agnostic on the origins debate — is probably right. We live in a post-truth world, after all, in which Russia denied its invasion of the Crimea when its troops were visible on the ground, the US president denied he lost an election and even Rwanda can fool much of the world by manipulating the truth about its looting and repression. If so many Americans can fall for the nonsense of QAnon in a free society, then it is likely a sustained Chinese propaganda campaign could convince enough of its own citizens to disbelieve the truth. We have seen also how the Communists use their financial muscle to silence criticism around the world on issues such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.

No doubt there would be sanctions, sabre-rattling, some talk of consumer boycotts and loud demands for reparations — before the arguments drag on fruitlessly for many years. “China will do whatever it can to deny it,” said Lianchao Han, a leading dissident and former Chinese government official. “Xi will mobilise his massive propaganda machine to fabricate stories and facts to shake off his responsibility and liabilities. We already passed the point to depose him for mishandling the pandemic if it’s proved to a lab leak.”

But what would be the repercussions for science if some practitioners were found to have sparked a pandemic in their quest for knowledge, whether for benevolent or malevolent reasons? There would be a clampdown on the sampling of viruses in the field without far greater biosecurity, along with severe impositions on the wilder frontiers of “gain of function” research that creates chimeric diseases and forces the evolution of viruses out of scientific curiosity. Some experts have long warned of the risks of such work causing a pandemic. There was even a three-year ban in the United States under the Obama administration, although the work was simply outsourced to labs in other nations.

Bear in mind researchers in Wuhan were combining snippets from strains of bat coronaviruses to increase virulence, injecting viruses into “humanised” mice, testing how diseases can jump the species barrier and creating chimeric diseases using cloning techniques that show no sign of human manipulation. There are also links in Wuhan between civilian and military research labs in this field, as in so much of the country’s academic life. It should be stressed, of course, that similar experiments, often highly secretive and sometimes also linked to biodefence, take place in other labs around the world, devoid of adequate controls and despite the scale of risk.

Richard Ebright, a bio-security expert and professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, has been a fierce critic of such work, arguing that the only impact “is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk”. He raised fears over a possible lab leak last year. Now he believes discussions over safety must become a priority since the world has seen the carnage that can be caused by a new virus. “Irrespective of whether Covid-19 originated in a natural accident or a lab accident, the risk of a future pandemic originating in a lab accident is real,” he said, adding that people needed to focus on “the inadequacy of biosafety and biosecurity standards worldwide and the essentially complete absence of biosafety regulation worldwide.”

Such views seem reasonable, although any new rules will only work with global inspection programmes and more effective biosafety alert systems. Yet Ebright’s stance has led to attacks from other prominent scientists; one described him to me last year as “a madman”. Such arrogance was demonstrated as early as February last year when 27 “experts” published a landmark letter to the Lancetwhich sought to stifle debate by attacking “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”. A freedom of information request later exposed this influential statement was secretly organised by Peter Daszak, a British charity chief who channelled funding from US health authorities to his friend and research colleague Shi Zhengli, the infamous “Batwoman” expert at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Other signatories included Jeremy Farrar, the highly regarded director of the Wellcome Trust.

Since then, Daszak has expended considerable efforts on denouncing the lab leak theory. Yet despite this clear conflict of interest, he was invited to join the WHO investigation in China into the virus’s cause and to head up a 12-strong group for the Lancet on the same subject alongside five of his fellow signatories.

These events highlight three significant scientific issues exposed by the pandemic that need tackling regardless of the origins: a dismal WHO leadership and structure not up to the task of protecting public safety; the collusion of a scientific establishment that sought to shut down debate rather than follow evidence; and the shredding of the reputations of some key journals that failed to promote free debate based on facts.

It is vital to regain trust of these institutions. Yet my own profession of journalism has fared little better. Perhaps this was a result of Donald Trump insisting the virus originated in a Wuhan research lab in his savage attacks on China, yet refusing to detail supporting intelligence. Certainly when I started to investigate these events in April last year, I was deeply sceptical and trod cautiously for fear of promoting conspiracy theories.

This dissolved only when I saw the extent of Beijing’s cover up, and then discovered last May a pair of ground-breaking studies by free-thinking scientists. The first, co-authored by Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute, helped demolish the market theory while the second, by Nik Petrovsky, professor of medicine at Flinders University in Adelaide, argued the new virus was ‘”uniquely adapted to infect humans” and behaved differently to other zoonotic diseases. Both stressed the need to properly investigate a lab leak possibility and have spoken out courageously on the issue for a year.

It is a grim sign of the times that so many in the media — with a few noble exceptions — felt more inclined to believe a highly repressive Communist regime rather than an elected US president. The Mail On Sunday stood alone in this country from the start in challenging the conventional wisdom. Yet it is unforgivable that as more and more crumbs of evidence challenging the consensus began to emerge — mostly prised out by a small ground of digital activists — journalists continued to dismiss “conspiracy theories” about a lab leak, to suggest the virus began in a Wuhan market after even Beijing had binned the idea and to ignore the clear conflict of interests when promoting Daszak’s views.

The worst offenders include some self-righteous organs that see themselves as bold crusaders for truth and justice. The failures of both new and traditional media, coalescing around the comfort blanket of the scientific establishment and their loathing of Trump, should provoke serious reflection. We have seen yet again how specialists prefer to parrot the views of their contacts rather than pursue rigorous investigations that might counter the prevailing opinion in their field. Meanwhile, Facebook continues to block articles conflicting with the “correct” view, as I found to my cost with a previous piece  on UnHerd.

When Prof Relman wrote his paper for the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences last November, he began by stating that ten months into the pandemic, “disturbingly, we still do not know how it began”. He went on to say it was even more troubling that despite the critical importance of this question, efforts to investigate the origins of Covid-19 “have become mired in politics, poorly supported assumptions and assertions, and incomplete information.”

We are still no closer to knowing how this nightmare started. And if the lab leak theory is ever proved true, politics would become even more of a swamp. But at least we can give thanks that, finally, some of the assumptions and assertions are being challenged — and reflect on the lessons that can already be learned.

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