Tuesday Reads: The Wuhan Lab Leak TheoryPosted: May 25, 2021
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:
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.
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.