New report says COVID was probably a lab leak: should we believe it?


A week ago, Vanity Fair and ProPublica published a long exposé on the origins of Covid-19, in which they revealed new evidence of a lab leak in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in November 2019.

The big reveal: the report makes it appear much more likely than before that Covid-19 originated through an accident at WIV, where presumably one of the scientists was exposed to the virus. The new evidence in the ProPublica report largely centers on the work of a translator, Toy Reid, who claims to have a unique gift for interpreting the “secret language of Chinese officialdom.” Even native Chinese speakers can’t really follow it, he claims in the article.

Reid scrutinized a collection of internal and external communications from WIV, and says that he found messages in the fall of 2019 that indicated “inhumane working conditions and hidden safety dangers.” And most significantly, a message on November 12 refers to some kind of biosecurity breach, which might have referred to an accidental exposure of someone in the lab to a virus.

The date of this incident appears to coincide with an incident described in a 2021 article in the Wall St. Journal, which reported that 3 WIV employees sought hospital care in November of 2019. This incident has never been confirmed to involve Covid-19 infections.

To add some context: Reid’s findings were released by a Republican U.S. Senator, Richard Burr, in a report that was not endorsed by the full Senate committee investigating COVID-19’s origins. Burr’s report concluded that Covid-19 was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.”

Not surprisingly, this new report has been getting a lot of attention.

The report initially might seem convincing, until you realize that it doesn’t include any actual biological evidence: no reports of actual infections, and no specifics about any viruses that might have escaped from WIV at the time. It seems to be based entirely on the translation super-powers of Toy Reid.

It didn’t take long for other experts to weigh in. There are plenty of Chinese-language speakers out there, including native speakers who are likely much more fluent than Toy Reid. One translator wrote on Twitter that Reid “screwed up.” Another said that a critical passage identified by Reid “doesn’t suggest a biosafety problem had occurred at all.”

Hmm. Here I have to admit that I have no idea who is right here, since I don’t speak or read Chinese. However, it does appear that ProPublica and Vanity Fair may have put too much faith in a single translator who might have had a political bias.

And there’s more. A number of virologists weighed in to point out that the Vanity Fair piece had ignored work that pointed to the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market (in Wuhan) as the source of the virus. I wrote at length about that research in March, when 3 new scientific papers had just appeared (as preprints), all pointing fingers at the seafood market as the source of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, all of the evidence in those papers was circumstantial. None of them found an infected animal that was the true source of Covid-19. Instead, they found that many early cases in people were centered on the seafood market. Even supposing that is correct (and it might not be, because China never allowed outside scientists to go to Wuhan and test people all over the city), it is still just circumstantial. Perhaps a scientist from WIV got infected and stopped by the seafood market that day–we may never know.

But let’s return to this week’s controversy, shall we? A virologists who led one of the papers I discussed back in March, Michael Worobey, was also quoted in the Vanity Fair article. He had major objections to what they wrote, and he posted them in a lengthy Twitter thread here, which is well worth reading.

Vanity Fair described Worobey’s work as providing evidence that a natural zoonotic origin (in other words, an origin in an animal at the Wuhan seafood market) for Covid-19 was “plausible.” Worobey objected, pointing out that his comments were much more definitive, and that his position is that:

"OUR TWO RECENT PAPERS establish that a natural zoonotic origin is THE ONLY plausible scenario for the origin of the pandemic." (all-caps in original)

After Worobey’s Twitter thread appeared, Vanity Fair and ProPublica updated their stories to include exactly that quote, without the all-caps.

Worobey makes a compelling case that Vanity Fair and ProPublica misquoted him (or at least omitted important details), and it seems they have fixed that error. However, neither the Twitter thread nor Worobey’s scientific paper make a definitive case that, as he puts it, a natural origin is the “only plausible scenario” for Covid-19.

Not at all. The paper by Worobey and colleagues concluded that “the earliest known COVID-19 cases from December 2019 were geographically centered on this market.” Let’s grant that this statement is accurate: even so, their data does not prove that the market was the “origin” of the pandemic, especially because they failed to find any animals infected with Covid-19 from that market. They only found human cases. This leaves open the question of where the very first human case occurred: it’s entirely possible that the first human was infected elsewhere–perhaps at the Wuhan Institute of Virology–and that human visited the seafood market while actively spreading the virus.

And their data relies on samples collected in Wuhan, which is of course controlled by the Chinese government. Note the wording of that conclusion from the paper, which refers to “the earliest known cases.” China does not want the world to think that the Wuhan Institute of Virology might have caused the pandemic, so how can we ever know if there were early cases originating from WIV?

On the other hand, as I wrote back in March, China has known for decades that their live animal markets are a source for novel human viruses, including the 2003 SARS outbreak and multiple cases of avian influenza jumping from birds into people. And yet they have done nothing to shut down those markets.

So it’s complicated. In any case, as Matthew Iglesias pointed out in The Guardian, even if the entire Vanity Fair article is wrong, the lab leak hypothesis is still plausible–very much so. The fact remains that one of China’s major virology research institutes, which was known to be conducting research on SARS-like viruses, and which was known to be collecting viruses from bats, is located just a few miles from the live animal seafood market. That’s one heck of a coincidence.

Finally, let’s take a step back: why all this attention to whether the virus originated from a virology institute or from a live animal market? Either way, the implication is that humans caused this pandemic. As I wrote back in March, we should take away at least two lessons from this experience: first, that live-animal food markets should be shut down, especially those that sell wild animals rather than farm-raised ones; and second, that gain-of-function research on deadly viruses should be shut down as well.

So let’s stop arguing about the precise origin of the pandemic, and start taking steps to prevent the next one.

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