The NY Times sent me an explainer for the lab-leak theory of the origin of COVID-19. It’s long. It’s very careful to present Both Sides at length. It’s what I’ve come to expect from the NY Times, a diligent, earnest explanation that gives equal weight to every position that requires some technical expertise to see through the bullshit to recognize that A) we’re in a realm of uncertainty, and B) that doesn’t mean every explanation is equally valid, and C) they’re giving disproportionate attention to a theory that has no supporting evidence. We don’t know every single intermediate step in the evolution of COVID-19, and can never know the full details of its origin, but that doesn’t imply that a claim that an intelligent Chinese designer intentionally constructed the virus in a lab.
So they cite a letter to Science signed by 18 people that says, “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.” The letter doesn’t include any evidence. It doesn’t explain why we should consider the lab-leak hypothesis reasonable, while citing a WHO report that considers a lab accident to be “extremely unlikely”, only to dismiss it.
They cite an article in the Wall Street Journal as evidence that the lab leak hypothesis is “plausible”. Did they read the same article I did? Because that article starts with a group of Chinese miners who came down with a serious respiratory illness after collecting bat guano in an abandoned copper mine. Unless you think the Wuhan biological warfare scientists store their samples in bat shit in old caves, that only tells us that bats harbor all kinds of interesting and potentially horrible viruses, not that the viruses are intentionally created. The WSJ and the NYT do share a similar disease, though, bothsideritis. Notice the one-two punch in this short quote: first they tell us that lab origin is extremely unlikely, and then swivel to say the question divides the scientific community.
“If the world wants to shut down work that was not gain-of-function because of a conspiracy theory, that’s a huge mistake,” Dr. Daszak said earlier this year. ”This virus, it’s extremely unlikely that it came from a lab. If we focus on the lab issue and ignore what really happened, we do so at our ultimate peril.”
One question now dividing the scientific community is whether such experiments could have created SARS-CoV-2, either accidentally or as part of a deliberate effort to see which viruses could evolve into ones dangerous to humans.
I don’t think the scientific community is divided. There are a few scientists who think the lab leak hypothesis is possible and should be investigated more (but they lack any evidence), while the majority are saying “Wha…? But we already know viruses evolve rapidly, and that there are vast numbers of unknown viruses lurking in natural reservoirs, so why are you asking us to waste time on the least likely explanation?” And so it will go, round and round, with major news organizations feeding the conspiracy theories and paranoia.
Meanwhile, the strongest piece of evidence the conspiracy theorists can muster is the claim that the Chinese have been dodgy about allowing investigators in. This is nonsense. The head of the Wuhan labs, Zheng-Li Shi, explains.
Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), Chinese Academy of Sciences, has engaged in a long-term study on natural reservoirs of SARS-CoV[16–18] and is among the first institutions that identified the SARS-CoV-2 after the COVID-19 outbreak.[2,19] In addition, WIV discovered a virus sequence (RaTG13) that shows a 96.2% genomic sequence identity match with the SARS-CoV-2 genome, in its archived bat samples collected in 2013. These results lay a foundation for understanding the origin of SARS-CoV-2, development of diagnostic methods, antiviral drug screening, and vaccine development; the findings also provide an important clue pertaining to the natural origin of SARS-CoV-2. Sadly, WIV was at the center of the misleading speculations regarding the origin of the virus, which were not fully clarified until a recent joint study was performed by an international expert team led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Chinese experts.
The joint expert team has been working in three groups, the epidemiology, molecular research, and animal and environment groups. The experts have been working together through video conferences, onsite interviews and visits, and extensive discussions. Over the course of 4 weeks, the joint team studied massive volumes of epidemic-related data and visited some facilities, including the Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, the Wuhan Center for Disease Prevention and Control, and the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory (Wuhan P4 laboratory) run by WIV; in addition, they also visited the Huanan seafood market. The team interviewed local medical workers, laboratory researchers, scientists, market managers, residents, and recovered COVID-19 patients.
The joint team visited the Wuhan P4 laboratory, a facility which is the most widely speculated place of origin of the SARS-CoV-2. The Wuhan P4 laboratory is the first of such facilities to be constructed in China and runs high-level biosafety checks. The laboratory is a state-of-the-art design by French experts, jointly constructed by French and Chinese engineers and accredited by the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment (CNAS). It was designed to be a laboratory studying highly classified pathogens and an international collaboration research center on emerging infectious diseases. All activities in this laboratory on specific viruses were qualified by the China National Health Commission (CNHC). All administration and management have been strictly regulated and regularly examined and reviewed by these two Chinese authorities. It has been examined by CNAS and CNHC four and three times, respectively, since its opening at the end of 2017. Currently, this laboratory is approved to study the Nipah virus, Ebola virus, Xinjiang hemorrhagic fever virus, and SARS-CoV-2. This laboratory has played a pivotal role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic by way of animal model studies and inactivated vaccine development, drug screenings and tests, and basic research for understanding SARS-CoV-2.
The WHO joint team has had extensive exchanges with the laboratory manager, scientists, and staff and has highly appraised the cooperation, transparency, and openness of the WIV leadership and staff. The team concluded, “They upheld a very stringent and high-quality management system. Also proceeding from the current evidence, we regard the lab leak hypothesis as extremely unlikely” in a statement released to the media on February 9, 2021, Wuhan.
Shi summarizes their goals.
In the past several decades, more than 70% of emerging or reemerging infectious diseases are zoonoses and were transmitted to humans from their animal reservoirs through intermediate hosts. A huge number of unknown viruses exist in their natural reservoirs and continue to evolve, which results in the generation of new strains. Many of these viruses may have intrinsic characteristics that enable them to cross species barriers and infect humans. The rapid global economic development, including urbanization, land usage, animal domestication, and intensive agriculture, increases the chances of contact between humans and wildlife, thereby increases the risk of interspecies transmission of viruses carried by wild animals. To prevent future zoonosis, the best strategy is long-term and extensive surveillance based on science. We need to learn about unknown viruses, assess the potential risks of interspecies transmission, pinpoint the hotspots of animal-human interfaces, and eventually prepare diagnosis methods and use them for monitoring high-risk animal and human populations. With this prophylactic strategy, we can rapidly identify and limit the rapid spread of emerging pathogens at the very early stage and prevent the next epidemic. To this end, it is necessary to unify experts from different disciplines, including microbiologists, epidemiologists, veterinarians, clinical specialists, ecologists, sociologists, and policymakers, to work together on the basis of science.
Exactly. The Chinese labs are right there at the forefront of studying how zoonotic diseases emerge from animal reservoirs. It doesn’t help if, when a population is infected with a disease of natural origin, they grab the torches and pitchforks and descend in a mob on the laboratories that are trying to control the disease. Yeah, the Wuhan Institute of Virology is studying coronaviruses, because they knew these were a potential source of human pandemics; do you want to shut them down? Do you really think that an institution that was studying viruses is therefore the source of a virus?
The New York Times earned my contempt over a decade ago with their he said/she said approach to Intelligent Design creationism. They presented then their notion of balance, with long articles that highlighted creationism with equal weight to scientific studies of evolution. It drove me crazy then, and this is exactly the same thing here. The idea that the COVID-19 virus was the product of intentional design can be dismissed with a simple statement: we have no need of that hypothesis. Instead, the NY Times will quote Matt Yglesias and Tom Cotton insisting that we do, and conclude with this:
So what’s the truth?
We don’t know. Both animal-to-human transmission and the lab leak appear plausible. And the obfuscation by Chinese officials means we may never know the truth.
Let’s pretend they’re equally plausible, and then find an excuse to blame China. That’s what this was really about.