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The Lab-Leak Illusion

The Lab-Leak Illusion

The laboratory accident hypothesis of COVID-19’s origins is a bust, but the popular consensus is unwilling to accept it.

· 53 min read

I. A Consensus Capsizes

On January 31st, 2020, Anthony Fauci, who was then director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Diseases, emailed the director of London’s Wellcome Trust with worrying news. Scripps Institute researcher Kristian G. Andersen, he wrote, was concerned that the genome of the novel coronavirus circulating in the Chinese city of Wuhan displayed unusual features suggestive of artificial manipulation:

I told [Kristian] that as soon as possible he and [Sydney-based evolutionary biologist] Eddie Holmes should get a group of evolutionary biologists together to examine carefully the data to determine if his concerns are validated. He should do this very quickly and if everyone agrees with this concern, they should report it to the appropriate authorities. I would imagine that in the USA this would be the FBI and in the UK it would be MI5.

The following day, Andersen created a channel in the group-discussion app Slack and added Holmes, US microbiologist Bob Garry, and British evolutionary biologist Andrew Rambaut. In this forum, the four researchers would try to determine the most likely origins of the new virus. A 140-page archive of their deliberations, leaked in July of this year, has been the subject of some exceedingly unscrupulous and lazy reporting (with the latter tending to rely on the former). That’s a pity, because a fair-minded reading of the archive’s contents and chronology provides a fascinating insight into the scientific process and into how and why the thinking of its participants changed.

The discovery of a cluster of unknown pneumonia had been announced by Wuhan health authorities on December 31st, 2019. Neither the disease (which would come to be called COVID-19) nor its causative agent (the coronavirus that would come to be called SARS-CoV-2) even had a name yet. The four researchers were therefore working with limited data in a climate of great uncertainty, and they debated the possibility of a lab escape for days. They were particularly concerned by apparent anomalies in the viral genome—its “furin cleavage site,” a component of the virus that increases infectivity, and a receptor binding domain (RBD) that appeared to be optimised for attacking human cells.

“The furin site,” Andersen pointed out on February 1st, “is peculiar and (for now) unexpected, but we have a large ascertainment bias.” Eddie Holmes agreed, remarking that the genome was “exactly what would be expected from engineering.” The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was known to have isolated and experimented with coronaviruses and Andersen worried that a novel pathogen might have been created by passing a progenitor repeatedly through cell culture.

But as they sifted the existing coronavirus literature and absorbed the rapidly emerging studies, preprints, news reports, and viral sequences, the researchers discovered that the features of SARS-CoV-2 that initially puzzled them were not as unusual as they had thought. Furthermore, the closest relative of the virus known to be held by the WIV was too distantly related to have provided the backbone for an engineered chimera.

They could not definitively prove a lab-leak negative, but since the constituent parts of the virus could all now be accounted for by evolution, the more parsimonious explanation was that the virus had evolved naturally. “I’m now very strongly in favour of a natural origin,” Holmes told his Slack-channel colleagues on February 25th. “The component bits of the virus are now more or less there in a tiny sample of wildlife. … I don’t see why we need a lab origin on these data.”

On March 17th, 2020, they presented their review of the evidence in a short paper titled “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2,” which was published in the correspondence section of Nature Medicine as a letter to the editor. It concluded:

Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimized RBD and polybasic [furin] cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.

More scientific data could swing the balance of evidence to favor one hypothesis over another.

These conclusions were generally well received. Back in 2020 and early 2021, the lab-leak hypothesis was still a fringe view, generally associated with the paranoid fever swamps of the MAGAsphere and the craziest China hawks in the Trump administration, the president included. Some of those voices believed that SARS-CoV-2 had been developed by the CCP as a bioweapon. Others believed it might even have been released deliberately. Although good information remained hard to come by, the low-risk editorial assumption across most of the media seemed to be that if Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Steve Bannon found a lab leak plausible, it was probably populist demagogy intended to embarrass China and divert attention from the president’s own chaotic pandemic response.

That assumption appeared to receive authoritative support from Andersen et al.’s review. But elsewhere, independent researchers were conducting a dogged investigation of their own, and posting their theories on preprint servers, blogs, and social media. In February 2020, 30 of these researchers formed an online collective calling itself DRASTIC (Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19). A couple of months later, a Canadian biotech entrepreneur and DRASTIC co-founder named Yuri Deigin posted an influential 16,000-word essay on Medium, in which he argued that SARS-CoV-2 may well have been genetically engineered.

These were not MAGA Republicans; they were concerned citizens, academics, and scientists, and they offered a less outlandish version of the lab-escape hypothesis. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, they argued, was not a bioweapon, but a product of well-intended but dangerous “gain-of-function” research, which involves artificially increasing the transmissibility and virulence of pathogens in a laboratory in the hope of developing a multipurpose vaccine. Curious journalists and writers began to take notice of DRASTIC’s work, and the first big piece in a mainstream outlet defending this version of events appeared on New York magazine’s Intelligencer website on January 4th, 2021. In a 12,000-word essay, novelist Nicholson Baker set out his theory of the pandemic’s origins like this:

It was an accident. A virus spent some time in a laboratory, and eventually it got out. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, began its existence inside a bat, then it learned how to infect people in a claustrophobic mine shaft, and then it was made more infectious in one or more laboratories, perhaps as part of a scientist’s well-intentioned but risky effort to create a broad-spectrum vaccine. SARS-2 was not designed as a biological weapon. But it was, I think, designed.

Baker’s piece attracted some interest and commentary, but it was a Medium essay by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade that finally ended media resistance to the lab-leak idea. Wade’s conclusion was similar to Baker’s, but he supported his argument with a granular analysis of SARS-CoV-2’s molecular biology, and he did not hesitate to name the guilty men he held responsible for the unfolding global catastrophe. These included the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), researchers at the WIV, the “worldwide community of virologists,” and US public-health officials and scientists who had helped to fund the WIV’s work.

Wade’s argument probably benefited from Donald Trump’s electoral defeat in November 2020, which provided the debate about COVID origins with some breathing room. And now that vaccines were on the way and societies were starting to reopen, editors, diplomats, and politicians were no longer preoccupied by the ceaseless quarrels over pandemic containment. When his essay was self-published on May 3rd, 2021, it was widely shared, endorsed, and discussed. And when it was cross-posted at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists two days later, it was widely shared, endorsed, and discussed all over again.

Editors at mainstream publications awoke to find that a hypothesis they had spent a year and a half dismissing as paranoid gibberish was being promoted all over social media by respected journalists and public figures. The prevailing consensus among opinion-formers capsized with astonishing rapidity. On May 17th, Politifact retracted a fact-check from the previous September, which had described the claim that SARS-CoV-2 was a “man-made virus made in the lab” as “inaccurate and ridiculous.” Days later, Meta announced that Facebook would be lifting the draconian ban it had imposed in February 2021 on sharing lab-leak-related content on its platforms.

The media’s gatekeepers threw open their doors. On June 3rd, Vanity Fair published a 12,000-word account of “the fight to uncover COVID-19’s origins.” The Week published a 6,000-word essay by a member of the DRASTIC collective in July. A breathless essay appeared in Newsweek setting out the case for a lab accident, followed by a more measured article in the New York Times. On August 22nd, Britain’s Channel 4 broadcast a 47-minute documentary titled “Did COVID Leak from a Lab in China?” (a question to which the implied answer was “probably”). In November, Broad Institute scientist Alina Chan and British science writer Matt Ridley set out the case for a lab accident in their book Viral, and then toured the podcast circuit energetically promoting their conclusions.

According to the newly received wisdom, anyone who hadn’t suspected a lab leak all along was either a CCP stooge or painfully obtuse. Scientists who maintained that the virus was more likely to have spilled into humans from another species were thrown onto the defensive. Kristian Andersen gave an interview to the New York Times defending the “Proximal Origin” review, and on social media, virologists found themselves forced to defend their professional reputations and the legitimacy of their research from accusations that they were responsible for a pandemic that had already claimed millions of lives.

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