News

While a laboratory leak may never be ruled out as the origin of Covid-19, the sources of that theory remain highly questionable. By Linda Jaivin.

Inside the Wuhan lab leak conspiracy theory

Journalists are moved away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Credit: AP

One year and a half into the Covid-19 pandemic, the novel coronavirus has infected some 180 million people and killed at least four million – and the virus’s origins are still a mystery. Now, with United States President Joe Biden and the G7 ordering fresh inquiries, and QAnon, the Murdoch media, right-wing politicians and others aiding the spread of conspiracy theories on the subject, the world is facing a politico-scientific storm that is inflaming existing geopolitical tensions and dangerously muddying the line between fact and fiction.

Beijing is offended and angry at the wilder accusations floating around – that they released the virus on purpose, for example – making it less likely than ever that researchers will gain access to key Chinese data on the early stages of the outbreak. The politicisation of the issue threatens to derail important co-operation between the People’s Republic of China and the rest of the world on the development and distribution of vaccines, as well as public health and medical science more broadly. Even at the height of the Cold War, the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were able to work together to develop the vaccines that ended polio and smallpox.

As for the science, there are two main hypotheses about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the name of the virus behind Covid-19. One credits natural zoonotic spillover, likely traced to a horseshoe bat. The other maintains that it escaped from a lab, specifically one at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Scientists originally favoured the first hypothesis. Now, after further detailed study of the virus’s unique genetic characteristics, it appears that both hypotheses are plausible, even if the first still leads scientific opinion. If an answer can be found, it will only be as a result of evidence-based, reproducible, transparent and peer-reviewed studies.

One reason scientists initially favoured the first hypothesis is that nearly every new human virus over the past half century, including Ebola, SARS and Hendra, has resulted from species-to-species transmission. This hypothesis points to the Wuhan wet markets, where some 47,000 live animals belonging to 38 species, 33 of which are known to carry pathogens, were sold between 2017 and 2019, typically in close and unhygienic conditions. Two-thirds of initial cases had contact with live or dead animals, some at the markets; asymptomatic transmission may conceivably have accounted for those that didn’t. Early studies of the virus’s genome, which Chinese scientists mapped and released to the world on January 11 last year, appeared to substantiate this hypothesis.

The recent shift in scientific consensus towards a more agnostic position on the possibility of a lab leak is far from the “gotcha” moment that right-wing media and politicians are making it out to be, however. It’s normal scientific practice.

The parallel shift that has occurred in mainstream journalistic coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis ought to be normal journalistic practice as well. But almost from the start, public discussion in the West acquired a partisan, political and even ideological character as virulent as the disease itself.

At the centre of the storm is Dr Shi Zhengli, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and long considered one of the world’s leading virologists. Her team studies coronaviruses that originate with bats.

Among the institute’s international research collaborators is the American non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, which used US government grants to fund research there. Some of these experiments may have included “gain-of-function” research by which existing viruses are manipulated to create new ones with greater transmissibility or virulence. Gain-of-function research is controversial. Its defenders argue that it helps anticipate and therefore prevent future pandemics, providing the opportunity to develop vaccines and treatments in advance. Its critics say it can accidentally spark pandemics or lead to the creation of bioweapons.

Following the initial outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 in China, questions were raised about the kinds of experiments conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and biosecurity protocols there. Anti-Chinese sentiment was on the rise globally. In February 2020, a number of public health scientists from around the world put their name to a letter in the medical journal The Lancet. It voiced appreciation for the front-line Chinese scientists and medical professionals who had worked hard to identify and contain the pathogen. It noted that early studies elsewhere pointed to a likely natural origin. The signatories decried the lab-leak hypothesis as conspiracy theory, “rumours and misinformation”.

Three months later, in May 2020, then US president Donald Trump ominously claimed he had information that the Chinese government might have “let it out” on purpose. His history of anti-China antagonism and record of making false or misleading statements, together with his refusal to reveal the source of the claim, meant that, considered alongside the letter, Trump’s words had two consequences.

First, mainstream media relegated the possibility that Covid-19 had leaked from a lab, even by accident, to the realm of conspiracy theory. Second, Trump supporters, including in the right-wing media, ensured that the lab-leak hypothesis acquired all the trappings of one, complete with sinister imputations about bioweaponry. The atmosphere grew so toxic that scientists whose research showed the lab-leak hypothesis was plausible risked being labelled as Trumpist stooges or anti-Chinese racists. Some received death threats.

Then came a twist: in November 2020, the journal Independent Science News revealed that the organiser of the Lancet letter was Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, the organisation that had funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology – despite the letter declaring that its signatories had “no competing interests”.

Daszak also took part in an investigative team organised by the World Health Organization, which visited Wuhan in January and February this year. Chinese authorities closely managed the group’s movements, including access to relevant data and their single visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Forensic examination of institute labs was never on the agenda: the team’s explicit remit was the identification of “the zoonotic source of the virus”. Daszak’s role in the letter and in the World Health Organization investigation may have been ethically questionable and ill-advised, but it doesn’t prove anything beyond that. Still, it has become a key part of the conspiratorial “Wuhan lab theory”.

Lab leaks do happen. Between 2015 and 2017, laboratories in Britain logged 40 biosecurity incidents, including the posting of a sample of dengue fever. In 2014, while moving offices, the US Federal Drug Administration discovered vials of smallpox in a cardboard box that had probably been left there, unchecked, since the 1960s. SARS has previously escaped labs in Beijing, Taiwan and Singapore. There is no reason to think that the sort of technical issues and human error involved in these incidents couldn’t occur at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But possibility is not proof.

Beijing, incidentally, has also embraced its own “lab-leak theory”: that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from biological warfare labs at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Chinese officials have also claimed that the virus may have entered China on the packaging of imported frozen food. QAnon thinks Bill Gates did it.

In Australia, untethered from actual scientific investigation, “Wuhan lab theory” has become little more than another blunt instrument in the culture wars against scientists, the left and China itself. It is easily gaining traction at a time when Australians’ trust in Beijing to act responsibly in the world, according to a new Lowy Institute survey, has dipped to 16 per cent.

In Australia, Sharri Markson is a prime vector for the political variant of “Wuhan lab theory”, including the notion that Covid-19 may be the product of bioweapons research. Markson is investigations editor at The Australian and a contributor to Sky News.

Among her much-hyped “discoveries” is a Chinese-language book that supposedly implicates the Chinese government in coronavirus-related biowarfare research. The authors of Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons are indeed researchers at China’s Air Force Medical University, including one who collaborated in the past with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But they’re not policymakers. The book is freely available on platforms including Amazon. According to journalist and researcher Vicky Xu, there’s no evidence to suggest it “was ever read and taken seriously by Chinese authorities”.

The book argues that China should prepare for a future war fought with bioweaponry – to defend itself against the biowarfare “terrorists” of Japan and the US, whom it accuses of cooking up the original SARS virus that swept China in 2002-03. The lead author, according to Xu, described his state of mind during the writing process as “so sad he could stomp through the floor, so angry he wanted to push over his desk, so excited he could sing at the top of his lungs”.

The book belongs to a loose and sensationalist genre of mainland Chinese publications that encompasses insider accounts, flag-wavers and military strategy and speculation. These are not official documents. They do not reflect Chinese policy, or necessarily serious research. Chinese publishers have been pumping out such books since they were forced to look after their own bottom lines during the market reforms of the 1980s.

If the People’s Republic of China is conducting bioweapons research, circumstantial evidence is not the smoking gun to prove it. It’s close to impossible to verify or refute allegations that China, or the US for that matter, is carrying out biowarfare research. Despite both being signatories to the United Nations Biological Weapons Convention, the US has consistently frustrated attempts to regularise monitoring and compliance.

As for circumstantial evidence against the notion that Covid-19 is the product of bioweapons research, try this: Covid-19 kills about 2 per cent of those it infects, can take weeks to do so, and is most fatal to the elderly and others with comorbidities. Compare this with a weaponised nerve agent such as sarin, which can kill anybody within minutes of contact. If Covid-19 is a bioweapon, it’s not a very good one.

It’s true that Chinese officials at various levels of government withheld timely information about the outbreak, punished whistleblowers and suppressed independent reporting. This is the Communist Party’s modus operandi for dealing with events that challenge its control, including over the narrative.

And there remain important unanswered questions that stand outside the realm of pure scientific investigation. What was in the database of viral genome sequences that the Wuhan Institute of Virology took offline in the second half of 2019, officially to protect it against hackers? Is it true that three people at the institute fell ill with undiagnosed respiratory ailments before the first official cases of SARS-CoV-2 were reported? What about reports of cases of the virus appearing in the US and France before or around the same time it surfaced in Wuhan?

In May this year, Science magazine published a letter urging a “dispassionate science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue”. Writing in First Draft, Stevie Zhang made a similar plea to journalists negotiating the “minefield” of reporting on it.

We may never know where Covid-19 came from. The good news is that to prevent another outbreak, we don’t need to.

The possibility that it may have come from a lab should oblige all nations conducting virological research to tighten biosecurity standards, and increase transparency and oversight. There may be a good argument for a global ban on gain-of-function research as well.

The prospect that the virus arose in the wild should likewise compel all countries to regulate the hunting, selling, farming and consumption of wild animals, including for their fur, and to better manage and preserve natural habitats. The focus on the lab-leak hypothesis distracts attention from the fact that a key driver of environmental degradation, shrinking natural habitats, and other factors pushing humans into closer contact with wild animals, is the climate crisis.

Like the management of pandemics, the climate crisis relies on global co-operation for a solution. The biggest threat to global co-operation is a lack of trust. Nothing erodes trust more than conspiracy theories. This is especially so when governments, whether in Canberra, Washington or Beijing, and their allies, including in the media, tolerate and even promote those most useful to their political agendas.

 

Clarification: Sharri Markson does not believe Covid-19 was deliberately leaked from a laboratory and does not believe it was developed as a bioweapon; her reporting has engaged with scientists.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "Inside the Wuhan lab leak conspiracy theory".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Linda Jaivin is the author of The Shortest History of China.