6 min read.Updated: 28 Nov 2021, 06:10 PM ISTAdam O’Neal, The Wall Street Journal
Four books pursue theories of possible origins of the Covid-19 virus—and the question of cover-ups
The first outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease that would come to be known as Covid-19 occurred during the fall of 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, but the world still doesn’t know the virus’s precise origin. Many scientists believe that the most likely explanation is zoonotic spillover, a process in which the virus jumped to humans through another species in the wild. Historical precedent makes the theory plausible—SARS-CoV-1, the virus that caused the 2002-04 SARS epidemic, seems to have crossed over from civet cats. But direct evidence that something similar happened in the case of Covid-19 has yet to emerge.
The alternative to the theory of zoonotic origin is, as science writer Nicholas Wade puts it, “the common-sense perception that a pandemic breaking out in Wuhan might have something to do with a Wuhan lab cooking up novel viruses of maximal danger in unsafe conditions." In “Where COVID Came From," Mr. Wade makes the case that Covid-19’s evolutionary history and anatomy, along with the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s research and safety record, suggests that the virus was modified by humans and escaped the lab.
Mr. Wade, a former New York Times reporter, has never shied from controversy, and when the text of this book was originally published online in May, it prompted other members of the media to give a closer look at evidence for the “lab-leak" hypothesis. Questioning the establishment consensus was becoming acceptable.
Back in the winter of 2020, Mr. Wade notes, prominent scientists circulated influential letters arguing that only a natural origin was possible. These “were political, not scientific, statements, yet they were amazingly effective," Mr. Wade writes. “Articles in the mainstream press repeatedly stated that a consensus of experts had ruled lab escape out of the question or extremely unlikely." President Trump’s support for the lab-leak theory in many ways froze the public debate, as partisan polarization often does. But it was always possible to find dissenting voices in some corners of the media, as well as the academy, and the Biden administration eventually allowed that Mr. Trump and other Republican officials might have had a point.
In May of this year, after the publication of Mr. Wade’s essay, President Biden gave America’s spies 90 days to produce a report on the origins of Covid-19. Published in August, a roughly 500-word unclassified report concluded that the intelligence community “remains divided on the most likely origin." A 17-page follow-up in October provided some extra detail but fell back on the same equivocal conclusions. No wonder scientists, activists and journalists continue to look for answers.
In “Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19," molecular biologist Alina Chan and author Matt Ridley assemble perhaps the most comprehensive case for the lab-leak theory currently available. In May 2020, Mr. Ridley was researching an essay for this newspaper and came into contact with Ms. Chan, who had co-authored a study implying that the virus “was already well adapted to human beings from the moment it was first detected in Wuhan." Mr. Ridley wrote that “the simple story of an animal in a market infected by a bat that then infected several human beings no longer looks credible." Since then Ms. Chan and Mr. Ridley have been building a case that Covid-19 could have accidentally emerged from a lab in Wuhan.
The authors also expose flaws in arguments for a natural origin. “The SARS virus was isolated in March 2003, its genome sequenced in April, and animal sources in markets identified in May," they note. That is not the case with SARS-CoV-2. “Today, close to two years into the outbreak, with much more superior technology and similar outbreak circumstances, we still have no idea where the first patients caught" Covid-19.
The authors credit help from “a particularly tenacious, loose confederation on Twitter, calling itself the ‘Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19,’ or Drastic." At one point, for instance, “a Spanish business consultant working in his spare time" dug into the work of two prominent scientists who have been the strongest defenders of the zoonotic theory: Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, who had extensive ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and star WIV researcher Shi Zhengli. About half a decade ago, it seems, they discovered eight viruses “that are very closely related to the virus causing the pandemic and brought them more than a thousand kilometres to Wuhan." The researchers have since presented their sanguine interpretation of those viruses. The strong suggestion is that not all scientists working in this field have been forthright about their research.
Like Ms. Chan and Mr. Ridley, the Australian journalist Sharri Markson says she is open to a zoonotic origin but clearly favors the accidental lab-leak explanation. Where “Viral" reads as a scientific polemic, Ms. Markson’s “What Really Happened In Wuhan" is a fast-paced narrative. An intrepid movie studio could find a global audience for the whodunit presented by Ms. Markson—though Hollywood, heavily dependent as it is on China’s moviegoing population, probably wouldn’t go for it.
Reviewing an early interview with a dissenting scientist, Ms. Markson admits that a year later “I was embarrassed to hear I confused the scientific terms in my questions." Though she doesn’t shy away from the technical discussions that bedevil this debate, her best reporting comes from interviews with Trump administration officials who relate how they handled the early days of the pandemic while later fighting internally over the lab-leak theory.
“What Really Happened in Wuhan" also sheds light on how a 2014 National Institutes of Health moratorium on funding for gain-of-function research—in which laboratory scientists can make viruses more dangerous or transmissible—ended in 2017. The Obama administration had established a temporary ban while a policy review was being conducted. Ms. Markson reports that some top Trump administration officials apparently had no idea that NIH-funded research had resumed. “What was even more terrifying," she writes, “was that not only was the NIH funding gain-of-function research in the United States—but it was funding research in China, where it had no oversight and no way of knowing how safe the laboratories were where these risky experiments were taking place."
All these books spend many pages investigating the details of the lab-leak hypothesis, and the debate in the West about it. In “Made in China: Wuhan, Covid and the Quest for Biotech Supremacy," British journalist Jasper Becker goes much further back. Mr. Becker, who spent 18 years as a correspondent in Beijing for the South China Morning Post and other publications, provides useful context about the complicated history of U.S.-China relations. In particular, he brings to the surface what is often a subtext in these debates about virus research: the specter of biological warfare.
During the Korean War, this was known as “germ warfare"—and the Chinese Communists, in their propaganda, accused the Americans of practicing it. “This is one reason why Western intelligence agencies are likely to doubt or at least question official accounts about the origin of the virus and the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology," Mr. Becker writes. “While the Chinese and Soviet governments pushed a completely false story of its enemies waging war with bioweapons against civilians, they actively pursued their own germ warfare programmes in secrecy."
Mr. Becker also explains why, even if SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a Chinese lab, Beijing could never accept responsibility. “The national shame might spell the end of the Chinese Communist Party’s seventy-year rule," he suggests. “It would start a political earthquake which would begin in China but spread around the world." It is now unlikely the world will ever know the truth with certainty, but a credible defector could set off an upheaval.
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