Opinions come quickly to us Americans. Already, nearly half of America believes Covid-19 leaked from a Chinese lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And, it very well may have. Specifically, 46% of American adults are convinced the pandemic originated with a lab leak, according to a Morning Consult survey completed last week. More than a quarter of us believe the virus jumped from an animal to humans. And, it very well may have. Yet, just under 30% of our countrymen are reserving judgment and say they have no opinion yet. Good for them.
The only opinion that is 100% justified is that the nation, indeed the world, may have been given premature assurances that COVID-19 emerged from nature and that an escape from a laboratory, specifically a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was “highly unlikely.” Actually, it may still be premature to suggest that a lab leak from Wuhan was highly unlikely. Nor, I might add, is there any proof that the virus did not originate and escape from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
American virologists, infectious disease researchers, and other public health authorities were prone to be defensive when politicians began embracing Chinese lab shenanigans as the culprit and when the President of the United States began calling COVID-19 the Kung-flu. They probably also feared that a lab failure causation could do to virology what Three Mile Island and Chernobyl did to nuclear energy.
Nonetheless, having reviewed each day’s release of new reports from a variety of respected sources, it seems clear that the initial rush to judgment (that it was “highly unlikely” that there was a catastrophic leak of the virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology) was, for the most part, unsupported. That is not to say that a lab leak has been demonstrated. It hasn’t been, but nor has a zoogenic jump from nature been established.
The lack of cooperation from the communist government in China is deplorable but par for the course for an autocratic régime that has no tolerance for criticism from the outside world. China will never acknowledge that the worst viral scourge in a century may have resulted from Chinese carelessness. Now, a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, any data or lab logs that the communist government might share would, justifiably, be highly suspect.
As I write this column, over 13,000 people have, this day, died of COVID-19. Worldwide, nearly four million have died so far, and in America, we have topped the 600,000 fatalities mark (about twice the number of Americans who died in combat during World War Two). Nearly 200 million people have been infected across the globe. These statistics do not account for the almost certain undercounting of COIVID-19 deaths in India, Brazil, and elsewhere in Asia and Africa. Many epidemiologists believe the actual death toll may be several orders of magnitude greater than that which has been reported to date. COVID-19 has been a historic disaster.
We Americans form our opinions along political party lines. For example, 70% of Republicans are convinced COVID-19 originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Forty-one percent of independents concur, and slightly under a third of Democrats feel the same way. Here’s what we know for sure; we just don’t know.
The Wuhan lab-leak theory has taken off, in great measure, because the Chinese communist government has been, characteristically, secretive and uncooperative in opening the records of the Wuhan Institute of Virology to scrutiny by the world’s community of virologists and infectious disease experts. More than a month ago, this column presented the case reported in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that supported the lab-leak hypothesis. Since then, several top scientists have taken sharp issue with the Bulletin report written by former New York Times Science writer Nicholas Wade.
Concurrently, however, subsequent analyses have strongly suggested that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Specifically, two reports just released; one by the American Institute for Economic Research authored by David R. Henderson and Charles I. Hooper, both of whom are or have been affiliated with the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, and a very detailed report in Vanity Fair, by investigative journalist Katherine Eban, earlier this month. Both reports make a pretty compelling case that the virus that causes COVID-19 was engineered at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Nonetheless, Dr. Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California says, not so fast. Dr. Andersen was one of the very first scientists to sound an alarm about the possibility that Covid-19 was lab engineered. He has, perhaps, delved into that possibility more than anyone else. Dr. Andersen now contends that the features in SARS-CoV-2 that initially suggested possible engineering have now been identified in related coronaviruses, meaning that features that initially looked unusual to him no longer do. Specifically, Dr. Andersen says that studying data from coronaviruses found in other species, such as bats and pangolins, has convinced him that the features that first appeared unique to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) were in fact found in other, related viruses.
So, there is an abundance of reporting that makes the case either for or against the lab-leak explanation for Covid-19. As a writer, unqualified to pass judgment, I have found reports, both pro, and con, to be, in varying degrees, persuasive.
Dr. Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology is widely recognized as the world’s leading expert on bat-borne viruses. She is credited with establishing most of what we know about the potential of bats being probable culprits in first introducing Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-Cov-1) to an intermediary host, which in turn introduced SARS to humans.
Ten years ago, Dr. Shi discovered that bats in a cave in southwestern China carried coronaviruses similar to the virus that causes SARS. She began studying bats after 700 people around the world died of SARS. Dr. Shi went into caves to collect samples from bats and guano, to learn how viruses jump from animals to humans. She is deservedly well respected in her field. In 2019, she was among 109 scientists elevated to the American Academy of Microbiology for her contributions to the profession. Dr. Robert C. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, described Dr. Shi as “a stellar scientist — extremely careful, with a rigorous work ethic,”
Nonetheless, some scientists say Dr. Shi conducted risky Gain of Function experiments with bat coronaviruses in which the genome of viruses was altered. Dr. Shi, however, vehemently denies that her labs conducted any risky gene altering experiments that would have made these coronaviruses more dangerous. Instead, Dr. Shi insists that her experiments were confined to understanding how these viruses jump across species. Finally, American intelligence sources claim, without citing any evidence, that workers in her lab contracted a viral illness just before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, an allegation Dr. Shi absolutely denies.
I remain somewhat agnostic regarding the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of candor and cooperation from the Chinese communist government is deplorable. However, I confine my criticism to the Chinese communist government because Chinese public health officials contacted US public health officials on January 1st, last year, well before any cases had been diagnosed in America or anywhere outside of China, to advise that a potential contagious public health crisis had emerged in China.
Correction: Last week’s essay stated that Dr. Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina received a grant from the National Institutes of Health that included a subcontract to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. While Dr. Baric and Dr. Shi Zhengli at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have collaborated on the study of bat-borne viruses, his work did not involve a subcontract to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Instead, an NIH contract with EcoHealthAlliance, which also studies viral diseases including SARS, subcontracted a portion of an NIH grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
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