Did the coronavirus pandemic which has killed 3.5m people around the world and stopped the global economy in its tracks over the past year and a half originate in a Wuhan laboratory?
It’s a question that was asked in the first days of the pandemic, and is a live issue once again thanks to President Biden’s call for US intelligence officials to investigate the possibility.
One of the people who has been banging this drum for more than a year now is my friend Jamie Metzl, whose recent book Hacking Darwin looked at the future of genetic engineering and the risks and opportunities that it poses for humanity.
He’s part of the World Health Organization’s expert advisory board on human genome editing, and has worked in the US National Security Council and State Department, as well as being the former executive vice-president of the Asia Society. In short, a serious person with knowledge of both China and biotechnology, who wouldn’t raise an issue like this lightly.
I reached out last Thursday to Jamie, who was also instrumental in helping to craft the Senate’s call for officials at the World Health Assembly to come together and ask China to take part in a comprehensive international investigation of the outbreak. See here.
I asked him why he felt that more evidence was needed to refute the idea that the virus had come out of a lab. He made several points worth noting:
1. The original Lancet paper on the virus which came out in January 2020 found more than a third of the first known cases of Covid-19 had no exposure to wet markets, making the story of a wet market origin suspicious from very early on. Meanwhile, horseshoe bats don’t migrate anywhere near Wuhan (timeline and more points on all this here).
2. Chinese authorities began destroying samples, hiding records, and silencing whistleblowers early on. When President Trump began to politicise the issue in February 2020, this had the unfortunate impact of shutting down a lot of legitimate questions still remaining about the origins of the virus.
3. Wuhan is not some backward place where people are running around eating bats, as the original rather xenophobic narrative that emerged in the US press would have us believe. It’s the Chicago of China. Side note: I’ve been there myself, and I’ve even visited a Wuhan wet market, which looked to me like any number of emerging market outdoor shopping venues.
4. You don’t have to have some nefarious Trumpian view of China to believe that there might have been a legitimate lab accident in Wuhan and that the downside of transparency for the Chinese authorities was too high (upsets internal political system and also China has to own all downstream risk from pandemic, which dovetails with trade and climate fights). Accidents happen, but whatever the origin of the initial outbreak there’s no doubt that China’s cover-up, particularly in the first month, was a massive accelerant and amplifier of the crisis.
5. These sorts of accidents have happened in many other places, from Russia to the US. Meaning, it’s not an out of the box theory — researchers don’t have to be building a bioweapon to have lost control of a virus. They simply have to have had an accident.
6. There is a sense in the US among Democrats that if Trump said something, it must be wrong. As Jamie said to me, and I totally agree, “we can’t have a situation in which the left won’t admit something is possibly true because someone we don’t like said it.” I have, as Swamp Notes readers will know, made this point in regards to the neoliberal trade stance, and why it must evolve.
China will say no to any investigation of this kind, of course. But it could be a way into a negotiation about how to handle eradicating the virus now, and how to create a global transparency regime around virology, and high risk lab protocols in particular, in future. That’s why I think it’s a good idea. Ed, what are your thoughts?
Rana, I agree that China should open its books — this time for real — to international investigators. We had a strong editorial on that over the weekend. It would be an extraordinary demonstration of regime accountability that would scotch talk of Covid-19 turning into China’s “Chernobyl” and provide a service to the world. Alas, hell will freeze over before Xi Jinping agrees to a thorough and free international inquiry. So people will continue to believe, perhaps correctly, that China does in fact have something to hide.
Whatever the resources of America’s intelligence agencies, neither they, nor anyone else, will be able to make a clear determination about the origins of this virus unless China permits them full access to the lab, the doctors, the wet markets and the data. It thus seems reasonable to conclude that we might never be able to prove how this started and will therefore be more vulnerable to the next global pandemic, and the one after that. That’s a terrible prospect that lies entirely at China’s door.
As regards Trump’s distortionary effects on the US media, that is undoubtedly real (though another time perhaps we can debate your point about “neoliberal trade”). For similar reasons, the media discounted the effectiveness of Trump’s Operation Warp Speed and, in many cases, asserted that Russia, rather than Jim Comey, or indeed Hillary Clinton, tipped the 2016 election. There is too much groupthink in our profession. For that reason we should also be careful about now collectively assuming Covid-19 came from the Wuhan virology lab. It may be so but we just don’t know.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘Biden’s reversion to Democratic type’:
“I find myself sympathetic to Rana’s big picture view of what Biden represents in terms of a shift away from a neoliberal, and hopeful that she is right. But I’m torn because I think Ed is very clear-eyed about how the GOP works and that nothing has changed for decades. I suppose the real question is: what do Manchin and Sinema want? Are they juggling their own political careers with an eye to re-election or do they really think bipartisanship is more important than getting anything done? I do find it odd that the White House is not promoting its infrastructure bill and tax proposals better by pointing out the bill will be paid over eight years and not one, and that things like unleashing the IRS and actually enforcing existing tax laws will go a long way to creating the revenues needed to pay for it. With the cost of money being as low as it is and the stock market as high as it is, there literally is no better time to make the infrastructure investments Biden wants to make, and the White House should play hard ball while the iron is hot.” — Dick Wilbur, Barrington, Rhode Island