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The Taboo on the COVID Lab-Leak Theory Lifts

Members of the World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus sit in a car at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

On the menu today: Out of nowhere, it’s seemingly hip and cool to point out the long-obvious fact that SARS-CoV-2 could well be the result of a lab accident in Wuhan. And Politico drives me to do the unthinkable: call for people to get off Kamala Harris’s back.

Oh, Sure, Now It’s Okay to Speculate about a Lab Leak in Wuhan

Some of us are COVID-origin hipsters, I guess; we were into the lab-leak theory before it went mainstream.

I’m glad Donald G. McNeil Jr., the prize-winning former science reporter for the New York Times, has concluded that, “the argument that [SARS-CoV-2] could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago, when the screaming was so loud that it drowned out serious discussion.”

I’m glad that 18 scientists have written to Science magazine that, “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.”

I’m glad that the Washington Post editorial board declared yesterday, “If the laboratory leak theory is wrong, China could easily clarify the situation by being more open and transparent. Instead, it acts as if there is something to hide.”

I’m even sort of glad that Matt Yglesias saluted New York magazine, declaring that publication “brought the lab leak hypothesis into the mainstream,” because he acknowledges “the insta-consensus on Twitter and among media fact-check columnists never reflected a real consensus among practicing scientists who seem to me to mostly just really not know.”

Back when this pandemic began, I was like most people; I thought the virus most likely jumped from an animal at a wet market, because virologists had been warning about this sort of scenario for years.

Back on April 3, National Review published what turned into one of the most-read articles I’ve ever written, “The Trail Leading Back to the Wuhan Labs.” It started as a simple project: going through all of the claims one of the YouTube videos alleging the pandemic was the result of a lab accident, and seeing what could be independently verified. As it turned out, quite a bit could be verified:

  • The Wuhan Institute of Virology was indeed studying novel coronaviruses found in bats, as was the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control.
  • Wuhan is indeed a great distance away from the natural habitat of bats who are most likely to carry viruses like this one, well beyond their natural migration patterns.
  • Shi Zhengli, the Chinese virologist nicknamed “Bat Woman” for her work with that species, told Scientific American that when she heard about the outbreak, her first thought was, “Could they have come from our lab?”
  • The never-quite-definitively-proven contention that the virus required an intermediate species such as pangolins was complicated by the fact that no one had yet found evidence that pangolins were at the Huanan Seafood Market, or even that venders at that market trafficked pangolins.
  • Botao Xiao, a doctor who had been a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, had published a paper arguing that the “bat soup” theory was unlikely and contending the virus was more likely to be an accident at one of the city’s two labs working on these kinds of viruses. But after a few days, Xiao withdrew his paper and declined to elaborate why.
  • Virologist Tian Junhua, who worked at the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control, indeed traveled into caves to collect virus samples from bats, and in past interviews, he had described self-quarantining because he had come in contact with bat blood, urine, etc.
  • The Chinese government lies as easily as it breathes; it had spent three to six weeks telling the world that the virus was not contagious.

That wasn’t a definitive case, but the circumstantial evidence kept piling up. What were the odds that a novel coronavirus that originated in bats would spontaneously and independently cause an outbreak in the middle of a city that housed not one but two laboratories researching novel coronaviruses that originated in bats? If about 40 percent of those infected with SARS-CoV-2 are asymptomatic, would a lab technician or other employee even know they had been infected?

I think what was most bothersome in the response to that very early look at the evidence were the knee-jerk, non-thinking dismissals of the concept. Start with the insistence that the Wuhan scientists were too careful to make such a consequential mistake. The history of lab accidents says otherwise. I made this point, again and again, with more and more examples of comparable lab accidents involving dangerous pathogens, and yet there was this brick wall of disbelief, an insistence that these scientists in these labs were just too careful and too diligent to ever have one screw-up, ever. That is a contention on par with “car accidents never happen” or “plane crashes never happen.”

At that point, we hadn’t even known about the U.S. State Department memos warning about a lack of trained personnel at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Or the claim that cell-phone use in part of the WIV stopped for three weeks in October 17, suggesting a potential evacuation or decontamination. Or the World Health Organization investigation concluding that some Wuhan Institute of Virology staffers got sick with flu-like symptoms in autumn of 2019, but that it’s “not a big thing,” because the Chinese government said they tested negative for COVID-19. Or Chinese state-run media running articles about “chronic inadequate management issues” at laboratories, including problems with biological disposal, or Chinese lab employees illegally selling off lab animals on the black market. Or even the use of “gutter oil” in wet markets!

Then some people would cling to rejected scenarios. Long after the Chinese government publicly declared that the evidence did not support the theory that the Huanan Seafood Market was the source of the outbreak, idiots at other publications sneered at what I wrote because the virus had to have come from the market.

Until I started working on the book, I didn’t know just how much evidence there was that China’s government never stopped its dual-use research into potential biological weapons. (One scenario that I think has gotten almost no attention is that the Chinese government’s secrecy surrounding the Wuhan Institute of Virology could be entirely separate from the origin of the virus, but because that lab is doing dual-use research that would violate treaties on biological weapons.)

We’ve got the lab-leak theory that has a lot of circumstantial evidence but no definitive proof. And we’ve got the naturally-jumped-to-someone-outside-of-the-lab theory, which . . . doesn’t really have any definitive proof, either. As the Post editorial notes, “already, more than 80,000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples were collected from 31 areas in China, and none tested positive for the virus before or after the outbreak.” This virus spreads like wildfire in human beings; why is it so hard to find it in other animals?

If this was a lab accident, it would rank among the most consequential mistakes in human history. As of this morning, the virus has spread to 164 million cases and caused 3.4 million deaths worldwide. Now look at these from the perspective of a scientific, government, diplomatic, or media leader. What are the consequences if this is just a farmer stepping in the wrong guano? What are the consequences if this is just a small-time animal smugger grabbing the wrong bat or pangolin?

And what are the consequences if this is the direct result of the Chinese government’s reckless research into dangerous viruses, including how to make them more virulent and contagious?

Finally, let’s observe how conventional wisdom gets stealth-edited. Back on April 6, 2020, I noticed that Vox assured us, “The emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only level 4 biosafety lab, it turns out, is pure coincidence.”

Sometime in the past year, that sentence was changed to “The emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only level 4 biosafety lab, it turns out, appears to be pure coincidence.”

Someone’s hedging their bets.

For Once, Get Off Kamala Harris’s Back

Politico: “After nearly four months in office, Harris faces criticism that she hasn’t struck the right balance, that she’s focused more often on being the United States’ first Black vice president than the first Asian American one.”

Politico’s Anita Kumar writes, “she’s been accused of not being Black enough, criticized for not touting her Asian heritage and faulted for choosing to say she’s Asian over Indian. Some Americans are unaware of her biracial background while others forget she has any Asian heritage at all.”

Words you will not often read in this newsletter: Get off Kamala Harris’s back, at least in this particular situation. It’s Kamala Harris’s life. Let her address and discuss her two heritages as she sees fit. The complaint amounts to a gripe that since becoming vice president, Harris has done too many African-American themed events and appearances and not enough Asian-American or Indian-American themed ones.

So what? How can you possibly look at this administration and moment in American life and conclude that’s the problem worth complaining about? That’s such a non-problem, it feels like the sort of non-problem people latch onto when they don’t want to discuss actual problems.

Some people are inevitably going to respond, “Geraghty, you’re white, you can’t possibly understand.” The thing is, the vice president’s job isn’t just to be a symbol that placates various slices of the demographic pie by participating in various identity-politics-themed events. The vice presidency is an actual job, and this vice president has particular duties.

You want a complaint? How about the fact that back on March 24, Biden named Harris to lead efforts to stem migration across the U.S.–Mexico border, declaring that, “she’s the most qualified person to do it — to lead our efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle and the countries that help — are going to need help in stemming the movement of so many folks, stemming the migration to our southern border.” Then in March and April, we’ve had the two worst months for migrants caught attempting to cross the southern border in about two decades.

The outlook for May doesn’t look so good, either. This weekend, the Customs and Border Protection Rio Grande Sector agents, with the assistance of state and local law enforcement, “interdicted thirteen human smuggling events that resulted in the arrest of 97 individuals,” about a week after they “interdicted six human smuggling events that resulted in the arrest of 136 individuals.” The Weslaco Border Patrol Station agents encountered a large group of 119 migrants during inclement weather in Hildalgo, Texas. A McAllen Air Branch-based UH-60 crew encountered over 33 migrants in the ranch lands near Falfurrias, Texas. In Sierra Blanca, Texas, “20 undocumented migrants were discovered in both the bed of the truck, covered by a hard plastic cover that was sealed shut, and in the trailer that could only be opened from the outside, with no source of ventilation or space to move freely. Two undocumented tender-aged migrant children were also found in the trailer.”

At this point, the only thing that appears likely to slow down the waves of migrants is the summer heat. The Biden administration’s new approach is to insist that high numbers of apprehensions do not reflect policy failures. “Apprehensions don’t tell the full story, and getting to zero is not a measure of success,” Tyler Moran, one of Biden’s top immigration-policy advisers, told the Washington Post.

Really? Could we try getting the number of apprehensions at the border as close to zero as possible and just see what happens?

It is not surprising that Democrats who represent border states, such as senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are losing patience with the Biden administration’s insistence that the situation at the border isn’t really a crisis: “The reality is that this is a crisis. We all know it.”

Vice President Harris hasn’t visited the border. (Well, she came close to the Canadian one.) She hasn’t taken any questions on this topic, nor has she given a speech on this topic. She’s hosted a “virtual roundtable” of experts and made some calls with regional heads of state, but that’s it.

When the Economist/YouGov survey was released earlier this month, it showed Harris with 41 percent having a favorable opinion of her and 49 percent having an unfavorable opinion of her.

ADDENDUM: Not what Democrats expected: “Glenn Youngkin, the GOP’s newly minted nominee for Virginia governor, stands a surprisingly good chance of being the first Republican in 12 years to win a statewide race in the Old Dominion, according to politicians from both parties and independent analysts.”