Lab Leak, Revisited
A controversial new book compiles the evidence on the origin of COVID-19 and demands more investigation.
Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley tells the intricate and troubling story of the global effort to establish the original source of the COVID-19 pandemic—a challenging subject, requiring a deep dive into the biomolecular complexities of bat viruses, a sleuth-like compilation of the timeline of discoveries, a teasing out of conflicts of interest and the motives of key players, and a sober look at the often-messy state of the evidence. Viral delivers all those elements, often deftly so, by casting the question as the 21st century’s greatest public health mystery. At its best the book reads like a well-researched detective story made harrowing by the constant reminder that, tragically, it’s not fiction.
But giving a compelling narrative spin to an ongoing investigation sets up an expectation for a definitive conclusion that can’t be met. Unlike pulp fiction mysteries, which reliably satisfy the reader with a classic beginning, middle, and end narrative structure, Viral delivers no gratifying ending. That’s partly because we are still in the thick of the global crisis with no end in sight. But it’s also because, at the end of the day, nobody—including the authors—knows definitively where the virus came from.
From the outset, the book takes us down the proverbial rabbit hole, or in this case, a literal mine shaft covered in guano in the Yunnan province of China. Here six men working to clear out an abandoned copper mine that is occupied by bats become later hospitalized, likely with a bat virus, in 2012. Following these illnesses, the mine became a center for investigation with researchers, including several from the Wuhan Institute of Virology who acquired and transported samples of bat guano to their laboratory in the following years. These researchers at the institute, led by Shi Zhengli and often in collaboration with U.S. researchers including Peter Daszak at EcoHealth Alliance and Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina, are part of the global vanguard of microbe hunters working to prepare for the next outbreak of a SARS-like virus. The crucial question investigated in Viral is: Did these labs inadvertently cause the pandemic while working to prevent one?
Right out of the gate, the origins of COVID-19 pandemic seemed like a settled issue in many scientific circles: It was believed to be caused by a natural exposure of some person to some infected animal at a place such as an animal market. Early and highly influential articles in Nature magazine and The Lancet strongly suggested such a “natural origin” with the Lancet piece in particular damning the possibility of a deliberate or accidental release as misinformation, saying, “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumors, and prejudice that jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.”
There’s nothing wrong with the “natural origin” hypothesis, since countless infectious disease epidemics of the past started this way, including the earlier coronavirus outbreaks of SARS and MERS. So why concoct a more elaborate story?
According to the authors, we did not know enough in the early days of the pandemic to rule out other possibilities. While it was reasonable, they say, to reject the possibility that COVID-19 was cooked up in a lab and deliberately spread in a nefarious bioweapons attack, there was no compelling reason to rule out the possibility that the first cases could have resulted from an accidental release—the so-called “lab leak hypothesis.”
However, neither the Nature nor Lancet articles considered these two hypotheses separately and instead lumped them together and swept them aside in a single, fell swoop. That exuberant dismissal influenced the coverage of most mainstream media outlets including the New York Times and The Guardian. Chan and Ridley damningly describe the mainstream media as displaying a “magnificent incuriosity” during this period—a slight those same outlets have repaid aplenty in the last two weeks by publishing scathing reviews of the book.
Cracks in the consensus
The most damning suggestion of bias towards premature acceptance of the natural origin theory comes from the dual role of an author and organizer of the Lancet piece. Peter Daszak was both an author of the Lancet article and had been funding the Wuhan Institute through his NGO, EcoHealth, via U.S. government grants (through the NIH and USAID) and hence had a stake in exonerating the Wuhan Institute of Virology as potentially culpable. Yet as Chan and Ridley write, the Lancet piece “gave no hint of Daszak’s role in organizing the letter.” Additionally, accompanying the article was the statement “We declare no competing interests.”
As portrayed in the book, Daszak’s role in this affair could be a master class in how to influence public opinion: writing or coordinating pieces in top scientific journals, tweeting to influence key developments, at times standing at the forefront and taking a central role in the World Health Organization investigation, other times fading into the background and letting other scientists take the lead as the situation required.
With the world in lockdown, lots of smart people with time on their hands turned their attention to the problem.
And yet even as prestigious journals and mainstream media outlets were falling into lockstep and condemning any suggestion of a possible lab leak as a conspiratorial rant, a crop of internet sleuths surfaced all over the world, digging into obscure databases and resurrecting old master’s and doctoral theses. With the world in lockdown, lots of smart people with time on their hands turned their attention to the problem (including some with clever online names like “The Seeker” and “Babarlelephant”).
They started pouring over citations in papers by the Wuhan Institute’s Shi and others, and began probing public genomics databases. Many of them had no specific biology background but nevertheless began surfacing irregularities and omissions on key points of the story, sharing their information on Twitter. Meanwhile, many of the scientists who were either relatively guarded with their opinions or even supported the natural origin story started to speak up as they saw these inconsistencies and joined the ranks of scientists such as the book’s co-author Alina Chan, who was unconvinced of the natural origin story from the outset. Chan then joined forces with the well-known author Matt Ridley, a self-proclaimed “climate lukewarmer” who is no stranger to controversy, to co-write Viral.
Ultimately, the dam burst. Whatever was holding back scientists, journalists, and international bodies such as the WHO from taking the lab leak hypothesis seriously in 2020 cracked this year as suddenly everyone, including President Joe Biden, was demanding a full investigation of all possible origins.
Overall, this is a critical book on the ongoing, globally defining saga of the century. Those who thought that the lab leak hypothesis had long been ruled out will be in for a serious surprise after reading Viral, which makes it clear that’s not the case. And those who want to understand COVID-19’s origin story in all its complexity will appreciate the rigor of the book. It does an admirable job rendering complex scientific evidence understandable to the non-expert. Readers hoping for a final assessment of the origin, however, will be disappointed as we are still in the second act of a three-act drama. As a result, the mystery is recounted but the final whodunit cannot be revealed.
Chan and Ridley are ultimately hopeful, writing from their vantage somewhere midway through the global investigation that “truth will out,” a line they quote from Shakespeare. But while all the revelations to date provide some justification for their optimism, the key weakness of the book is that the authors don’t consider the implications of a hung jury—how does society prevent the next pandemic if we can’t decide how this one occurred?