Idea That COVID-19 Began as a Lab Leak Spreads


At first it was the stuff of conspiracy theorists. Most experts, and certainly the bulk of the public, believed that coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) started as a result of someone eating a bat in the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China. There were whispers that the virus had been manufactured in a laboratory in that city and that somehow the little spiky ball that has killed millions and brought the world’s economy to its knees escaped. But nobody much believed it and certainly what’s known as the mainstream press for the most part ignored it. 

Until now. 

No one would accuse New York magazine of being a fringe publication, as a cursory glace at its Wikipedia page makes clear. Yesterday, New York magazine published a lengthy article by Nicholson Baker, in which he posits that scientists in a laboratory in China purposely created a hyper-virulent strain of a coronavirus as part of an anti-pandemic program. 

That’s a point Baker makes right at the start in his lead. “What happened wasfairly simple, I’ve come to believe,” Baker writes. “It was an accident. A virus spent some time in a laboratory, and eventually it got out. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, began its existence inside a bat, then it learned how to infect people in a claustrophobic mine shaft, and then it was made more infectious in one or more laboratories, perhaps as part of a scientist’s well-intentioned but risky effort to create a broad-spectrum vaccine.”

Wuhan houses two laboratories that study coronaviruses that originate in bats: the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control. It’s possible, Baker writes, that scientists studying a coronavirus that may have been genetically altered to make it more powerful did not disinfect themselves properly before leaving work. 

But scientists have been performing these sorts of experiments for years, as Baker points out. Nonetheless, he writes that “I keep returning to the basic, puzzling fact: This patchwork pathogen, which allegedly has evolved without human meddling, first came to notice in the only city in the world with a laboratory that was paid for years by the U.S. government to perform experiments on certain obscure and heretofore unpublicized strains of bat viruses—which bat viruses then turned out to be, out of all the organisms on the planet, the ones that are most closely related to the disease. What are the odds?”

The Washington Post’s Editorial Board published an opinion piece a couple of days ago that approaches the question about the origin of COVIDF-19 from a slightly different perspective. It states that the Chinese government more or less controls all research having to do with the pandemic. The op-ed states that “the possibility of a laboratory accident or inadvertent leak having caused the coronavirus outbreak must not be ignored. The genetic makeup of the coronavirus is similar to a variant found in bats.” In addition: “The presence of China’s thought police overseeing scientific inquiry does not bode well.” 

A publication doesn’t get more mainstream than the Washington Post. Unless that publication happens to be the Daily Mail in Great Britain, the newspaper with the largest circulation in that country. The Mail on Saturday published a straight news story that investigates the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was manufactured in a lab. 

The Mail story cites as a source, Matthew Pottinger, President Trump’s “respected deputy national security advisor.” The Mail writes that Pottinger “said that the latest intelligence points to the virus leaking from the top-secret Wuhan Institute of Virology, 11 miles from the market, saying: ‘There is a growing body of evidence that the lab is likely the most credible source of the virus.’”

Other mainstream outlets that have raised questions about the origin on the virus include the BBC, Le Monde, and Italy’s RAI.

But by far the most heavily researched article on this theory is the one written by Baker and published in New York magazine yesterday in which he asks “isn’t it possible that somebody in Wuhan took the virus that had been isolated from human samples, or the RaTG13 bat virus sequence, or both (or other viruses from that same mine shaft that Shi Zhengli has recently mentioned in passing), and used them to create a challenge disease for vaccine research—a chopped-and-channeled version of RaTG13 or the miners’ virus that included elements that would make it thrive and even rampage in people? And then what if, during an experiment one afternoon, this new, virulent, human-infecting, furin-ready virus got out?”

The Chinese government, it should be noted, has also backed off the story that the virus began at the marketplace in Wuhan. And one reaction might be that it doesn’t really matter how the pandemic began, only that the world’s response to it has been uneven, at best, and that poor response has cost millions of lives. 

Yet, as more infectious variants of COVID-19 arrive on the scene, answers to the question surrounding exactly how the world finds itself in the this mess might become even more of a matter of life or death than it is now. 

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