LAB LEAK (1) : An odd about-face in the fortunes of the best COVID-origins hypothesis
This about-face presents a riddle. To understand our political and geopolitical systems, we must describe this riddle clearly, then solve it.
The lab-leak hypothesis always deserved to be considered.
But for a year and a half, Western meaning makers all ridiculed this proposal.
This changed after Nicholas Wade published his influential analysis.
But why did the bureacrats, journalists, and academics need Wade?
Ben Who? Ben Hu. That’s who.
The smoking gun confirming the lab leak hypothesis, they are calling him.
Michael Shellenberger, Matt Taibbi, and Alex Gutentag report that “according to multiple U.S. government officials,” “sources within the US government,” and “an anonymous U.S. State Department investigator,” Ben Hu and two others were the first to get infected with COVID.
It matters, they tell us, because Ben Hu was Zhengli-Li Shi’s “star pupil” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). And because Dr. Zhengli-Li Shi—known as ‘the Batwoman’—is the #1 suspect as creator of SARS-COV-2 (SARS2), the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the lab leak hypothesis. The lab-leak hypothesis claims that SARS2 was engineered at the WIV and escaped due to negligence.
As someone who’s been defending the lab leak hypothesis for a long time, I want to say two things about this.
First is that I would invite Shellenberger, Taibbi, and Gutentag to reconsider the ‘unnamed sources’ style of reporting, so characteristic of the New York Times and other mainstream publications that lie all the time. I understand there is a tradition about this but we need a new tradition. A new standard. Because to allow unnamed sources—which others cannot verify—to function as ‘evidence’ makes it too easy for those who just make up sources to prop up their lies, and readers cannot tell which is which. Proffered information must be verifiable.
The second thing I want to say is this: if the information about Ben Hu and the two others is verified to everyone’s satisfaction, that will indeed strengthen the lab leak hypothesis. But this is whisking a drop into the sea, or a lightbulb at the sun. You get me? Ben Hu?; big deal. Kudos to these three journalists, because lots of people need the Ben Hu story to be convinced. But the lab-leak hypothesis had already won—it won a long time ago.
The watershed moment, from the cultural point of view, was Nicholas Wade’s piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
It is worth revisiting the remarkably weak and strident opposition that Wade (and many others) faced down, and the scandalously obvious conflicts of interest that plagued opponents of the lab-leak hypothesis. Therein lurk all sorts of lessons for us, as we strive together to protect what’s left of Western democracy and we think hard about how to restore what has been lost.
Let us revisit, then.
At some point in the recent past, a coronavirus that attacks bats became SARS2 (full name: SARS-COV-2), which is highly contagious to, and sometimes lethal to, humans. SARS2 produces COVID-19.
The first COVID cases appeared in the city of Wuhan, China. Just a few miles from those cases sits the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where they investigate bat coronaviruses. In that lab, they do ‘gain of function’ (GOF) research, the point of which is to make bat coronaviruses—SARS viruses—more contagious and lethal to humans.
(Officially, GOF research is justified as an effort to leap ahead of natural evolution and thus learn in advance what a future pandemic might bring.)
The above and other evidence led many (among them Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying) to speculate from the beginning that SARS2 might have leaked from the Wuhan lab: the lab-leak hypothesis.
This hypothesis was resisted with vehemence by the main meaning-makers in Western civilization: the major news media, the social networks, the academic establishment, and the governments. From these summits, heated insults and accusations—and astonishing censorship—were all thrown at defenders of the lab-leak hypothesis.
And then, after a year and a half of that, Nicholas Wade wrote an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that considered both the lab-leak and the natural-origins hypotheses against the evidence. Wade found several interlocking lines of evidence supporting a possible lab leak and almost nothing supporting natural origins.
The impact of this article was phenomenal. Everything changed: overnight, people stopped making fun of the lab-leak hypothesis. This dramatic change was owed to two things:
to Nicholas Wade’s prestige as “a science writer, editor, and author who has worked on the staff of Nature, Science, and, for many years [in the past], the New York Times”; and
to Wade’s strong presentation: in favor of the lab-leak hypothesis, as Wade makes clear, there is a veritable tsunami of evidence (which I will only sparingly touch on here); whereas in favor of a natural origin there is almost nothing.
The few publications that had been taking the lab-leak hypothesis seriously immediately gave credit to Wade. For example, the New York Post called it “the landmark essay by ex-New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade.”
Big Media refused to give Wade his due. But they nevertheless changed their tune. Post-Wade, it just became too embarrassing to continue saying that the lab-leak hypothesis was nonsense.
But why wasn’t the lab leak hypothesis taken seriously from the start? It was always obvious that much evidence supported this hypothesis, so the initially vehement reaction against it by all our sources of authority is a bit of a riddle.
My purpose here is to establish—beyond all doubt—that this is indeed a riddle, and that it needs to be solved. To that end, I will review four dramatic exhibits of evidence that, from the start, were strongly consistent with the lab-leak hypothesis yet were brushed aside as if nothing.
Exhibit 1: Viruses leak from ‘biosecure’ labs all the time
Though the Soviets denied it for years, it is now generally accepted that anthrax escaped from a Soviet biowarfare lab in Sverdlovsk in 1979. “Estimates put the number of people killed at over 100, together with unknown numbers of livestock.”1
Smallpox escaped from British labs three times in the 1970s and 1980s. And “dangerous viruses have leaked out of labs almost every year since.” One example is foot-and-mouth disease, which devastated British livestock after escaping from a British maximum security lab.2
In 2014, 75 scientists from the CDC were accidentally exposed to anthrax. A few weeks later, employees of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found 16 vials full of smallpox that had been stored without any special precautions and then forgotten.3
More to our point, we have that “nearly every SARS case since the original [SARS1] epidemic [in 2003] has been due to lab leaks—six incidents in three countries.” Even more relevant: this includes two SARS escapes “in a single month from a lab in Beijing” (my emphasis).4
Yes, the Wuhan Institute of Virology has the maximum biosafety level: BSL-4. But so did the labs above. And it had been reported, long before the COVID pandemic, that daily security practices at the Wuhan lab were alarmingly bad.5
Exhibit 2: The Wuhan lab was playing with SARS viruses from bats
One of the top scientists at the Wuhan lab is Zhengli-Li Shi, the ‘Batwoman,’ as an adoring mass media baptized her long before COVID. She is the main researcher in charge of doing ‘gain of function’ to help SARS viruses from bats infect and kill humans more effectively. SARS2, which causes COVID, is descended from a bat coronavirus.
Might SARS2, then, be one of hers?
Zhengli-Li Shi “has furiously denied that the novel coronavirus [SARS2] could have leaked from her lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” rang a report in the Daily Caller from April 2020. “ ‘I, Shi Zhengli,’ ” she wrote with vehemence, “ ‘swear on my life that it has nothing to do with our laboratory.’ ” And she was “tell[ing] those who question[ed] whether her lab could be connected to the release of the coronavirus to ‘shut their stinking mouths.’ ” Her alternative theory of SARS2 origins was “that its spread was ‘nature punishing the human race for keeping uncivilized living habits.’ ”6
At the very start of the pandemic, however, Zhengli-Li Shi had been less confident. At that time “she … said she lost sleep worrying about the possibility that her lab in Wuhan could have been responsible for the virus’s release.” But she slept more soundly after an investigation showed that none of the viral sequences recovered from the first patients infected in Wuhan corresponded to the bat viruses she and her colleagues had collected.7
There was always plenty of room for doubt about that, however. For starters, the ‘investigation’ mentioned was just Zhengli-Li Shi going through her own records.8 And Zhengli-Li Shi’s records “have been sealed” by the Chinese government: nobody knows what they contain.9
Exhibit 3: The first few COVID cases were next door to the Wuhan lab
Enough said on that. Ben Hu produces a marginally more dramatic story, I agree. But c’mon, it was always an accepted fact that the fist recorded COVID cases had been very close to the Wuhan lab.
Exhibit 4: SARS2, from the start, was well-adapted to human-to-human transmission
This is not obvious to ordinary mortals, but it had to be obvious to every virologist in the world. Nicholas Wade pointed it out: “From its very first appearance,” he wrote, SARS2 “was well adapted to human cells.”
Why was that strange? Because evolution by natural selection is typically gradual, an accumulation of small changes. Therefore, a virus that acquired the ability to jump from a non-human species to humans and also—simultaneously—the ability to jump easily from human to human would be a truly amazing virus. Why? Because these are two separate tricks, requiring different mutations (in fact, each trick may require several mutations). And mutations are random.
Consider, for example, the virus SARS1.
“In the case of SARS1, researchers have documented the successive changes in its spike protein as the virus evolved step by step into a dangerous pathogen. After it had gotten from bats into civets, there were six further changes in its spike protein before it became a mild pathogen in people. After a further 14 changes, the virus was much better adapted to humans, and with a further four, the [human] epidemic took off.”10
SARS2, by contrast, jumped to the human species and hit the ground running as a virus already highly adapted for human-to-human transmission. It is almost impossible for this to happen naturally.
Nicholas Wade, and his impact in favor of the lab-leak hypothesis
And yet no, absolutely not. The lab-leak hypothesis would be denied. Big Media, the most prestigious scientific journals, the social networks, the World Health Organization (WHO), and health bureaucrats all sallied forth—with emotion to spare—to ridicule and attack the lab-leak hypothesis. And so it went for a year and a half until, at long last, Nicholas Wade published his influential article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
That piece changed everything.
To get a sense for this Wade-induced sea-change it makes sense to look at the New York Times, because, with its massive prestige, ‘the newspaper of record’ sets the agenda for the rest of the Big Media. The effective image here is a diptych showing relevant ‘before Wade’ & ‘after Wade’ New York Times articles side by side.
→ Before Wade
In September 2020, after Chinese virologist Li-Meng Yan told FOX NEWS’s Tucker Carlson that SARS2 just had to be a Chinese lab product, the New York Times reported to its readers that the social-media networks Facebook and Instagram had already tagged that as “false information” because “multiple independent fact checkers say [it] is false.”11
These sacred and infallible fact checkers whose work the New York Times could just take on faith were treated as anonymous sources: they were not named (unless the NYT meant ‘fact checkers’ at Facebook and Instagram).
Furthermore, the newspaper asserted, “intelligence agencies” and “Scientists who have studied the genetics of the virus” considered Dr. Li-Meng Yan’s theory utter nonsense.
To cap it all, the Times observed in closing, the Chinese scientist had published her opinions, according to the Daily Beast, through organizations that were “linked to Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Trump who was recently charged with fraud.”
The message was clear: only fraudulent Trump operators, or his unconditional fans at FOX NEWS, would ever spew such nonsense as this—such… such conspiracy theories that had been examined and found false already by respectable scientists and by the highest and most trustworthy authorities on matters of scientific truth: Facebook, Instagram, and the CIA.
There was a widespread Western media ‘hit job’ against Dr. Li-Meng Yan, well coordinated in both passion and content, curiously, with the Chinese totalitarian communists, who exerted such pressure on Dr. Yan that she fled from China to the United States.12
→ After Wade
But then came Nicholas Wade in May 2021 and, a month later, a 180-degree, head-spinning turn at the New York Times, which now felt obligated to publish an article by Zeynep Tufekci with the title: “Where Did the Coronavirus Come From? What We Already Know Is Troubling.”13
It now turned out that in international academic circles Zhengli-Li Shi’s work had for years been making lots of people nervous. And wouldn’t you know it, interesting connections existed between COVID-19 and the work of the ‘Batwoman.’ Among those, I found one especially eye-catching.
Tufekci writes that a Wuhan Institute of Virology team had been collecting samples from a cave in Yunnan where, in 2012, bat guano miners had contracted mysterious pneumonias. The virus responsible, called 4991, was identical—as independent investigators showed—to a virus called RaTG13 that, back in February 2020, Zhengli-Li Shi had said was one of her own.
The demonstration of genetic identity between these two differently named viruses forced ‘Batwoman’ to confess, in July of the same year, that, yes, RaTG13 and 4991 were in fact the same virus—she had changed the name. And why had she done that? Was it perhaps—I am speculating here—because 4991 (alias RaTG13) is genetically quite similar to SARS2, the virus that causes COVID-19? (It’s a 96.2% match.)
Let us not forget, either, the political background, which Zeynep Tufekci also comments on: the Chinese government worked overtime to hide information and stick a wrench in the efforts to investigate the origin of the virus.
And yet, curiously, Tufekci writes as though we don’t have sufficient reason to prefer the lab-leak to the natural-origin hypothesis. But at least she does take a possible lab leak seriously, and this—for the New York Times—represents a radical transformation.
Though Tufekci wrote just one month after Wade’s piece, by then, as she reported, several of the scientists who’d signed manifestos against the lab-leak hypothesis (which manifestos I consider elsewhere) were already quickly spinning a full 180-degrees. The Wuhan lab, these reconsidering scientists were now saying, should be investigated.
And even WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus—exactly two months after Wade’s piece—considered it prudent to do his own swivel. Once again, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures are instructive:
→ Before Wade:
An official WHO report from 30 March 2021 dismissed the lab leak hypothesis though, as confessed in the same document, they didn’t even investigate it. And
“[WHO chief] Tedros … repeatedly praised China for its speed and transparency despite senior WHO officials internally griping about obfuscation from their Chinese counterparts.”14
→ After Wade:
“[Tedros] said there had been a ‘premature push’ to rule out the theory that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan … ‘I was a lab technician myself, I’m an immunologist, and I have worked in the lab, and lab accidents happen,’ Tedros said. ‘It’s common.’ ”15
But if Tedros already knew all that, then why didn’t he get this right from the beginning? Why did he take China’s side so vehemently at first, before Nicholas Wade published his influential piece? Might the WHO be corrupt?
And why should ‘the newspaper of record,’ the New York Times, need Nicholas Wade to light the way on a bright day? Why did it publish that ridiculous first article that I quoted?
More generally: Why at first—and for so long—were the New York Times, and the other Big Media, and the social networks, and the Western health bureaucrats, and the World Health Organization, so hostile to any expression of the lab-leak hypothesis?
As you can probably imagine, to a political anthropologist such as myself, with a substack called The Management of Reality (MOR), these are the most interesting questions.
And they pose a riddle, for what we have here is what I call a grammatical anomaly. If we can answer these questions and solve the riddle, I hold, we will be decoding the very structure of our political and geopolitical systems.
‘Sverdlovsk anthrax leak’; Adam Smith Institute; 2 April 2019; by Madsen Pirie.
‘The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?’; The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; 5 May 2021; by Nicholas Wade.
‘Moratorium on Gain-of-Function Research’; The Scientist; 21 October 2014; by Jef Akst
‘Opinion | Where Did the Coronavirus Come From? What We Already Know Is Troubling’; The New York Times; 25 June 2021; by Zeynep Tufekci.
‘Opinion | State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses’; The Washington Post; 14 April 2020; by Josh Rogin.
‘EXCLUSIVE: Coronavirus Expert Says Virus Could Have Leaked From Wuhan Lab’; Daily Caller; 2 April 2020; by Andrew Kerr.
‘Coronavirus Expert…’ (op. cit.)
‘How China’s ‘Bat Woman’ Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus’; Scientific American; 1 June 2020; by Jane Qiu.
‘The Origin of COVID…’ (op. cit.)
‘The Origin of COVID…’ (op. cit.)
‘Facebook and Instagram Flag Tucker Carlson Coronavirus Posts’; The New York Times; 16 September 2020; by Tiffany Hsu
As of December 2022, Wikipedia editors are still participating in that ‘hit job,’ and have not updated the information on Dr. Yan’s page, even though it has since become obvious that she was almost certainly right.
‘Opinion | Where Did the Coronavirus Come From? What We Already Know Is Troubling’; The New York Times; 25 June 2021; by Zeynep Tufekci.
‘The WHO's Chief Says It Was Premature To Rule Out A Lab Leak As The Pandemic's Origin’; NPR; 15 July 2021; by The Associated Press
‘The WHO's Chief Says It Was Premature…’ (op. cit.)