The virus that causes Covid-19 is called SARS-CoV-2. It’s in a viral family called coronaviruses, several of which infect humans. It’s the third coronavirus to cause a pandemic this century.
The Covid-19 pandemic originated in the city of Wuhan, in China, in November or December of 2019.
China’s most important laboratory for the study of emerging viruses—including coronaviruses—is in Wuhan. It’s the only lab in the country with Biosafety Level 4 facilities, the most secure on the BSL scale.
Some scientists at that lab in Wuhan were doing coronavirus research under a lesser security grade, BSL-2 as opposed to BSL-4.
In November of 2019, three researchers at that laboratory got severely ill, bad enough to require going to a hospital.
In February of 2020, a Chinese researcher posted a preprint—so not peer-reviewed or published—suggesting that the virus that causes Covid-19 might have escaped from a lab after having been created by humans as a research project.
The biology of SARS-CoV-2 strongly suggests a natural origin and no human modification—a “zoonotic spillover” from wild animals, either directly to humans or first to domestic animals and then to humans.
Wuhan has “wet markets,” places where live wild animals are sometimes sold alongside domestic ones for human consumption. These can be places where viruses evolve as they move from animal to animal.
Scientists have identified the animal reservoirs from which the other two pandemic coronaviruses—Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS—jumped to humans. They haven’t found the animal host for SARS-CoV-2.
Viruses and other germs have broken out of research labs and infected humans in the past, though never at pandemic scale.
The Chinese government has been uncooperative in international efforts to investigate the origin of SARS-CoV-2.
OK: Does that mean Covid-19 might have somehow leaked out of a laboratory to become a global scourge?
Think about that before answering.
I’ll add a couple more true facts. Early in the pandemic, when President Trump and members of his administration were accusing the Chinese government of causing the pandemic, Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was convinced the virus had a natural origin. But in mid-May, at an event on Covid-19 disinformation, a journalist asked if he still thought so. “I am not convinced about that. I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened,” Fauci said. “Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out. So, you know, that’s the reason why I said I’m perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus.”
A few days later, 18 big-shot virologists and epidemiologists wrote an article in the eminent journal Science called “Investigate the Origins of Covid-19.” They pointed out that a report from the World Health Organization had looked at the two hypotheses—natural origin or lab leak—and, despite concluding that a natural origin was far more likely, had given short shrift to the other. “Greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve,” the scientists wrote. “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.” And earlier this week, President Biden told US intelligence agencies to do just that over the next 90 days, even though earlier in his tenure Biden ended a Trump administration program tasked with doing the same. At a White House press briefing, Coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt said: “It is our position that we need to get to the bottom of this, and we need a completely transparent process from China. We need the WHO to assist in that matter. We don’t feel like we have that now.”
Does any of that mean, as Washington Post fact-checkers and Wall Street Journal editorialists have written, that the lab leak hypothesis has gained “credibility”?
Or, let me ask again: If the virus that causes Covid-19 didn’t jump from animals to people, where did it come from?
Was it an animal virus that scientists collected for study and then accidentally released? Worse, did scientists do so-called gain-of-function research on a natural virus, making it more likely to pandemicize, and then accidentally release it? Or even worse than that, did they try to make a bioweapon that got out accidentally? The most worst: Did they intentionally release a bioweapon?
The truest answer is: Probably not, but maybe. And that’s the real problem here. The evidence hasn’t changed since spring of 2020. That evidence was always incomplete, and may never be complete. History and science suggest the animal-jump is way more likely than the lab-leak/cover-up thing. So now what we’re talking about is how people frame their views around the crummy evidence we have.
Except not all frames are alike. You are seeing, in real time, the sometimes ugly and confusing search for a better answer—to get international accountability and scientific clarity. But you’re also witnessing the manufacture of uncertainty. Some of the people talking about a lab leak don’t want an answer. They want to amplify and in some cases even create, for mostly venal reasons, doubt. Because then they can leverage that doubt—in leaders, in scientists, in process—to hold or build power. It has worked so well that even presidents and the heads of national institutes have to respond.
The scientists who wrote that letter in Science don’t think the lab leak hypothesis has gotten more (or less) likely since last spring. The evidence hasn’t changed. As some of them told The New York Times, they hesitated to speak up when the Trumpists were fomenting anti-China sentiment, but they’d still like to make virology labs (and the world) safer.
But more writers have climbed on board. People with relevant expertise have spoken up; so have people without it—people just asking questions on social media, in magazine articles, on Medium. These little impressions, the circumstantial coincidences, the weirdly vehement early denials … they all add up to something, don’t they? Don’t they?
When scientists say “We’re not totally sure,” they mean their analysis of some event or outcome includes a statistical possibility that they’re wrong. They never go 100 percent. Sometimes they think they might possibly be wronger than others. This is the world of confidence intervals, of mathematical models and curves, of uncertainty principles. But non-scientists hear “We’re not totally sure” as “So you mean there’s a chance?” It’s the mad interstitial space between scientific—let’s say, statistical—uncertainty and the meaning of normal human uncertainty. This is where “just asking questions [wink]” lives.
It’s a subtle difference. When Tony Fauci says he’d like to get more certainty, for example, he most likely means that, yeah, all things being equal, it’s better to know than not know—especially if that’s the way the political winds are blowing.
But when political actors like senators and right-wing TV commentators talk about this uncertainty, this doubt, they’re trying to jam a crowbar into this gap in understanding and lever it open. They’re still hinting that the Chinese government is doing something sneaky here, something warlike—and that even the scientists think it’s possible. Because if they can seem to have the backing of science, they can use that power elsewhere. They can bang shoes on tables about Biden administration inaction and Chinese skullduggery to distract from their lies about the election, about attempts to curtail voting rights, about the January 6 insurrection, about efforts to get the world vaccinated against the disease they claim to want to understand better.
This is an old playbook. Religious conservatives did it on evolution and education—“teach the controversy!” Snake-oil marketers did it on the nonexistent link between vaccines and autism. Tobacco companies and their lobbyists did it on the very real link between tobacco, second-hand smoke, and cancer. Car companies and their lobbyists did it on safety technologies in automobiles. Chemical and agricultural companies did it on agricultural chemicals from DDT to dicamba. Carbon emitting industries—mostly the oil business—are still doing it on climate change. Find uncertainty, fan it like tinder, and then use it for political gain.
Covid-19 is almost perfect fodder. Any real investigation into the origins of the virus will inevitably be hamstrung by the authoritarian government of China and utterly borked by international politics and bureaucracy. Those other cases I named were thorny scientific problems that sometimes took decades to get an answer, and that’s even more true here. It might be impossible to actually figure out the origin of SARS-CoV-2.
If the lab leak hypothesis “has gained credibility”—gotta watch those passive-voice assertions, because they don’t say who awarded the credibility and who accepted it—it’s because people repeated the words “lab leak” over and over, from the Trump White House to television shows to posts on Medium and then all the way back to many publications headquartered along Amtrak’s Acela corridor, several with the words “york” and “new” in their titles. Which brings us to today, right now, to this paragraph in this article, written just after the part where the media started criticizing social media for criticizing the media for not criticizing scientists for criticizing the non-scientists who criticized the scientists for not saying it was a lab leak.
As early as the spring of 2020, national-level security, defense, and science journalists were covering this possibility and mostly dismissing it. No new facts have emerged since then. Three scientists got sick at a virus lab during flu season? The Chinese government stonewalled? Researchers worked in BSL-2 labs? Come on. Does that mean something bad definitely happened at the Wuhan lab? No! Does it mean something bad could have happened? Sure! I guess!
Is that a gotcha moment? Did you get me? I don’t feel gotten. But if you’re trying to gin up suspicion or distrust … if you’re trying to get a budget for an investigation, or to refocus the attention of the US Congress on this thing instead of that thing … if your whole job is to find things to say that someone else has not said … if you’re just a racist, or want to find ways to punch China … well, any of those kind of people can hang their hats on those exclamation points. A SARS-CoV-2 lab leak is still a credible hypothesis that should be investigated, but these people are turning it into, as the biochemist and journalist Dan Samorodnitsky argued, a conspiracy theory.
Did SARS-CoV-2 escape from a laboratory? Did human scientists modify it to be more deadly, to spread further and faster? Maybe. Should people try to find out where it really came from? Definitely, if for no other reason than to stop the next pandemic before it starts. But those questions won’t get answered for years. And in the meantime, a few people in congress will attract TV cameras and power. A few commentators and writers will get attention for contrarian intellectualism, maybe move some subscription dollars—that's your doubt, commodified and packaged for resale.