Current Affairs

The Stakes of Finding COVID-19’s Origins

Everyone in the U.S. should want to know whether U.S.-funded research could have caused the pandemic.

Well over 3 million people have been killed by COVID-19 around the world, including over half a million in this country. (One new study says the 3 million number is an underestimate, and that the real number is 7 million.) India is undergoing a horrific national nightmare, and Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy writes that it is “hard to convey the full depth and range of the trauma, the chaos and the indignity that people are being subjected to.” The deaths are only part of the true costs. There is also the economic cost, the joblessness, and the terror, as well as the trauma of watching relatives die excruciating deaths. 

Yet we still don’t know how it all started. Searches for the animal that transmitted COVID-19 to humans have turned up nothing. The theory that the virus originated in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market has been abandoned, but nobody knows exactly how it did start infecting humans. We know it first showed up in Wuhan, China and that it probably originated in a bat. There are those who believe that the virus escaped from a lab, and those who insist it passed directly from animals to humans. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) most recent report on COVID’s origins suggests it’s “very likely” the virus passed from bats to humans through another animal, but also “likely” that it might have directly spread from bats to humans. The WHO calls the theory that it leaked from a lab “extremely unlikely.” 

It’s easy to think that, given the reality we are stuck with, the question is mostly of interest to research scientists. Obviously, those who want to prevent another pandemic want to know exactly how this one started. But for the rest of us, why should we care very much? The virus is here, no fact about how it got here is going to change that. Many of the people pushing the theory that the virus came from a lab in Wuhan (e.g. Donald Trump) have been clearly ideologically opposed to China already. If it turned out the virus did come from a lab, there is a risk that the already Sinophobic political climate in the U.S. and elsewhere would get significantly worse. I have not been particularly interested in the origins of COVID-19 myself, even though I want researchers to find out the truth in order to improve future pandemic preparedness. 

A recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by science journalist Nicholas Wade makes a forceful argument that COVID-19 did, in fact, escape from a lab. I began reading it with mild curiosity. It contains some important information that has not been widely reported. But it also makes a claim that should make every person in the United States extremely concerned, and that shook me to my core: it argues that the United States itself was funding research that may have caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Wade argues that our own National Institutes of Health (NIH), through its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), funded a project in Wuhan that “set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells.” Wade says that the “lab escape scenario for the origin of the SARS2 virus… is not mere hand-waving in the direction of the Wuhan Institute of Virology… [it is] based on the specific project being funded there by the NIAID [U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases].” Wade further argues that the Wuhan institute’s project actually had the “goal of making bat coronaviruses infectious to humans,” and that if the virus “did indeed escape from the Wuhan institute, then the NIH will find itself in the terrible position of having funded a disastrous experiment that led to death of more than 3 million worldwide, including more than half a million of its own citizens.” (As cited above, 3 million might be a substantial undercount.) 

This is an extraordinary claim. I couldn’t really believe it when I read it. And the more I thought about it, the more disturbed I was. If Wade’s Bulletin article turns out to be right in its description of the most likely scenario, that would mean that U.S. government-funded research created the pandemic. This would mean that we, the U.S., were co-responsible for all this. Jointly, China and the U.S. would have caused what is probably the deadliest accident in human history. As a citizen of the U.S. whose voting power is supposed to be used to ensure its government acts properly, I found all of a sudden that the question of the virus’s origin had to matter to me. If another country’s government commits wrongdoing, I can condemn it, but I can’t do much about it. If my country’s government commits wrongdoing, I have a clearer duty to try to expose it and hold it accountable. If our country is funding dangerous research that may have led to this pandemic, or could lead to future pandemics, we need to know. 

But before we get too far into the implications of Wade’s argument, we need to hold our horses and examine it with extreme critical scrutiny. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Because an allegation of causing COVID is so serious, we need to have damn good reasons to think it might be true and not recklessly speculate. 

One of the first facts Wade notes is the remarkable coincidence that the pandemic began in Wuhan, which is home to an institute that studies new coronaviruses from bats. The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was China’s only lab equipped for handling the most dangerous of all viruses. It was “the first in China to receive the highest level of biosafety clearance,” BSL-4. There are only a few dozen of these facilities in the world, and they handle the viruses “deadliest to humans… infections caused by these microbes are frequently fatal and without treatment or vaccines.” 

Dr. Shi Zheng-li of the WIV collects new coronaviruses from bats. Her team goes out into the wild to find bat coronaviruses and bring them to Wuhan for study. There is a giant collection of hundreds of bat coronaviruses there. In fact, when COVID-19 first appeared in Wuhan, Shi admitted she panicked, because she thought it could be one of the viruses from her lab. After all, of all the places in China for a new bat coronavirus to break out, it would be fairly remarkable if it happened right on the doorstep of the giant library of bat coronaviruses but was completely unrelated to it. (Two other salient facts are that the Huanan Seafood Market didn’t sell bats—although it does sell other species that could potentially have been intermediate hosts between bats and humans—and the WHO’s report on COVID’s origins notes that the “the Wuhan CDC [Center for Disease Control] laboratory moved on 2 December 2019 to a new location near the Huanan market,” and “such moves can be disruptive for the operations of any laboratory.”)

Shi herself admitted that Wuhan was a fairly odd place for the virus to show up, because it’s an urban metropolis that doesn’t have much of a bat population. The bat caves where Shi’s team collects viruses are hundreds of miles away. She said she didn’t believe it when the municipal health authority first found the virus, because she had “never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China” instead of the subtropical provinces where humans are most likely to interact with bats. She wondered, she says: “Could they have come from our lab?” But, she says, she checked her records and concluded that it didn’t. (In an email to the MIT Technology Review, Shi declined a “call to see her lab’s records,” saying “Who can provide evidence that does not exist?”) 

Wade contends that Shi’s team were engaged in what is called “gain of function” research, a hugely controversial form of research into viruses that can involve artificially creating deadlier viruses in order to learn how deadly viruses work. Wade isn’t the only one who has made this charge about the lab. The Washington Post editorial board has noted that “it is known from public documents that Dr. Shi was conducting ‘gain of function’ research on bat coronaviruses, which involves modifying their genomes to give the viruses new properties, such as the ability to infect a new host species or transmit from one host to another more easily.”

 In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, plenty of experts were warning that “gain of function” research was a pandemic waiting to happen. In 2019, Vox reported on the controversy around researchers who were trying to make a more easily transmissible bird flu. (“Can we not?” asked the headline.) It quoted the head of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins saying that “the risks of proceeding in this way on this work are high, very high.” The previous chief science advisor to the U.K. government, Lord May, called the research “absolutely crazy” and “exceedingly dangerous,” and said that “there is a danger, but it’s not arising from the viruses out there in the animals, it’s arising from the labs of grossly ambitious people.” Indeed, one of the researchers who made a new bird flu openly stated that his team had produced “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make,” a virus that Science said “could change world history if it were ever set free.” A 2014 Guardian article summarizes the views of Harvard epidemiologist Mark Lipsitch saying these experiments “could unleash a catastrophic pandemic if a virus escaped or was intentionally released from a high-security laboratory.” Lipsitch called the flu experiments “exceptionally dangerous” and warned that as labs proliferated, so did the possibility of a pandemic that could kill over a billion people. Virologist Simon Wain-Hobson of the Pasteur Institute said: “It’s madness, folly… If society, the intelligent layperson, understood what was going on, they would say ‘What the F are you doing?’” “If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory,” he said. Additionally, he “feared that governments and funding bodies would only take the risks seriously once an accident had happened.” (Anthony Fauci, on the other hand, had defended this type of research in a co-authored 2011 article called “A flu virus risk worth taking.”)

Again, this was about experiments involving bird flu in particular. But in 2015, a paper published in Nature (co-authored by Wuhan researchers including Dr. Shi) caused a controversy, because it had involved creating a new bat coronavirus that could infect humans, and had led some in the field to “question whether the information gleaned from the experiment justifies the potential risk,” reigniting “the debate over whether to allow lab research that increases the virulence, ease of spread or host range of dangerous pathogens.” Molecular biologist Richard Ebright said that “the only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk.” (Six years later, Ebright is among the scientists arguing that the possibility of a lab leak needs to be taken more seriously.) 

In 2014, the Obama administration put a moratorium on this kind of research, after several alarming incidents raised worries about the safety of labs, including the “news that dozens of workers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) might have been exposed to anthrax, that vials of smallpox virus had been left lying around in an NIH storeroom, and that the CDC had unwittingly sent out samples of ordinary influenza virus contaminated with H5N1…” In 2017, under Trump, the controversial practice resumed, despite what the Lancet Infectious Diseases characterized as uncertainty over the “likelihood of an accident leading to an outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic.”

Some have insisted that the NIH-funded project at Wuhan was not trying to create new coronaviruses. Fact-checks have rated conservative claims that the U.S. funded “gain of function” research in Wuhan as false, but when you examine them, there are some eye-raising caveats. PolitiFact, in refuting Rudy Guiliani, quotes an expert in biodefense saying that “some work done as part of the larger U.S. project might have involved gain of function experiments.” In a separate fact-check, PolitiFact quotes the NIH saying that the projects it funded “did not involve the enhancement of the pathogenicity or transmissibility of the viruses studied,” but quotes an MIT biologist who “reviewed a paper that appears to have been published with financial assistance from the grant,” saying that “certain techniques that the researchers used seemed to meet the definition of gain of function research” (although that specific paper’s work could not have led to the creation of SARS-Cov-2). From the evidence in the fact-check it would appear that the NIH’s categorical denial might be wrong. Wade says that the grant Shi received clearly indicates she “set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells.” The Washington Post says an NIH grant was given to WIV “research [involving] constructing a series of novel chimeric viruses that would use different spike proteins from some unpublished natural coronaviruses” to study “the ability of the resulting novel viruses to infect human cells in culture…” This raises questions: what exactly was being done with U.S. government funding at the Wuhan lab? 

Wade’s Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article makes the case that the SARS-Cov-2 actually shows signs of having been manipulated in a lab rather than passing naturally from animals to humans. The case he makes on that front can only be evaluated by those with expertise, and it is hard for outsiders to assess the claims. Nobel Prize-winning virologist and former Caltech president David Baltimore is quoted in the article saying that there is a “smoking gun for the origin of the virus” that “make[s] a powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin for SARS2.” However, Scripps Research immunologist Kristian Anderson says Baltimore is completely wrong and his conclusion is based on faulty reasoning. This is a debate I cannot weigh in on, as someone who does not study viruses professionally. But importantly, even assuming Wade’s argument on the signs that the virus was enhanced by humans is completely wrong, we need to be careful not to see “lab leak” and “natural origin” as mutually exclusive categories. Even if SARS-Cov-2 wasn’t cooked up in the lab, part of Shi’s work involved collecting bat coronaviruses. COVID-19 could be of “natural” origin and still have come from the Wuhan virology lab. As Wade writes: “researchers could have gotten infected during their collecting trips, or while working with the new viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”*

In fact, we need to be extremely precise here when we talk about a “lab origin,” because it’s easy to think that all mention of “labs” are a “conspiracy theory,” that there’s no difference between “Bill Gates and Queen Elizabeth engineered the virus in a secret Chinese military installation” and “a tiny but consequential accident happened in a scientific research facility studying viruses.” There are those who have suggested the virus might be a “bioweapon” intentionally released by China. This depends on the idea of China as malevolent homicidal maniacs. It is lunacy. There are lab origin theories, however, that do not require malevolence. For example, researchers on bat coronaviruses, perfectly well-intentioned people who actually want to prevent pandemics, might have accidentally let some safety precaution slip and a particularly dangerous virus got out without them noticing. (Whether the researchers had made the virus more dangerous or not is its own question.) But accidental escape is not some insane conspiracy. It doesn’t require any “conspiring.” It requires basic human error of the kind we know exists everywhere. (Alina Chan of the Broad Institute has an excellent explanation of the relevant distinctions here, and says that one  reason “some scientists [are] afraid of talking about potential lab origin” is that they are “afraid that people will run off screaming that SARS2 was a bioweapon made of HIV and SARS if [they] even so much as say that lab-based scenarios are plausible.”) 

Lab leaks do happen. In fact, they happen an uncomfortable amount, because humans are fallible. In the early 2000s, “there were three documented cases of the original SARS virus escaping from a laboratory environment.” Here in the United States, the number of incidents is shocking, as Rowan Jacobsen writes for Mother Jones: 

Using 2010 data from the CDC, one expert estimated that somewhere in the United States, “a breach of containment happens about twice weekly.” Some have involved deadly agents including anthrax, avian flu, and Ebola. Most incidents are minor, but not all. Take two examples at lower-risk labs: In 2009, a researcher at the University of Chicago died after being infected by a weakened strain of plague. In 2012, a postdoc at San Francisco’s VA Medical Center came down with meningitis from his lab. While having dinner with friends, he began to feel dizzy. The next day, he was covered in a rash and was taken to the hospital, where he died. An investigation by USA Today, published in 2015, found that more than 100 high-security labs in the United States had suffered “the most egregious safety or security breaches.” The pressurized “space suits” worn by researchers ruptured 37 times in American BSL-4 labs from  2013 to 2014. Rats were found making nests out of biohazard bags and used lab supplies outside a UCLA lab. A Texas A&M University researcher stuck himself with a needle while handling a mouse carrying Lyme disease bacteria, then a week later (while still taking a round of antibiotics to deal with the first incident) was bitten by another mouse carrying the same bacteria. On multiple occasions, mice carrying either SARS or H1N1 flu escaped from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers.

Alison Young of USA Today, who has reported on safety lapses in the most elite U.S. labs, says “coronaviruses similar to the one causing the COVID-19 pandemic have repeatedly escaped labs,” and “there’s no reason to believe” the lapses that occur in this country don’t occur elsewhere as well.  Add to this the fact that in 2018, a U.S. State Department cable said that the Wuhan facility had “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” Richard Ebright is quoted in Wade’s piece claiming “it is clear that some or all of this work [in Wuhan] was being performed using a biosafety standard — biosafety level 2, the biosafety level of a standard U.S. dentist’s office — that would pose an unacceptably high risk of infection of laboratory staff upon contact with a virus having the transmission properties of SARS-CoV-2.” (Whether or not this claim is correct is what an investigation must find out.) Regardless of whether SARS-Cov-2 turns out to have come from a lab, overhauling lab safety worldwide might well be critical to preventing other possible future pandemics, and this pandemic should alert us to the urgency of making sure catastrophic lab accidents never do happen. 

    Let’s review a few facts we know, then: 

  • The virus, a coronavirus from bats, originated close to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which collects and studies coronaviruses from bats, obtaining them from parts of China that have lots of bats and bringing them to Wuhan, which does not have a notable population of bats. The closest relatives of SARS-Cov-2 were found in two places: a bat cave 1000 miles from Wuhan, and Dr. Shi’s bat coronavirus lab in Wuhan. 
  • There is evidence that, before the pandemic, U.S. government officials thought the Wuhan lab had a shortage of people trained to operate it safely. 
  • The U.S. National Institutes of Health funded studies on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. These may—or may not—have involved intentionally creating bat coronaviruses that were more easily transmitted to humans. We know that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was involved with gain of function experiments involving bat coronaviruses in the past. Experiments of this type have been called “madness,” “folly,” “exceedingly dangerous,” and “absolutely crazy” by some experts, so much so that the Obama administration stopped funding them in 2014, though the Trump administration resumed funding them in 2017. 

All of this is based on mainstream reporting. And I think it’s sufficient for us to conclude that the Wuhan lab, and the NIH’s role in funding it, need to be heavily scrutinized in the search for the virus’s origin. It is, at the very least, a spectacular coincidence that the bat coronavirus that started a pandemic emerged so close to the virology institute that dealt with deadlier diseases than any other in China and that just so happened to have SARS-Cov-2’s “closest known relative.” (The existence of a coincidence, even a spectacular one, is of course by no means proof: coincidences do happen, after all.)

You will often see “fact checks” of the lab leak theory that suggest it is “unsubstantiated” or that there is “no evidence,” because the above facts do not constitute evidence. This is actually wrong, and based on a faulty understanding of what the word “evidence” means. Evidence is that which suggests whether some proposition is true or false. Evidence comes in many forms. One of the types of evidence Wade investigates is scientific evidence from the virus itself. But the above facts are also evidence. They are circumstantial. They are not conclusive, and they are not proof. They are important and relevant, though. 

We Need To Talk About Peter Daszak

One of the claims that I think Wade’s article proves beyond a reasonable doubt is that our understanding of COVID’s origins has been compromised by the involvement of a man named Peter Daszak. This part of the story is truly crazy, but it’s also easy to verify, so hang onto your hat. 

Daszak is the head of an NGO called the EcoHealth Alliance, a “global environmental health nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and public health from the emergence of disease.” Daszak has worked with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Dr. Shi for years, and is even listed as the project leader on the NIH proposal to study the “spillover potential” of bat coronaviruses. His organization received $3.7 million from the NIH to study bat coronaviruses, ultimately directing $600,000 of U.S. government funds to the Wuhan Institute. Daszak is intimately connected, then, with the lab that would have been the source of a lab leak, had there been a lab leak. 

Now here comes the crazy part: Daszak is the only U.S. member of the WHO’s team investigating the origins of COVID-19, and has been appointed by top medical journal The Lancet to chair its team investigating the origins of the virus.

Let’s consider what this means. Assume for a moment that we begin the investigation with neutrality on the question of how SARS-Cov-2 originated. We don’t know if it came from a random Wuhan resident going and hanging out with bats, a Wuhan lab researcher going and hanging out with bats, a researcher creating it as part of a gain of function experiment, a camel that had spent some time with bats, or what. What we know for certain is that Peter Daszak has a clear conflict of interest on this question, because Daszak funded research on bat coronaviruses at the very institute whose proximity to the origin site of the virus means it needs to be investigated. Daszak would have a natural bias toward thinking that the work he funded, done by his own colleagues, did not cause the problem, and a natural interest in directing people toward alternate explanations. Even if the research he funded was different from the research at the institute that had been the source, a serious threat to the institute’s reputation would threaten the reputation of Daszak’s past funded work and his ability to do future work. 

Daszak has been quoted all over the press insisting the virus could not have come from the lab and must have passed from an animal to a human in other circumstances, with many outlets failing to even note his clear conflict of interest. Here’s an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times, in which he claims that the pandemic vindicated an earlier prediction he made that “a virus originating in animals… would emerge somewhere on the planet where economic development drives people and wildlife together.” The Times does not note his ties to the Wuhan lab. Here he is in the Guardian, calling out “conspiracy theorists” who “[march] out their narrative about the high-security BSL-4 lab in Wuhan, where mysterious experiments to design ‘frankenviruses’ led to the tragic global pandemic” and comparing the possibility of a lab leak to “theories that Sars originated from space or that HIV was manmade.” (Interestingly, in an interview in December 2019, Daszak was quoted as saying “coronaviruses — you can manipulate them in the lab pretty easily,” which Wade sees as an admission that a “frankenvirus” was not so unlikely as Daszak would later claim.) An editorial note at the bottom of the article indicates that the Guardian did not originally note Daszak’s affiliation with the Wuhan lab and had to update the article after publication to include it. Daszak has proven to be quite hostile toward those who wonder about whether the lab he worked with is safe, even though one would think this a perfectly reasonable question. 

So Daszak should not be considered a neutral party. His statements should certainly be taken into account in any investigation. But why on earth is he on any team investigating the origins of the virus? It’s like appointing a person of interest in a murder case as one of the detectives! It’s like letting a witness serve as a juror! It’s insanity. 

Once you know Daszak’s name, you’ll start to see him everywhere in press reports. He has been a go-to expert. He organized a letter from virologists published in the Lancet that “strongly condemn[ed] conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” Here’s Scientific American quoting him in June 2020 as “quick to dismiss the allegations about Dr. Shi’s lab,” saying “Shi leads a world-class lab of the highest standards.” Here he is in a Vox article about how “scientists” doubt the lab leak hypothesis. He is the first scientist quoted, and calls the idea “ironic and preposterous,” though Vox does not note that he has been affiliated with the very institute that would have been the source of the leak. (It only says he has studied coronaviruses “with colleagues in China.”) 

It doesn’t seem that Daszak was ever open to the possibility of a lab accident as the source. His Times op-ed early in the pandemic cites COVID-19 as proof of his organization’s longstanding prediction that human-wildlife interaction was going to spread disease. He writes in the Guardian that “human domination of the world’s ecosystems as we encroach on animal habitats is opening new pathways for viruses.” This is one of the core issues that his nonprofit works on. Even in the absence of his direct personal conflict of interest, he had already committed himself to the view that the pandemic was a result of humans getting too close to nature. (And, to be clear, that is a highly plausible pathway and Daszak’s warning about the potential of animal-borne viruses to wreak havoc are still valid.) The possibility that he himself had participated in work that might have caused the pandemic would, of course, be too horrible to contemplate. Right now, he is a pandemic hero, a guy whose organization identified what would happen before it happened, and who warned us all what would happen if we got too close to bats. If Wade’s theory of what likely happened is true, Daszak would be a pandemic villain, a guy who not only has a wrong theory but whose hubris—Daszak was quoted in 2015 defending “gain of function” research on bat coronaviruses amid the controversy—killed literally millions of people. The aggressively defensive tone, then, is no surprise. This NPR piece suggesting scientists do not believe it could have been a lab accident—quoting, among others, expert Peter Daszak—says that “Daszak says the time for finger-pointing is over.” But of course he does. Otherwise it’s possible a finger might be pointed straight at him. 

Why would the WHO retain an investigator who seems to have made up his mind about the pandemic’s origins before investigating them, and whose entire personal reputation rests on reaching one conclusion over another? I don’t know, but the report the WHO released in March takes Daszak’s longstanding line. It calls the idea that the virology institute might have been responsible extremely unlikely, and suggests that “looking at live-animal markets and animal farming should be the focus going forward.” The strange thing is that in the report, the team recounts extensive testing on animals across China, none of which revealed a possible source for SARS-Cov-2. (“A total of 12092 animal tissue and swab samples, collected in 2018-2019 from 26 provinces and autonomous regions…. were tested for SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid… the results are all negative.” The list of species tested is comically long.) Wade also mentions that “intensive search by Chinese authorities that included the testing of 80,000 animals.” But instead of suggesting that perhaps this might mean more focus should be put on the lab, the WHO team says it means we need to focus more on live animal markets. (Wade points out that the animal source of the first SARS virus “was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months.”) The director-general of the WHO actually voiced displeasure with how quickly the report dismissed the laboratory leak hypothesis, saying that “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. This requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.” (Former CDC director Robert Redfield has gone so far as to say the lab leak hypothesis is the “most likely” possibility.) 

If you read the WHO’s report, you probably won’t be very satisfied with the way it dismisses the possibility of a lab accident. The evidence leading to its conclusion that this was “extremely unlikely” is thin and it deals with the issue in the most cursory manner. A passage from it: 

The three laboratories in Wuhan working with either CoVs diagnostics and/or CoVs isolation and vaccine development all had high quality biosafety level (BSL3 or 4) facilities that were well-managed, with a staff health monitoring programme with no reporting of COVID-19 compatible respiratory illness during the weeks/months prior to December 2019, and no serological evidence of infection in workers through SARS-CoV-2-specific serology-screening. The Wuhan CDC lab which moved on 2nd December 2019 reported no disruptions or incidents caused by the move. 

Now, the U.S. State Department reached the opposite conclusion about staff being ill, concluding that “Staff at Wuhan’s virus research institute were experiencing symptoms of Covid-19 some weeks before cases were reported by China…” I don’t trust a thing coming out of the U.S. State Department, and I want to know what evidence they had. But one of the WHO’s own investigators reported that Wuhan lab workers had become sick in Fall 2019, though the Chinese government told them the workers had later tested negative for COVID-19 antibodies. 

The WHO reporters seem to have just asked the Wuhan staff some questions, noted their answers, and reported it as accurate. They “reported no disruptions or incidents.” Well, that’s settled. In fact, when NPR asked Daszak about how they effectively ruled out the lab accident hypothesis, he replied: 

There’s no evidence at all of a lab leak—and then you go to the labs and talk to the directors, to the staff. You ask them about, you know, do you test your staff? Were they positive? Do you—you know, what sort of conditions do you have in the lab? What’s the safety conditions? Do you audit the lab? Do you train staff in an adequate way, you know, even psychological evaluation of staff before they’re allowed to work there—hundreds of hours of training before they’re allowed to work in the virus safety labs. These are well-run labs. No evidence at all of a lab leak.

Now, we know Daszak is not trained as a private detective. (“I am not trained as a private detective,” he said, in resisting a request from the NIH for him to arrange an outside inspection of the Wuhan lab.) But I want to note something, which is that if you have two people, and one of them is a liar with something to conceal and one of them is telling the truth, both of them might give identical answers to your questions. The person with a well-run lab says they have a well-run lab. The person with a badly-run lab says the same thing. Daszak’s method here appears to be like asking murder suspects if they killed the victim. In fact, it was so transparently ludicrous that Leslie Stahl of 60 minutes asked him directly about it

DASZAK:

We met with them, we said “Do you audit the lab?” And they said “annually.” “Did you audit it after the outbreak?” “Yes.” “Was anything found?” “No.” “Do you test your staff?” “Yes.” 

STAHL:

But you’re just taking their word for it.

DASZAK:

Well, what else can we do?


But the assurances of the lab are worthless, since they are the same assurances that would be given if the lab was badly-run and unsafe! How can you credit them at all? How can you use them in assigning a likelihood (“highly unlikely”) to the possibility of a lab accident? How can you have any confidence at all in that probability statement, given that it depends on mere assurances from the party with the strongest possible interest in seeing you reach one conclusion over the other? If the Chinese government won’t let you do any investigation of the lab other than asking the staff some questions, the answer to Daszak’s question of what you “do” is you don’t reach a confident estimate of the likelihood. Instead you say that you have insufficient grounds to draw a reliable conclusion. But rather than stressing the need for more evidence when it comes to the Wuhan institute, the WHO report’s main recommendation in the “lab leak” section is “regular administrative and internal review of high-level biosafety laboratories worldwide.” Which is, of course, a virtually meaningless recommendation. (An open letter from a number of academics calling for a more thorough investigation points out that the WHO report spends a mere 440 words on the lab theory, and also identifies what it claims are numerous falsehoods and misleading statements within the report.) 

One reason we should be extremely suspicious about Daszak is that the arguments he uses to dismiss the lab leak hypothesis are transparently illogical and deceptive. Consider this piece of reasoning: 

“If you do the math on this, it’s very straightforward. … We have hundreds of millions of bats in Southeast Asia and about 10 percent of bats in some colonies have viruses at any one time. So that’s hundreds of thousands of bats every night with viruses… We also find tens of thousands of people in the wildlife trade, hunting and killing wildlife in China and Southeast Asia, and millions of people living in rural populations in Southeast Asia near bat caves… We went out and surveyed a population in Yunnan, China—we’d been to bat caves and found viruses that we thought could be high risk. So we sample people nearby, and 3 percent had antibodies to those viruses… So between the last two and three years, those people were exposed to bat coronaviruses. If you extrapolate that population across the whole of Southeast Asia, it’s 1 million to 7 million people a year getting infected by bat viruses. If you look at the labs in Southeast Asia that have any coronaviruses in culture, there are probably two or three and they’re in high security. The Wuhan Institute of Virology does have a small number of bat coronaviruses in culture. But they’re not [the new coronavirus], SARS-CoV-2. There are probably half a dozen people that do work in those labs. So let’s compare 1 million to 7 million people a year to half a dozen people; it’s just not logical.”

Daszak’s argument here is that millions of people are exposed to coronaviruses from bats each year, while only “half a dozen people” work in bat coronavirus laboratories, thus the “math” is “straightforward” and it’s not “logical” to conclude the Institute of Virology was responsible. But hang on: he’s left out a crucial fact. The virus showed up in Wuhan. Yes, one million to seven million people “across Southeast Asia” are infected with bat viruses. But how many of those infections occur by random chance down the street (so to speak) from the bat coronavirus laboratory? And those “half a dozen” people differ from the other 1 to 7 million, because they are intentionally seeking out as many new bat coronaviruses as possible. 

Even microbiologist Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina, who has himself conducted some of the controversial “gain of function” research (and co-authored the controversial study on bat viruses with Dr. Shi), has acknowledged that the giant pile of bat coronaviruses sitting in the Wuhan lab casts some suspicion: 

 “The main problem that the Institute of Virology has is that the outbreak occurred in close proximity to that Institute. That Institute has in essence the best collection of virologists in the world that have gone out and sought out, and isolated, and sampled bat species throughout Southeast Asia. So they have a very large collection of viruses in their laboratory. And so it’s—you know—proximity is a problem. It’s a problem.”

Nicholson Baker of New York magazine spoke to MIT molecular biologist and biosafety advocate Jonathan King, saying that collecting large numbers of bat viruses and making new hybrids “generates new threats and desperately needs to be reined in.” (He also said “there were ‘very intense, very subtle pressures’ on them not to push on issues of laboratory biohazards.”)

In fact, you might think that when a new bat coronavirus breaks out next to the research station for new bat coronaviruses, that research station would be, well, the prime suspect. But Daszek has been aggressive about trying to shut down the theory and treat it as a “conspiracy,” even though it isn’t a conspiracy, just a reasonable explanation of the source of the virus

Many of Daszak’s public statements should undermine the WHO and Lancet’s confidence in his abilities as an investigator. “We don’t think it’s fair that we should have to reveal everything we do,” he said about FOIA requests for his organization’s interactions with the NIH. In the Guardian, he noted that “only a handful of people work on bat coronaviruses in labs in China, and they wear masks and gloves so as not to contaminate their laboratories.” This statement is characteristic; Daszak appears to simply accept that protocol was probably followed and was sufficient to prevent spread of the virus. But Richard Ebright argues that: 

“…[the] bat-SARS-related-coronavirus projects at the Wuhan Institute of Virology used personal protective equipment (usually just gloves; sometimes not even gloves) and biosafety standards (usually just biosafety level 2) that would pose very high risk of infection of field-collection, field-survey, or laboratory staff upon contact with a virus having the transmission properties of SARS-CoV-2.” 

We have already seen that Daszak has been taking people’s word for their practices rather than trying to check whether their words match their deeds. That credulity is characteristic of the reporting. NPR says, “When researchers collect samples, they take extraordinary precautions to avoid infecting themselves in the field.” Okay, but does that ever not happen? Not once? Not possible? 

Consider another argument: 

For Daszak, who has worked on other outbreaks, the pattern is all too familiar: “Every time we get a new virus emerging, we have people that say, ‘This could have come from a lab,’ ” he says.

But this isn’t wild speculation. The bat coronavirus is right near the origin of the outbreak. Dr. Shi herself thought the virus might have come from the lab, and we are only relying on her own self-investigation as assurance that it didn’t. The fact that there are always people who suspect a lab accident does not affect the reality of whether this time it was a lab accident. 

Daszak says that “the only evidence that people have for a lab leak is that there is a lab in Wuhan.” But that’s not true, and if he had been an honest person he would have said: “…that there is a lab in Wuhan that studies new bat coronaviruses and that may well have been engaged in experiments to make them more easily transmissible to humans.” It doesn’t sound quite as absurd when you include those details. (If you’re interested, a number of Daszak’s other arguments have been blown apart by Alina Chan. But Daszak doesn’t actually hold the record for “worst argument against the lab accident theory,” though. That record is held by Dennis Carroll, the former director of USAID’s emerging threats division, who told Vox:  “The reason I’m not putting a lot of weight on [the lab-escape theory] is there was no chatter prior to the emergence of this virus to a discovery that would have ended up bringing the virus into a lab… And if nothing else, the scientific community tends to be very gossipy.” It is rather incredible to hear a scientist vouching for the reliability of “gossip” to accurately convey the state of the world.)

When you start to examine media reports, especially those featuring Daszak, what look like rock-solid conclusions excluding a lab accident begin to seem much shakier. Let us look, for instance, at an excerpt from the Vox report that quotes Daszak while dismissing the lab leak theory: 

The Wuhan lab may also be the most tantalizing of the diversions, not just for Trump’s supporters but also for some political journalists and China hawks. What if the catastrophe is a result not of nature but of China’s incompetence with handling viruses and habit for suppressing information? Such a spy-novel-worthy plot may seem plausible for a number of reasons: the Chinese government’s poor record of transparency; the fact that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research center with facilities in the same city where the virus first appeared, was studying dangerous pathogens, including bat coronaviruses; and US officials’ concerns about the lab’s safety standards in 2018, per the Washington Post. Yet five scientists I interviewed, some of whom have worked extensively in China with researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, say the pandemic can’t logically be pinned on an accident at that lab. (Researchers at the institute didn’t respond to my request for comment.) The scientists I did speak to all acknowledge it’s not possible to definitively rule out the lab-escape theory. “The trouble with hypotheses is that they are not disprovable. You cannot prove a negative,” said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and a disease ecologist who has studied emerging infectious diseases with colleagues in China. Yet he also sees the lab-escape theory as “ironic and preposterous.” The scientists I spoke to also noted that all countries with high-level containment facilities, including China and the US, must be vigilant to prevent accidental leaks of dangerous diseases from labs. “I think we all are concerned about the increasing presence of high-consequence pathogens in laboratories and the issue of inadequate biosecurity,” said Dennis Carroll, the former director of USAID’s emerging threats division who helped design Predict, a surveillance program for dangerous animal viruses that the Trump administration chose to shut down in October. “We’ve seen examples of inadvertent release in the past and I’m sure we will see it in the future. So it’s a very major concern that we need to pay attention to.” 

Look at how this piece of writing works. It begins by suggesting that the lab is a “diversion” that is “tantalizing” to Trump supporters, political journalists, and China hawks. It surely is tantalizing to these people, but this sets readers up to believe that these are the main people who would be interested. Those who believe lab accidents happen are seen as positing something from a “spy movie,” even though it’s a perfectly plausible thing that has happened many times. The writer says it “can’t logically be pinned” on an accident at the lab but also that it can’t be “ruled out.” What does the strange phrase “can’t logically be pinned” mean? I think it’s meant to imply that it’s illogical to think it could have happened at all. But it can “logically” be pinned on the institute, in that there is a logical explanation in which the institute is the source. It just isn’t proven, but neither has any other source been proven. Peter Daszak, with his “ironic and preposterous” quote, is of course the most ardent of the scientists insisting it’s impossible, but then the article quotes experts saying a lab leak is actually concerning and we’ve even seen examples of it happening and is a “very major concern.” So is it preposterous? Or is it a major concern? 

I was dubious of Wade’s analysis when I first saw it, and I am still skeptical and want to see it intensively scrutinized. But it did cause me to go back and re-examine news articles I had skimmed the first time, and realize that some of the arguments against a lab accident theory were flimsy, and to feel as if the discussion was being affected by people’s biases—anti-China sentiment on the right, anti-Trump sentiment among liberals, and the desire to avoid subjects that could massively escalate international tension among nuclear states on the left. 

Let me just spell out clearly what I believe here: I don’t know. I am not arguing that a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology began the COVID-19 pandemic. I am not even arguing, as Wade is, that it’s more probable than the alternative explanation. I am not saying the negligence of the United States and China did cause the pandemic. I am saying that the question of whether this could have happened is important enough to demand answers. Richard Ebright, who questioned the WHO’s dismissal of the lab leak theory, says “there is no secure basis to assign relative probabilities to the natural-accident hypothesis and the laboratory-accident hypothesis,” and thinks Wade “oversold” his case by coming down so clearly in favor of a particular origin. That neutral approach is sensible (in fact, it’s a scientific mindset). I think we are mostly in the dark here, but that people who say there’s “no scientific evidence” of the lab leak theory are being sly. Of course there’s no hard scientific evidence, there’s circumstantial evidence and a plausible hypothesis, and an investigation would need to be done to look for scientific evidence, an investigation the WHO was not interested in. There’s no scientific evidence showing the opposite (it wasn’t from the lab), either, despite extensive efforts to locate a naturally occuring origin. We know little and need to know more. But instead, Daszak may be taking his co-investigators on an almost literal “wild goose chase” to pursue the animal source of the virus without giving equal weight to another entirely plausible alternative. If they find that goose—or pangolin, or bat—I will be glad. But I don’t understand how the existing state of knowledge can warrant the confident dismissals of the alternate hypothesis. 

Personally I am confident only on a few modest points. 

First, scientific investigations should not be conducted by people with obvious conflicts of interest, and influential publications should clearly disclose conflicts of interest among “expert sources” instead of hiding or downplaying them. Peter Daszak in particular should not be quoted as a neutral expert anymore or trusted with investigations into the origins of SARS-Cov-2. He’s just not neutral and clearly doesn’t take the possibility of a lab accident as seriously as he ought to, perhaps because that possibility implicates him, perhaps because it doesn’t fit with his pre-existing beliefs about human-nature interactions, perhaps because he doesn’t believe his colleague Dr. Shi could ever make a serious mistake. Whatever the reason, there needs to be intensive scrutiny of how this one highly compromised man’s ubiquity as a cited authority on the subject has warped our ability to ask basic questions. How did he end up being relied on? What went wrong at the WHO and in the press organizations that quoted him without scrutinizing him?

Second, a lab accident is not a conspiracy theory. A lab accident is an accident. Now, you might say that Dr. Shi would have had to cover up a lab accident if one happened. But not necessarily. She might just not have investigated it well. She might have blind spots and make slip-ups and use motivated reasoning and unconsciously overlook things that might reflect badly on her. Everybody does this sometimes.

But do remember: let’s say Dr. Shi’s initial suspicions that the virus came from her lab did turn out to be right. If she had admitted it, she would almost certainly have been put on trial for a serious crime (which the negligent homicide of millions surely is)—and China is not merciful with those who have committed serious crimes, and has already punished those who have merely criticized it over its handling of the virus. Shi would then likely have been put under immense pressure by the government not to publicly embarrass it by disclosing a fact that could destroy the global reputation of her country, because this is what any “rational” government would do in order to save itself from an unprecedented diplomatic calamity. Shi, then, would face extreme punishment and humiliation if her lab were found to have released the virus. But if she insists she didn’t release the virus, she might continue receiving favorable press. What human being might not have their judgment clouded with the stakes this high? If your government tells you that you will betray your country if you insist on conducting a thorough investigation of your own possible blunder, and you know they may harm you if you confess, but tell you that if you just leave the matter alone you will be free to continue your life, do we really believe that every researcher would insist on sacrificing everything by implicating themselves? What looks at first like “conspiracy” is instead simply an understanding that humans are humans, and that a researcher who had caused a global pandemic might not be (1) the most competent person to investigate their own work or (2) unbiased enough to be reliable in their account of themselves. “Not everyone is unimpeachably honest 100 percent of the time, especially when their lives are on the line” is not a conspiratorial observation. 

Everyone in this scenario can be perfectly well-intentioned, highly skilled, and honest and the virus might still have escaped during, say, the move from one office to another cited in the WHO report. One reason we know we can’t trust Daszak is that something like this isn’t a conspiracy theory, and we should be alarmed by the fact that he thinks it’s “conspiratorial smearing” to question whether the Wuhan Institute of Virology might be fallible. 

Third, we have to care about this, and Americans have to start caring about it if they didn’t already, not to “blame China” but because the U.S. might be implicated in the virus’s origin and they’d better want to find out if that’s true or not.  Economist Noah Smith suggests it doesn’t really matter whether a lab leak is the correct answer, except insofar as a lab leak would lead to a new emphasis on safety: 

How much does anyone really care about the “lab leak” theory? If we found that the virus did escape from a lab…so what? Could be a result of unsafe research practices or poor safety procedures, so…be safer when doing research?

But I don’t share this blasé attitude. If a careless error by researchers on viruses at a single lab could end up killing potentially 7 million people, that leads to a critically important question: how many labs are conducting research on viruses that could have such catastrophic consequences? We would urgently need to figure out what had gone wrong so we could prevent future labs from accidentally killing millions. It would not lead to just telling them: “hey now, you better be safer doing research.” It would lead to a massive worldwide evaluation of lab safety in the recognition that mistakes in one place can lead to an obscene death toll. If this was an accident, it dwarfs Chernobyl as a homicidal calamity. If it did turn out that “gain of function” experiments were involved, and researchers had been warned that they were probably going to kill people, it would be worth considering criminal prosecutions of those who plowed forward with knowingly risky research without ensuring adequate precautions were taken. Arguably, the U.S. and China would rightfully owe damages to the countries that did not undertake such research but did receive a deadly disease as a result of it. If Wade’s theory is correct, it would make the U.S. role in slowing down vaccinations in the developing world even more morally grotesque than it is already. 

Fourth, it is important to distinguish between genuine open-minded inquiry and right-wing kookery about bioweapons and intentional releases. If the right are the only ones talking about the origins of the virus, and the lab theory turns out to be correct, then the right will have truth on their side. I have often warned that liberals and leftists should be careful not to assume conservatives are always wrong about facts, because sometimes they aren’t, and when they aren’t, you don’t want to find yourself in a position where you are doubling down on something false merely because you think admitting it would somehow be right-wing. Sometimes Trump said things that were accurate mixed in with all his bigoted, ignorant bullshit, and it’s important not to assume that if Donald Trump says a thing it must automatically be false. As Mara Hvistendahl wrote in the Intercept, “the [Trump] administration’s claim that the virus spread from a Wuhan lab has made the notion politically toxic, even among scientists who say it could have happened.” That toxicity is understandable. If the right is vindicated in identifying the lab, they will argue that it vindicates their narrative in which the Chinese are uniquely sinister and secretive. The truth is that both governments, ours and theirs, can be sinister and secretive, and tend to cover up wrongdoing. The truth will probably not neatly fit into a political “narrative.” It may be that the WHO, rather than being a “puppet of China” as Donald Trump would have it, was influenced by researchers—including a directly implicated U.S.-based  researcher—who wanted to avoid a scandal that would unsettle public confidence in their profession. It could be that if the NIH under Trump had been more scrupulous about experiments it was funding and demanded clear evidence that safety precautions were being followed, a catastrophe would have been avoided. It could be that reversing the Obama moratorium was very foolish. We do not yet know, but we deserve to find out. 

Unfortunately, during the pandemic I’ve come to the conclusion that because even experts are seriously fallible, it can be extremely difficult for a layperson to sort out what to believe. The esteemed Anthony Fauci misled people about the efficacy of masks. The World Health Organization and The Lancet clearly aren’t checking carefully for conflicts of interest, and the WHO’s credibility has been significantly dented by some of its statements even before this report came out. Former CDC director Redfield may be unreliable. Nicholas Wade of the Bulletin can’t be uncritically trusted either. Alina Chan, a molecular biologist quoted by Wade in his piece, says “his article is too critical of all virologists and could have consulted more virologists to be more balanced.” UC-Davis biologist Jonathan Eisen argues that an important piece of Wade’s underlying logic is unsound. Wade was a New York Times science journalist for 30 years, but he also wrote a book on genetics and race that was harshly criticized by well over 100 experts on population genetics and evolutionary biology. (That book was blurbed by white supremacist pseudoscientist Charles Murray, which is a giant red flag.) Ultimately, arguments need to be evaluated independent of the person making them. The fact that a contention is published by a former New York Times science writer in a respectable publication does not mean it is true, and the fact that the writer has pushed dubious racial theories does not mean that his theory about a totally different subject is false. Peter Daszak might turn out to be right about the origins of the virus, but it’s possible to make shoddy and self-interested arguments in support of a conclusion that ultimately turns out to be correct. 

It’s also the case that believing people have human flaws, or even that they “cover things up” does not amount to being “irrationally conspiratorial.” Sometimes people do bad things. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they make mistakes and try hard to fudge the facts so nobody will notice they made a mistake. Some people are malevolent. Sometimes, yes, they even conspire. It’s important that what we actually do is follow a serious process of rational inquiry. This is exactly what believers in truly kooky theories (e.g. QAnon) do not do. In fact, I’d advocate that instead of talking pejoratively about “conspiracy theories” in a world where people can and do conspire, we instead refer to the nutty stuff as “illusion theories” or something. Their problem is not that they posit the existence of an agreement between powerful agents to do something nefarious, but that they see patterns in random strings of data that aren’t actually there, something they project on, like seeing the shape of a dog in a cloud. Believing that photos secretly contain the letter Q is an illusion. Believing that a government has a very strong interest in not discovering a fact that could implicate it in the deadliest accident in human history—well, if you don’t take that possibility seriously, you’re as credulous as a U.S. journalist

The stakes of finding out COVID-19’s origin are high. A lab origin could shake global trust in the entire medical profession, since this disaster would not have been brought on by “nature” but by the arrogance of experts who meddled with things they didn’t understand. It would be deeply unfair for all virologists to be blamed for one research mishap, but there would certainly be a new fear of lab accidents if just one had been shown to kill millions. That will be a healthy fear to a degree, of course, and perhaps the people who were warning incessantly about lab safety would find themselves listened to a bit more. Perhaps the medical profession’s dangerous errors do need more attention in general. But it may also cause many to question basic medical research and science. Antonio Regalado, biomedicine editor of MIT Technology Review, says that if COVID-19 came from a lab, “it would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom.” If research can kill millions by mistake, then what cost will we allow for the sake of advances in knowledge? I am troubled to think what it would mean for humans to have caused something this horrific themselves. I am not surprised many would be more comfortable if we just blamed the bats and called off the search. 

But serious scientists have said the hypothesis of a laboratory leak must be taken more seriously than it has been. Just this week, “18 prominent biologists—including the world’s foremost coronavirus researcher” published a letter in Science arguing that there needs to be a more serious investigation that takes the laboratory leak possibility more seriously. Kevin Bernard, “an epidemiologist and disease detective who served as the biodefense expert in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations,” says the letter “reflects the opinion of every smart epidemiologist and scientist I know.” 

For me as an American, if Wade’s particular theory of what happened is true—though it is important to remember there are hypothetical lab escape scenarios that differ from Wade’s, and no hypothesis has been sufficiently investigated—I would be deeply disturbed, because I would feel complicit. If our government’s research dollars went to the project that caused this, we would owe the world accountability. Not that it is my particular personal fault, or yours. I didn’t think the Iraq War was my fault either, but I felt complicit in it to a degree, because it is the responsibility of the U.S. population to hold its government to account and try to keep it from committing atrocities. That’s why I think all of us should demand answers on what exactly happened in Wuhan, and what our own country’s role in it might have been. 


* Even professionals contribute to the conclusion. Anderson, in a co-authored article in Nature Medicine, has said that “since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features… in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.” The ambiguous phrase “laboratory-based scenario” suggests that the article is proving the virology institute could not have caused the pandemic, but the article’s evidence is all about the question of whether SARS-Cov-2 “is not a purposefully manipulated virus.” Strictly speaking, the “laboratory-based scenario” sentence is wrong, because even if SARS-Cov-2 was found in nature, the scenario by which it caused a pandemic could have originated from laboratory-based research.   

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