A revealing in-depth article recently published on the influential Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists website examines the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Written by Nicholas Wade, a science writer, editor, and author who has worked on the staff of Nature, Science, and, for many years, the New York Times, the article sorts through the available scientific facts and considers whether it is likely that the SARS-CoV-2 virus jumped naturally from wildlife to people, as has been widely claimed, or whether it may instead have escaped from a lab. While stating there is as yet no direct evidence for either theory, and that no definitive conclusion can therefore be reached, Wade proposes that the available evidence leans more strongly towards the possibility that the virus originated in a lab.
From early on in the pandemic, Wade writes, public and media perceptions were shaped in favor of the natural emergence theory by statements coming from certain scientific groups. These statements were not examined as critically as they should have been, he says. For example, a letter published in The Lancet medical journal on 19 February, 2020, claimed scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.” As Wade points out, however, at that early stage, it was simply far too soon for anyone to be precisely sure what had happened.
Wade goes on to describe how it later emerged that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Daszak’s organization had funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, only a few kilometers from the wet market where the pandemic is claimed to have originated. As such, Wade writes, if it turned out that the virus had escaped from the Wuhan lab as a result of research funded by Daszak’s organization, he would be potentially culpable. Despite this, Daszak’s funding-related conflict of interest was not declared in The Lancet letter.
Natural emergence remained the mainstream media’s preferred theory until around February 2021 and the visit by a World Health Organization (WHO) investigatory commission to China. As Wade points out, this commission’s composition and access were heavily controlled by the Chinese authorities. The commission’s members, who coincidentally included Peter Daszak himself, asserted before, during, and after their visit that it was extremely unlikely the virus had escaped from a lab. These claims were made despite the fact that, with around 15 months having elapsed by then since the pandemic began, researchers had still failed to find either the original bat population, or the intermediate species via which the virus might have jumped.
Ever since virologists gained the tools for manipulating a virus’s genes, Wade explains, they have claimed they could get ahead of a potential pandemic by exploring how close a given animal virus might be to making the jump to humans. As a result, around the world, so-called ‘gain-of-function’ experiments that enhance the ability of dangerous animal viruses to infect human beings have become commonplace. Significantly, therefore, and as Wade describes, such experiments using bat coronaviruses have been carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Moreover, not only was at least some of this work apparently funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a division of the United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) that is headed by the infamous Dr. Anthony Fauci, but it has also involved making alterations to the spike protein that facilitates the entry of coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-2 into host cells.
Laboratories working with viruses are categorized using four levels of safety: BSL1, BSL2, BSL3, and BSL4. Of these, BSL4 is the most restrictive and is used for work involving dangerous pathogens such as the Ebola virus. Scientists working in BSL4 labs have to wear spacesuit-type garments and conduct their research using closed cabinets.
Wade writes that prior to 2020, the rules followed by virologists in China and elsewhere required that experiments with the SARS1 and MERS coronaviruses be conducted in BSL3 conditions. All other bat coronaviruses could be studied in BSL2, the next level down. BSL2 requires taking fairly minimal safety precautions, such as wearing lab coats and gloves, not sucking up liquids in a pipette, and putting up biohazard warning signs. However, and as Wade points out, a gain-of-function experiment conducted under BSL2 conditions might produce an agent more infectious than either SARS1 or MERS. And if it did, then lab workers would stand a high chance of infection.
Critically, therefore, much of the work carried out at the Wuhan Institute on gain-of-function in coronaviruses was apparently done under BSL2 safety conditions. Moreover, Wade describes how, prior to the pandemic, it is alleged that several Wuhan researchers fell ill displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
Weighing up the evidence supporting the two competing theories explaining the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Wade acknowledges that neither can yet be ruled out. Nevertheless, he suggests that proponents of the lab escape theory can explain all the available facts about the virus more easily than those who favor natural emergence.
In his conclusion, Wade writes that the more months pass without the natural emergence theory gaining a shred of supporting evidence, the less plausible it may seem. As Sherlock Holmes famously observed: once you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.