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Virus Experts to CNN: Trust Us, Everything We Do In Our Profession Is Always Safe

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

CNN excitedly touts a letter from 20 virus experts scoffing at the lab leak theory.

[Robert Garry, professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane Medical School] and colleagues also say it is “extremely unlikely” that the lab was working on a virus of natural origin that accidentally leaked out. “You have to have an unlikely set of circumstances in place for something like that to happen. If it was a person at the lab, then how did it get to all the animal markets?” Garry asked. “There are other, much more likely ways that this virus got into the human population. Just like SARS 1, it happened the same way with SARS 2.”

First, that “extremely unlikely” scenario of Chinese state-run laboratory working on a virus of natural origin that accidentally leaked out has already happened several times before. This is like insisting that it is extremely unlikely for a hijacked airliner to be flown into a skyscraper. Rarity is not impossibility.

As for the question, “if it was a person at the lab, then how did it get to all the animal markets?” Well, just spit-balling here, but either someone who was infected at the lab went to the market to buy something and then spread it to someone at the market, or someone at the lab spread the virus to someone else, and that second person went to the market.

It’s a bit surprising to see these virologists going back to the market scenario, as there’s a considerable amount of counter-evidence.

Twenty-seven of the first 41 COVID-19 patients could be traced back to the market — suggesting that someone infected and contagious was at the market early on, but not necessarily indicating that the virus first originated there. In fact, the person with the earliest onset of symptoms, on December 1, 2019, could not be traced back to the market, and three of the first four patients could not be traced back to the market. A later larger study of the first 99 people diagnosed with COVID-19 found that only 49 could be traced back to the Huanan Seafood Market.

For what it is worth, Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, publicly declared in May 2020 that the Huanan Seafood Market was not the origin of the outbreak. In early 2020, Chinese researchers also took samples from 188 animals from 18 species at the market, all of which tested negative. The joint WHO-Chinese preliminary investigation, completed in February 2021 concluded, “Through extensive testing of animal products in the Huanan market, no evidence of animal infections was found.”

I find the assessment of Georgetown University professor and pandemic specialist Daniel Lucey compelling; he contends that the focus on the Huanan Seafood Market as the pandemic origin point is simply misplaced. “The virus came into that marketplace before it came out of that marketplace.”

The scientists who signed this letter work with dangerous viruses in laboratories. Their work and careers depend upon governments and taxpayers believing that it is worthwhile to fund research dangerous viruses in laboratories, and that this kind of research is safe. And these scientists have signed a letter insisting that a lab they’ve never been inside could not possibly have ever had a consequential accident.

One more important note: the letter from the virus researchers declares, “failure to comprehensively investigate the zoonotic origin through collaborative and carefully coordinated studies would leave the world vulnerable to future pandemics arising from the same human activities that have repeatedly put us on a collision course with novel viruses.”

I don’t think there’s a single believer of the lab-leak theory, or anyone who’s open to it, who is an enthusiastic fan of exotic animal smuggling or unsanitary wet markets. In terms of preventing the next pandemic, this isn’t either/or. If this pandemic is ever definitively and irrefutably proven to be the result of a lab accident, that fact won’t retroactively make all of the wet markets safe and no longer a threat to launch another pandemic. Arrest and prosecute illegal animal smugglers, shut down the wet markets or implement changes to ensure they’re more sanitary. But the health risks of wet markets do not, by themselves, disprove the potential of lab accidents.


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