However, there has always been an alternative. Over the past decades, a number of contagious coronaviruses have made their first appearance on stage, including deadly outbreaks of SARS and MERS. In each case, the origin of these viruses have been traced back to contact between humans and animals that hosted ancestors of the infectious form. For Wuhan, that also pointed a finger of suspicion at a market where wild-caught animals were sold for meat. In an initial investigation by the World Health Organization, this original was deemed “far more likely” and the lab original was labeled “extremely unlikely.”
Still, rumors persisted of evidence that pointed to the lab origin. Some of this was clearly fabricated information intended to bolster Donald Trump’s fixation on the “China virus” and conspiracy theories that COVID-19 is the result of biological warfare. However, other information appeared to be much more reasonable, and focused on the idea that the virus might have entered the human populace not by design, but by mistake.
Three months ago, President Joe Biden ordered an intelligence review in hopes of getting a more definitive answer. Now that report is in its final stages, and it seems that no one is going to like what it has to say.
As CNN reports, the official position is likely to be this: We don’t know. After 90 days of going over the available intelligence, consulting with virologists, and looking at details of the structure of SARS-CoV-2, it still seems that there is nothing to definitively point a finger each at the “lab leak” theory or at the “jumped naturally” position.
That indecision isn’t an indictment of the intelligence community. This falls into the class of Really Hard Questions.
There are actually good reasons to suspect a lab leak. This is, after all, very similar to viruses that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was working with, the first identified cases came essentially in their backyard, and lab leaks happen. Lab leaks happen with frightening regularity. It’s just that most of the time they happen with well-identified pathogens, and when they do, the problem can be cleaned up.
On the other hand, viruses also jump to humans all the time, and as humans carve up the last wild places, the intervals between these jumps have been declining. Between the expanding human population and the movement of species due to the climate crisis, scientists have already predicted that more pathogens of all types would be finding their homes in us. And identifying the path that viruses follow can be very difficult. It took more than a decade to track down the origin of SARS in bats that lived over 1,000 miles away from the first known human cases of the disease. It’s still extremely likely that the ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 is nestled comfortably in some creature, somewhere we haven’t yet looked.
However, even if the current state of that intelligence review places the outcome at a definitive shrug, there are two big pointers in the last couple of days that tend to make even the biggest skeptics of the “lab leak” theory think again.
First, as The Washington Post reported on Friday, China has responded to additional request from WHO for an expanded investigation with a definitive “bù shì.” That is, unless those investigations are based on the idea that the world has to all agree to the natural origin theory first. That raised more than a few hackles, since one of the biggest reasons to believe the lab leak theory in the first place has been the obvious way that China has been hiding information since before the pandemic was a pandemic.
This followed a growing rift between Chinese officials and WHO that has made it hard to make any progress on gaining new information. Every criticism of the Chinese government withholding information has resulted in … withholding more information. Plus a lot of huffing about “disrespect.” All of which makes it seem that China is not only hiding something, but has something to hide.
Second, one of the scientists who had helped lead the WHO investigation that first declared the lab leak theory “very unlikely” flipped his opinion all the way to the other end of the spectrum, telling a Danish film crew that he thought the idea of an accidental release from the lab was “likely.” In another Washington Post report, that same scientist, Peter Ben Embarek, presented the results of the WHO report as something that was the result of pressure from both the Chinese government and Chinese members of the investigation team.
However, other members of that original WHO investigation continue to stand by the results of that first report. And just because China appears to be (and is) standing in the way of full transparency, that doesn’t mean that they’re doing more than leaning on the same tendency toward secrecy that is a hallmark of all their interactions with outside agencies.
Earlier this month, a self-described House “committee” that is really just GOP Rep. Michael McCaul released another in a series of reports that lean heavily into the lab leak theory. That report insists on sanctioning scientists at the Wuhan institute, proposes legislation that “condemns the Chinese Communist Party,” and demands that the House Foreign Affairs Committee issue a subpoena for American scientist Peter Daszak. Daszak’s crime seems to be that he was one of several scientists from around the world who signed a letter which appeared in the British journal The Lancet back in March 2020. In that letter, Daszak et. al. expressed solidarity with scientists and health officials in China in their efforts to contain the outbreak, and warned that rumors around the origin of the virus were threatening the ability to get accurate information.
So, what Rep. McCaul is now saying is that Daszak’s warning against jumping to conclusions and how it could interfere with getting to the truth is worthy of dragging him before Congress to be questioned over what McCaul says are “outright and knowingly inaccurate” statements. Which seems like the kind of suppression of scientific openness that makes people concerned about China.
At the end of the day, where the flag stands now is … where it stood 90 days ago. When it comes to the lab leak theory vs. the idea that the virus naturally jumped to humans through animal contact, we simply don’t know. There have been scientific arguments put up in favor of the lab leak theory based on structural elements in the virus, but those arguments have turned out to be far from definitive. That should actually be one of the best parts of this story, because it shows exactly how science works, with one scientist positing that a feature of SARS-CoV-2’s genetics indicates something that could have happened in a lab environment, and other scientists countering with naturally occurring examples. Unfortunately, since all that gets reported in the media is often the most extreme claims or counterclaims, the impression is one of simple confusion rather than working toward a goal.
It now seems very likely that COVID-19 was circulating in some form for weeks before the first reported cases in November. Those early cases may go back as far as summer, but if so, the virus must have gone through a major change at some point for a simple reason—the epidemic would have been obvious and impactful a lot sooner. There are also some genetic samples that would seem to indicate that the virus, or something very like it, circulated as widely as Italy back in September 2019.
This may be true, or it may be that there are close relatives of SARS-CoV-2 out there circulating not just among animals, but in humans. We simply haven’t been looking.
That can be read in a way that indicts the Wuhan lab. It can also be read in a way that absolves it. After all, if a virus was circulating in multiple countries months before the first cases were noted in a Wuhan hospital, did the virus originate there, or is it even more likely to be coincidence?
The one thing that still seems to be undisputed is that COVID-19 was not the result of any kind of research to develop a biological weapon. Other than that , we don’t know. Anyone who claims to know is at best exaggerating … unless that person has evidence they’ve failed to share.
It would be good to know, not because it would allow better finger-pointing, but because a better understanding of where to apply resources. If COVID-19 made the jump naturally, like its cousins SARS and MERS, then it would make sense to put even more focus on the plight of the vanishing wilderness, unsafe practices in gathering wild foods, and how everyone keeps picking on the poor pangolin. And hey, we should do that anyway.
If the virus did hitchhike out of the lab in the lungs of an unfortunate researcher, we should also understand that, because it would help us to put additional focus on lab safety, which is an issue that virologists were already screaming about before this outbreak, including in connection with the Wuhan institute. And hey, we should also do that anyway.
A definitive answer would be good, not because it allows us to indict China or absolve China. China deserves criticism because of how their actions have interfered with objective research and transparency. Rep. McCaul deserves a share of that same criticism. So does everyone who is trying to morph this into a “China created the coronavirus” story.
Unfortunately, for now at least, it seems like we won’t be getting the answers we want when the intelligence report is officially released.