The Covid-19 Lab Leak Theory Is a Tale of Weaponized Uncertainty

The virus that causes Covid-19 is called SARS-CoV-2. It’s in a viral family called coronaviruses, several of which infect humans. It’s the third coronavirus to cause a pandemic this century.

The Covid-19 pandemic originated in the city of Wuhan, in China, in November or December of 2019.

China’s most important laboratory for the study of emerging viruses—including coronaviruses—is in Wuhan. It’s the only lab in the country with Biosafety Level 4 facilities, the most secure on the BSL scale.

Some scientists at that lab in Wuhan were doing coronavirus research under a lesser security grade, BSL-2 as opposed to BSL-4.

In November of 2019, three researchers at that laboratory got severely ill, bad enough to require going to a hospital.

In February of 2020, a Chinese researcher posted a preprint—so not peer-reviewed or published—suggesting that the virus that causes Covid-19 might have escaped from a lab after having been created by humans as a research project.

The biology of SARS-CoV-2 strongly suggests a natural origin and no human modification—a “zoonotic spillover” from wild animals, either directly to humans or first to domestic animals and then to humans.

Wuhan has “wet markets,” places where live wild animals are sometimes sold alongside domestic ones for human consumption. These can be places where viruses evolve as they move from animal to animal.

Scientists have identified the animal reservoirs from which the other two pandemic coronaviruses—Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS—jumped to humans. They haven’t found the animal host for SARS-CoV-2.

Viruses and other germs have broken out of research labs and infected humans in the past, though never at pandemic scale.

The Chinese government has been uncooperative in international efforts to investigate the origin of SARS-CoV-2.

OK: Does that mean Covid-19 might have somehow leaked out of a laboratory to become a global scourge?

Think about that before answering.

I’ll add a couple more true facts. Early in the pandemic, when President Trump and members of his administration were accusing the Chinese government of causing the pandemic, Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was convinced the virus had a natural origin. But in mid-May, at an event on Covid-19 disinformation, a journalist asked if he still thought so. “I am not convinced about that. I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened,” Fauci said. “Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out. So, you know, that’s the reason why I said I’m perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus.”

A few days later, 18 big-shot virologists and epidemiologists wrote an article in the eminent journal Science called “Investigate the Origins of Covid-19.” They pointed out that a report from the World Health Organization had looked at the two hypotheses—natural origin or lab leak—and, despite concluding that a natural origin was far more likely, had given short shrift to the other. “Greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve,” the scientists wrote. “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.” And earlier this week, President Biden told US intelligence agencies to do just that over the next 90 days, even though earlier in his tenure Biden ended a Trump administration program tasked with doing the same. At a White House press briefing, Coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt said: “It is our position that we need to get to the bottom of this, and we need a completely transparent process from China. We need the WHO to assist in that matter. We don’t feel like we have that now.”

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