Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Coronavirus: How news media and politics drive the lab leak theory

  • In an ideal world, only qualified scientists would weigh on the relevance of the lab leak scenario. That is, however, not the world we live in

Once dismissed as conspiracy theory, the so-called lab leak theory at the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic has suddenly become a “serious” hypothesis. What has changed?

Well, it’s the politics, not the science. On the latter, not much has changed; and even the scientists – such as the 18 experts who jointly published their May 14 letter in the research journal Science, calling for an open investigation of the lab leak possibility – didn’t claim any new or significant evidence had emerged.

Rather, two news articles helped change the public conversation or perception, since May. One was the May 23 report in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Intelligence on Sick Staff at Wuhan Lab Fuels Debate on Covid-19 Origin: Report says researchers went to hospital in November 2019, shortly before confirmed outbreak; adds to calls for probe of whether virus escaped lab”.

The other article was “The origin of Covid: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?” which was published on May 5 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


Seeking the invisible: hunt for origins of deadly Covid-19 coronavirus will take scientists to Wuhan

Seeking the invisible: hunt for origins of deadly Covid-19 coronavirus will take scientists to Wuhan

Whether fortuitous or unfortunate, depending on your viewpoint, they helped resurrect the lab leak theory in mainstream discourse, without adding new data or evidence.

The lead author of the Journal article was Michael Gordon, most famous, along with his former New York Times colleague Judith Miller, for the September 2002 “exclusive” claiming the regime of Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the basis of the American rationale for invading Iraq.

Now, again in a tense geopolitical atmosphere, another “exclusive” said researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology “went to hospital in November 2019, shortly before confirmed outbreak” of the Covid-19 virus.

It comes at a time as US foreign policy is again targeting another rival or enemy, this time China. The article relied on previous intelligence already available to the Donald Trump administration.

‘0 per cent’ chance: former French official who oversaw safety standards at Wuhan lab dismisses leak theory

By itself, it added nothing new to the scientific debate, other than the way the article created, in the minds of readers, the impression of a causal link between two events – a few lab staff got sick, then came the pandemic outbreak.

Of course, that could mean anything, say, the staff went to the Wuhan wet market and bought food there; or they got sick, but it wasn’t from Sars-CoV-2, the virus that caused the pandemic.

They could also be among the first victims of the pandemic. But then, it’s also possible that the US intelligence cited was wrong or fabricated, like Iraq’s WMD fiasco.

But the report came out when other Western countries were joining the bandwagon of the lab leak theory, and it helped give the theory new impetus as it was recycled and amplified through the international news media.

Two days after the story was published on May 23, US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra spoke at the United Nations World Health Assembly and demanded a “transparent” investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

A day later, US President Joe Biden ordered the US intelligence community to investigate the origins of the pandemic and come back with their results in 90 days.

At a time of rising geopolitical tensions, Becerra’s appearance at the UN looked a lot like that of former secretary of state Colin Powell holding up a vial which he claimed to contain anthrax at the UN chamber as part of the “evidence” he offered on Iraq’s alleged programmes to develop WMDs. Is history repeating itself?

Lab leak or nature? Debate heats up on the origins of Covid-19 virus

If the Journal article had more to do with politics and government intelligence, an earlier influential article focused on the science, or so it claimed. Weeks before, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a lengthy report by a science reporter, Nicholas Wade.

It proposes to look impartially at both the lab leak possibility and natural mutation or species jump hypothesis.

Published on May 5, the academic authority of the Bulletin automatically lends it a certain scientific respectability; whether it deserves it is another matter.

When the Bulletin report was first published, I combed through the text with the help of a top microbiologist and world authority on the family of coronaviruses with long experience of public health policy and pandemics, but “they” preferred not to disclose “their” name.

“They” thought Wade did a convincing job in arguing for the viability of the lab leak theory, but “they” did not think it outweighs the natural mutation theory. “They” thought natural origin was still preferred by the majority of mainstream specialists in the field.

What made Wade’s piece especially convincing was a quote from David Baltimore, winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize in medicine and a towering figure in modern genetics. Baltimore gave him the most inflammatory quote with literally the words “the smoking gun”.

 “When I first saw the furin cleavage site in the viral sequence, with its arginine codons, I said to my wife it was the smoking gun for the origin of the virus,” said Baltimore who did not dispute the accuracy of the quote in subsequent interviews with other media outlets.

“These features make a powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin for Sars2.”

Comment: Toxic row over ‘Chinese lab leak’ theory will get us nowhere

Since publication, though, Baltimore has backtracked on his statement to Wade, and now argues that both theories – lab leak and natural origin – are possible. This came after he was challenged by Kristian G. Andersen, an eminent virologist.

This is how Nature, the research journal, summarised the exchange between the two scientists after the Wade piece was published, along with Baltimore’s reply to Nature.

It wrote: “Andersen says that Baltimore was incorrect about that detail, however. In Sars-CoV-2, about 3 per cent of the nucleotides encoding arginine are CGG, he says.

“And he points out that around 5 per cent of those encoding arginine in the virus that caused the original Sars epidemic are CGG, too.


Coronavirus: A look inside China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology

Coronavirus: A look inside China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology

“In an email to Nature, Baltimore says Andersen could be correct that evolution produced Sars-CoV-2, but adds that ‘there are other possibilities and they need careful consideration, which is all I meant to be saying’.”

In another interview based on an email exchange with the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore again admitted he had overstated the case for the lab leak scenario and that he was now keeping an open mind on the debate.

He was quoted as saying: “[I] should have softened the phrase ‘smoking gun’ because I don’t believe that it proves the origin of the furin cleavage site but it does sound that way.

“I believe that the question of whether the sequence was put in naturally or by molecular manipulation is very hard to determine but I wouldn’t rule out either origin.”

Andersen himself was recently caught up in a Covid-19 controversy involving the emails of Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and controversial top adviser to both the Trump and Biden White House – about the possibility of a lab leak and cover-up.

When the pandemic first started early last year, Andersen emailed Fauci that the virus could have been bio-engineered. He has subsequently turned around to be in favour of the natural origin theory.

In a new series of answers emailed to The New York Times, Andersen further explains his position.

He wrote: “Furin cleavage sites are found all across the coronavirus family, including in the beta-coronavirus genus that Sars-CoV-2 belongs to. There has been much speculation that patterns found in the virus’s RNA that are responsible for certain portions of the furin cleavage site represent evidence of engineering.

“Specifically, people are pointing to two “CGG” sequences that code for the amino acid arginine in the furin cleavage site as strong evidence that the virus was made in the lab. Such statements are factually incorrect.

“While it’s true that CGG is less common than other patterns that code for arginine, the CGG codon is found elsewhere in the Sars-CoV-2 genome and the genetic sequence[s] that include the CGG codon found in Sars-CoV-2 are also found in other coronaviruses.

“These findings, together with many other technical features of the site, strongly suggest that it evolved naturally and there is very little chance somebody engineered it.”

Wuhan laboratory adds another branch to bat coronavirus family tree

He also explains why it’s tough to disprove any hypothesis about origins, even if some theories are more probable than others.

“[It] is currently impossible to prove or disprove specific hypotheses of Sars-CoV-2 origin. However, while both lab and natural scenarios are possible, they are not equally likely – precedence, data and other evidence strongly favour natural emergence as a highly likely scientific theory for the emergence of Sars-CoV-2, while the lab leak remains a speculative hypothesis based on conjecture.

“Based on detailed analyses of the virus conducted to date by researchers around the world, it is extremely unlikely that the virus was engineered. The scenario in which the virus was found in nature, brought to the lab and then accidentally release[d] is similarly unlikely, based on current evidence.

“In contrast, the scientific theory about the natural emergence of SARS-CoV-2 presents a far simpler and more likely scenario. The emergence of Sars-CoV-2 is very similar to that of Sars-CoV-1, including its seasonal timing, location and association with the human food chain.”

So, both Andersen and Baltimore are now saying the lab leak theory does not outweigh the natural origin hypothesis, with the former leaning towards natural origin.

Wade wrote in the original Bulletin article: “But it seems to me that proponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about Sars2 considerably more easily than can those who favour natural emergence… Proponents of natural emergence have a rather harder story to tell.”

Independent researchers will beg to differ. Indeed, even without Baltimore backtracking on the “smoking gun” quote, Wade was hardly justified to make his claim. Even the 18 scientists who wrote the joint letter, “Investigate the origins of Covid-19”, to Science and published on May 14 did not favour the lab leak theory.

Among those 18 specialists in the relevant biological and medical fields are Jesse Bloom and Akiko Iwasaki. Bloom subsequently told The New York Times: “In the case of Sars-CoV-2 origins, I still am not confident about what happened” (italic in the original quote).

The same Times article, published on May 27, reported: “Iwasaki and like-minded scientists decided they had to push back with their own letter. ‘We feel that it’s really time to speak up about it, and get more science behind what’s going on,’ she said.

“Yet Dr Iwasaki stressed that she did not see a clear case for a lab leak. ‘I’m completely open-minded about the possibilities,’ she said. ‘There’s so little evidence for either of these things, that it’s almost like a toss-up.’”

Indeed, the Times article’s headline says that the lab leak scenario had been revived, but had not gained mainstream scientific acceptance: “Scientists don’t want to ignore the ‘lab leak’ theory, despite no new evidence”.

And the sub-head summary reports: “Many scientists welcomed President Biden’s call for a more rigorous investigation of a virus lab in Wuhan, China, though they said the so-called lab leak theory was still unlikely.”

Scientists, at least we hope, work with data and evidence. Journalists work more with rhetoric but, hopefully, also with evidence without an axe to grind.

Politicians work, however, with rhetoric for an agenda, often hidden, and tend to cherry-pick data and evidence to suit their purpose. In an ideal world, only scientists would weigh on the relevance of the lab leak theory.

A consensus would emerge, and journalists would report on those findings while politicians would act upon them. That, however, is not the world we live in – rather the opposite.