Tuesday Reads: The Wuhan Lab Leak Theory

Wuhan Institute of Virology

Wuhan Institute of Virology, where workers fell ill with a Covid-19-like virus in Nov. 2019.

Good Morning!!

We appear to be approaching the end of the pandemic, at least in the US. Now suddenly scientists and journalists are looking more closely at the origins of Covid-19 and seriously considering the theory that the virus escaped from a lab in China.

On May 14, Science Magazine published this letter from 18 scientists: Investigate the origins of COVID-19. The gist is that investigators have not given sufficient attention to the possibility that the virus could have escaped from a lab.

In May 2020, the World Health Assembly requested that the World Health Organization (WHO) director-general work closely with partners to determine the origins of SARS-CoV-2 (2). In November, the Terms of Reference for a China–WHO joint study were released (3). The information, data, and samples for the study’s first phase were collected and summarized by the Chinese half of the team; the rest of the team built on this analysis. Although there were no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a lab accident, the team assessed a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host as “likely to very likely,” and a laboratory incident as “extremely unlikely” [(4), p. 9]. Furthermore, the two theories were not given balanced consideration. Only 4 of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident (4). Notably, WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus commented that the report’s consideration of evidence supporting a laboratory accident was insufficient and offered to provide additional resources to fully evaluate the possibility (5).

As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general (5), the United States and 13 other countries (6), and the European Union (7) that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.

This week, the questions about Covid-19’s origins are all over the news. Here’s a sampling:

CNN: New information on Wuhan researchers’ illness furthers debate on pandemic origins.

A US intelligence report found that several researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill in November 2019 and had to be hospitalized, a new detail about the severity of their symptoms that could fuel further debate about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, according to two people briefed on the intelligence.

A State Department fact sheet released by the Trump administration in January said that the researchers had gotten sick in autumn 2019 but did not go as far as to say they had been hospitalized. China reported to the World Health Organization that the first patient with Covid-like symptoms was recorded in Wuhan on December 8, 2019.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the intelligence surrounding the earlier hospitalizations.

Importantly, the intelligence community still does not know what the researchers were actually sick with, said the people briefed, and continues to have low confidence in its assessments of the virus’ precise origins beyond the fact that it came from China. “At the end of the day, there is still nothing definitive,” said one of the people who has seen the intelligence.

The director of the Wuhan National Biosafety Lab, which is part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, issued a strong denial of the report on Monday.

“I’ve read it, it’s a complete lie,” director Yuan Zhiming told state-run tabloid Global Times. “Those claims are groundless. The lab has not been aware of this situation, and I don’t even know where such information came from.”

From The Wall Street Journal today: The Wuhan Lab Leak Question: A Disused Chinese Mine Takes Center Stage.

This is the subterranean home of the closest known virus on Earth to the one that causes Covid-19. It is also now a touchpoint for escalating calls for a more thorough probe into whether the pandemic could have stemmed from a Chinese laboratory.

In April 2012, six miners here fell sick with a mysterious illness after entering the mine to clear bat guano. Three of them died.

Chinese scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were called in to investigate and, after taking samples from bats in the mine, identified several new coronaviruses.

Now, unanswered questions about the miners’ illness, the viruses found at the site and the research done with them have elevated into the mainstream an idea once dismissed as a conspiracy theory: that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, might have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, the city where the first cases were found in December 2019.

The lab researchers thus far haven’t provided full and prompt answers, and there have been discrepancies in some information they have released. That has led to demands by leading scientists for a deeper investigation into the Wuhan institute and whether the pandemic virus could have been in its labs and escaped.

Even some senior public-health officials who consider that possibility improbable now back the idea of a fuller probe. They say a World Health Organization-led team had insufficient access in Wuhan earlier this year to reach its conclusion that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely.”

A growing number, however, including the director-general of the WHO and a prominent U.S. researcher who has worked with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, agree that the WIV needs to provide more information about its work to categorically rule out a lab spill.

There’s more at the link. I got through the paywall–hope it keeps working.

The Washington Post Fact Checker: Timeline: How the Wuhan lab-leak theory suddenly became credible.

The source of the coronavirus that has left more than 3 million people dead around the world remains a mystery. But in recent months the idea that it emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) — once dismissed as a ridiculous conspiracy theory — has gained new credence.

How and why did this happen? For one, efforts to discover a natural source of the virus have failed. Second, early efforts to spotlight a lab leak often got mixed up with speculation that the virus was deliberately created as a bioweapon. That made it easier for many scientists to dismiss the lab scenario as tin-hat nonsense. But a lack of transparency by China and renewed attention to the activities of the Wuhan lab have led some scientists to say they were too quick to discount a possible link at first.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) from the start pointed to the lab’s location in Wuhan, pressing China for answers, so the history books will reward him if he turns out to be right. The Trump administration also sought to highlight the lab scenario but generally could only point to vague intelligence. The Trump administration’s messaging was often accompanied by anti-Chinese rhetoric that made it easier for skeptics to ignore its claims.

Head over to the WaPo to read the “timeline of key events, including important articles, that have led to this reassessment.”

Jonathan Chait: How the Liberal Media Dismissed the Lab-Leak Theory and Smeared Its Supporters.

When Nicholson Baker wrote a cover story for New York laying out the evidence that COVID-19 may have originated in a lab in Wuhan, China, the hypothesis was still highly controversial. In the months that have followed, and especially over the last week, it’s gained more and more credibility. A week ago, 18 prominent scientists signed a letter published in Science calling for an open investigation into the virus’s origins. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. intelligence believes three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 to require hospitalization, lending even more credence to the possibility of a lab leak.

The hypothesis is far from proven. But this account of the virus’s origins is highly plausible, and at least as well-grounded as the original story of an infection that naturally leapt from a bat to a person.

This development would come as a shock to anybody who had been following this question in the news, especially its more left-leaning precincts. Many mainstream journalists, though not all, dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis out of hand as a conspiracy theory. In part, they were deceived by some especially voluble public-health experts. In part, they simply took Donald Trump’s bait, answering the former president’s dissembling with false certainty of their own.

It is not too early to grapple with the failures of the media, which reflect the wider struggles of trying to fairly convey the truth in an atmosphere deformed by misinformation. Rather than meet lies with truth, the media often met it with other lies.

The confusion surrounding this issue was sown in no small measure by Trump, who used China as a transparent gambit to distract from his failure to respond to the pandemic. 

Read the rest at New York Magazine.

Is Chait right? Was this really all about the media and politics? Independent journalist Jordan Schachtel thinks so: What to make of the COVID-19 lab leak theory.

Why did it take so long for the lab leak discussion to formally surface? Politics, mostly.

The “origin story” of COVID-19 remained a forbidden topic in the corporate press for the past 16 months, and people who brought it up on social media were often subject to permanent banishment. There were plenty of incentives *not* to bring it up. Twitter was known to ban people who pushed too hard on the lab leak theory. YouTube has an official policy banishing anyone who defies the “science” coming from the China-influenced World Health Organization. Facebook “fact checkers” dismissed the lab leak theory as false….

Discussing the idea became a major faux pas in elite circles, largely due to the political nature of its conclusions. The lab leak theory has been associated with China hawks, and most prominently, President Donald Trump, who stood by the idea over a year ago. Moreover, U.S. Government Health bureaucrats routinely dismissed the idea of a lab leak, while simultaneously brushing away allegations that they cooperated with the lab in question on high-risk research with few safeguards in place.

But the bigger issue, for Schachtel is China’s behavior.

If the lab leak thesis is true, this implicates the Chinese government in a tremendous scandal of global proportions. It also necessitates a discussion over what China could have done to curtail the spread of the virus before it touched every corner of the globe. If U.S. intelligence reports are correct, China did not sound the alarm about the virus and inform the world about it until well over a month after “patient zero” got sick….

China has been on offense regarding the lab leak theory since the very beginning. Beijing has used its political weapons, such as the World Health Organization, in addition to its economic and trade pressure, to viciously attack any individual or entity that dares to bring up the lab leak theory in a formal setting. Beijing has used tremendous political capital to delegitimize the lab leak theory. While this does not mean China is guilty, it does make for ultra suspicious behavior.

What do you think? I’ll be interested to know what our and biology and medicine experts Quixote and Luna have to say about this issue. Of course, this is still an open thread.

19 Comments on “Tuesday Reads: The Wuhan Lab Leak Theory”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    Have a great Tuesday, Sky Dancers!!

  2. bostonboomer says:

    • quixote says:

      Christ on a bike in a pancake hat.

      –Yes, the Chinese government tried to suppress information about the virus at the outset and made things vastly worse. That’s just incompetence, not conspiracy.

      –If the first people to get sick were miners dealing with bat guano, the virus jumped from bats to humans without genetic engineering. Helloooo.

      –The phylogeny of SARS-Cov2 places it nicely among bat coronaviruses. There are indications in the genetics it passed through pangolins, most probably in one of the wild food markets. A virus that’s made one species jump is more likely to be able to make another, eg to humans.

      –There’s no evidence in SARS-Cov2 sequences of genetic engineering.

      –The ZOMG-lab-leak story is only important if it was made in the lab. If the lab was studying an emergent virus (that’s what they’re there for and are essential for fergawdsake) and mishandled a specimen, like the US near-miss with Ebola virus, then the only ZOMG-China! significance is that lack of transparency and free exchange of knowledge can have really bad consequences.

      –It only becomes a demonic bioweapon if China engineered it. There is zero evidence of engineering.

      –If it escaped, it changes nothing about the bat-to-human trajectory. It just shows what happens when you try to squelch information. (A lesson the US should be learning too. See: Reality Winner. Very different problem. Awful downstream consequences from not listening to her.)

      Anyway. Sorry to be shouting so early in the morning. This whole thing is just so blitheringly stupid. The Wuhan lab is on the bleeding edge of trying to stop zoonotic pandemics. The world should be *helping* the scientists there do that.

      If procedures need to be tightened up, by all means, work that out. But that’s not what the Repubs want. All they want is enough fog to cover up their Dump’s mess.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Sorry about that. I thought because of the Science Mag. thing it could be interesting.

        • quixote says:

          No, that’s not what I meant at all. It *is* interesting. I had no idea it was starting to be considered “mainstream” and it’s important to know that.

          The thing I’m jumping up and down about is that the Repubs are being successful at blowing smoke purely by repetition. And by eliding the huge difference between an accident and purposely engineering a deadly virus.

          Bad luck happens, eg covid arriving in the US. It can then be made horribly worse by incompetence and ass-covering. Also not unique to China.

      • NW Luna says:

        I’ll defer to quixote, since my healthcare expertise doesn’t extend to viruses excepting the most common viral diseases in humans.

        I agree with what she’s saying, and will add that healthcare/biological science organizations can be vehement in covering up and denying any problems. And yes, there are still viruses out there which haven’t yet been identified; every year still there’s usually a previously unknown. bug or even mammal which gets identified, named and studied.

        That Reality Winner is still imprisoned is a shame; Biden should pardon and release her.

    • dakinikat says:

      We’ve gone from a dystopian Syfy novel to one with evil scientists. The more I read on this the more it makes you wonder if there’s a group of people that really want to wipe us all off the earth and wonder even more what their reasons are.

      Thanks for all these links. I got grades in but have a bit to turn back to students today in terms of feedback on their papers. I’m really exhausted and working for Purdue. I’m drinking hot tea and eating my steel-cut oats with berries. I just need to feel like something out there lefts some of the weight of this craziness the patriarchy creates lifts the weight off the rest of us.

  3. MsMass says:

    Asking the Chinese to investigate the origins of the Covid virus is like asking the Republicans to investigate Jan 6th.insurrection. Insurmountable prejudice and guilt. It would need some higher authority or more objective commission. I don’t think that will happen but I agree that we have to beef up the frontline virus identification in China and the capitol security here in US.

  4. dakinikat says:

  5. dakinikat says:

    • NW Luna says:

      Wow! But now let’s see if she really does vote that way.

    • quixote says:

      So all they need is 8 more. I can’t tell you how hard I’m rolling my eyes that to investigate an attack on the Republic we need to hunt under the couch cushions for spare senators who haven’t lost their minds.

  6. NW Luna says:

  7. renxkyoko says:

    Why are they dismissing the lab leak theory ? That’s crazy, Almost 3M people died, and economies all overthe world had gone down the drain. The only problem about the lab leak was the wrong messenger– Trump. Sweet mother of pink,,,, it’s as if China is the most honest and honorable government in the world. This is laughable. Look what they are doing at South China Sea. They are appropriating territories of the Philippines, threatening Taiwan, getting teritories that belong to India ( China wants to own the Himalayas and Mt. Everest., doing major industrial espionage, copycatting most products including the logo, vaccuming the oceans of fish, etc. It’s a lab leak.

    • quixote says:

      The virus isn’t engineered because you can tell by the RNA sequence. If it had been, the inserted bits will be obvious when you compare it to related viruses. Sort of like Frankenstein’s monster is visibly sewn together from parts that don’t go together.

      The early cases don’t particularly center on the lab or on people associated with it. They’re outside Wuhan, inside Wuhan, at the abandoned mine / bat cave, at the captured animal food market, and so on. The pattern is what you’d see if a virus mutated to be able to infect people, but wasn’t very good at it yet, and had been moving through the population for a while. In the course of simmering through the population, the most successful virus would be the one that changed enough to infect people easily.

      It had enough time to do that, and that was exactly the threat the Wuhan lab, and also CDC people there, were looking for. (Trump, by the way, cut funding for both of those because what the hell do we need to be paying people in China for.) The danger was noticed by Chinese doctors (one of whom soon died of the disease) who tried hard to alert the world. They were squelched by the government. If the CDC people had still been there, it would have been a lot harder to squelch.

      So tl:dr; no evidence covid19 was an intentional bioweapon thing. Poor evidence that it could have unintentionally leaked. It’s a fact that the attempted coverup by the Chinese let the pandemic get going. If procedures at the lab need improving, they certainly should be.

      The other things you mention about China are all true. (Tibet too. Never forget Tibet.) It’s been obvious for decades that China was going to abuse whatever power it could get. But that’s another whole train of thought.

      As bad as they are, covid19 does not fit the lab leak story at all well. Both things can be true: they’re bad and covid was an incompetent accident made infinitely worse by self-serving dictators all over the world, including China.

      • bostonboomer says:

        There certainly is no evidence for the lab leak theory. The only reason I thought there could be something to it was that several people in the lab got sick with something that looked like Covid-19 and were hospitalized. I thought they could have gotten the virus from the cave samples–not that the virus was engineered in the lab–and that somehow the virus got into the population that way. But there is no way to ever know if this happened, as China would never cooperate with any investigation.

        Thanks for continuing to share your knowledge on this, Quixote!

        • quixote says:

          It’s turning into a bit of a pet peeve :S since it’s something doctors and scientists were worried about at the start, looked at, and said, nope, doesn’t fit the data. The worried people included the director (?) (one of the senior scientists) of the Wuhan lab. And now here it is again.

          Obviously, any procedures that could be improved, should be. Pathogens do leak from labs. It only takes one careless move at the wrong time. And the funding to help that lab and to keep CDC staff there should be restored. It would be a lot harder for Chinese authorities to do the “Everything Is Fine” propaganda with independent eyes right there.