The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last week published a lengthy report from New York Times, Nature, and Science writer Nicholas Wade that strongly argued for the theory that Chinese coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory.
The Bulletin is a nonprofit organization dating back to the early days of nuclear technology, perhaps best known for its “doomsday clock” that estimates the risk of apocalyptic nuclear or biological war.
Wade’s report was not published by the New York Times or his other regular journals. He self-published it on Medium before it was picked up by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It appears to be his first self-publication, and his first credit at the Bulletin.
Wade’s report is one of the most comprehensive looks at the laboratory origin theory to date, meticulously recounting everything known about the coronavirus outbreak and patiently dismantling the alternative theories about natural origins and animal transmission. His mission statement is that “so far there is no direct evidence for either theory,” but the absence of evidence for the supposedly “more likely” theory of animal transmission is a huge red flag, and the available “clues” point more strongly at the Wuhan laboratories.
Wade noticed what some skeptical scientists pointed out after the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) reported the results of its controversial Wuhan investigation: the report asserts animals most likely passed the coronavirus along to humans after the virus originated in nature, but no evidence exists that this happened and there should be considerable biological evidence to support this theory at infamous “wet markets” where infected animals were supposedly trafficked.
Wade noted the important, but curiously under-reported, fact that even Chinese researchers have documented early cases with no linkage whatsoever to the wet markets. The W.H.O. report admitted that, after a year of frantic searching and testing over 80,000 animals, no one can find the animal that supposedly transmitted the coronavirus to humans.
The most common suspect for incubating the virus is the bat, which theoretically either gave Chinese coronavirus to humans or infected an intermediate species that did so. The intermediate species remains elusive, and the particular colony of bats often fingered as the most likely originators of the coronavirus – bats from a cave in Yunnan that gave six Chinese miners a mysterious disease with symptoms very similar to the coronavirus in 2012, killing three of them – is located nearly 1,000 miles from Wuhan.
The outbreak began not in Yunnan, where the caves are located, but in Wuhan, where the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) is located – and where there is documentary evidence that scientists were studying samples of the Yunnan disease. Wade recalled that the WIV also has a documented history of safety violations. As he explained in great detail, there are also aspects of the Wuhan coronavirus that suggest it was subjected to precisely the sort of experiments the WIV was performing to understand viruses better and create more effective therapies.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has furiously denounced the laboratory origin theory as conspiracy-mongering but, Wade argues with extensive detail, the clues that have slipped out of China’s paranoid authoritarian regime are much more consistent with laboratory origins than natural transmission, even if none of those clues measures up to smoking-gun proof.
“It seems to me that proponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about SARS2 [Chinese coronavirus] considerably more easily than can those who favor natural emergence,” he added. “Proponents of natural emergence have a rather harder story to tell.”
Wade argued none of the key evidence for the animal transmission theory has been found – from the source of the coronavirus in nature, to the intermediate species that might have passed it to humans, to any evidence of the coronavirus slowly gathering strength among the human population as such diseases normally do. There isn’t even a solid explanation for why the outbreak began exclusively in Wuhan if animals were passing it to humans, since there are many other places in that region of China where they could have done so.
The most explosive section of Wade’s report made the case that influential scientists around the world may be content to let Beijing keep the true origins of the coronavirus a secret because the truth could jeopardize careers and create political problems far beyond China’s borders. He contended this is why some members of the international scientific community acted so quickly to dismiss the laboratory origin theory.
“From early on, public and media perceptions were shaped in favor of the natural emergence scenario by strong statements from two scientific groups. These statements were not at first examined as critically as they should have been,” Wade wrote, referring to statements published in Lancet and Nature Medicine in February and March 2020, respectively.
Wade picked apart the influential Nature Medicine letter from five virologists as “poor science” because they concluded the coronavirus was “not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus” by looking only for evidence of old, outmoded methods of manipulating viruses. The newer methods do not leave the kind of evidence the Nature Medicine authors claimed they could not find. As Wade archly noted, the authors seemed to realize this as their confidence slipped in later paragraphs of the letter, but only their initial assertion that laboratory origin was essentially impossible made the news.
The Lancet letter is even more problematic, Wade contended, because its authors condemned laboratory origin as a “conspiracy theory” to be dismissed out of hand, long before any of the evidence needed to reach that conclusion could possibly have been in their hands.
“They were assuring the public of facts they could not know for sure were true,” Wade wrote.
The Lancet letter was orchestrated and drafted by Peter Daszak, whose “organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” and therefore might have been culpable – certainly in the court of public opinion – if the research he funded was linked in any way with the Chinese coronavirus outbreak, Wade noted. The Lancet concealed this conflict of interest from its readers. The W.H.O. also appeared to disregard this information when it appointed Daszak a key member of the Wuhan investigative team.
Wade laid out a case for accusing the virology community at large for passively accepting China’s falsehoods because, if laboratory origin was the truth, it could have destroyed their entire discipline:
Virologists like Daszak had much at stake in the assigning of blame for the pandemic. For 20 years, mostly beneath the public’s attention, they had been playing a dangerous game. In their laboratories they routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature. They argued that they could do so safely, and that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent natural “spillovers,” the cross-over of viruses from an animal host to people. If SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China. “It would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom,” an MIT Technology Review editor, Antonio Regalado, said in March 2020.
Wade concluded the letters published by Lancet and Nature Medicine were “really political, not scientific, statements, yet were amazingly effective” at shaping mainstream media coverage of the pandemic. The media simply declared that “a consensus of experts had ruled lab escape out of the question or extremely unlikely,” based almost entirely on those two deeply flawed but “largely unchallenged” letters, he said.
Daszak continues to assert laboratory escape is “extremely unlikely,” even as scientists questioned the Chinese government’s influence over the W.H.O. mission and noted with increasing discomfort that W.H.O. and its Chinese Communist Party associates could not produce vital evidence for the supposedly more likely theory of natural origin. The Chinese have admitted to withholding source data and destroying some early coronavirus samples.
Wade faulted “the migration of much of the media toward the left of the political spectrum” for corrupting the coronavirus investigation further:
Because President Trump said the virus had escaped from a Wuhan lab, editors gave the idea little credence. They joined the virologists in regarding lab escape as a dismissible conspiracy theory. During the Trump administration, they had no trouble in rejecting the position of the intelligence services that lab escape could not be ruled out. But when Avril Haines, President Biden’s director of national intelligence, said the same thing, she too was largely ignored. This is not to argue that editors should have endorsed the lab escape scenario, merely that they should have explored the possibility fully and fairly.
U.S. media often derided the lab leak theory as wild conspiracy-mongering in the early months of the pandemic, especially when propounded by members of the Trump administration or Republican politicians like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). The World Health Organization report from Wuhan breathed “new life” into the lab leak theory, as NPR put it in March, because the report pointedly did not rule out lab leak, “debunk” it, or even treat that scenario as improbable.
The report merely portrayed lab leak as less likely than animal transmission, and as Wade’s article pointed out, a growing number of scientists are disturbed by the lack of evidence to support the supposedly more likely theory of animals passing the virus to humans. Furthermore, with Donald Trump out of office, the media seems to have lost interest in painting proponents of the lab leak theory as nutty conspiracy-mongers promoting a bizarre fantasy without evidence.
Incidentally, the Bulletin’s famous doomsday clock – which now factors biological warfare into its apocalypse projections along with nuclear warfare – stands at 100 seconds to midnight after the coronavirus pandemic.