Fauci: I still think it's "highly likely" that the coronavirus had a natural origin

Greg Nash/Pool via AP

Well, that makes one of us.

The last time he was asked about this he said that he’s no longer convinced that the virus evolved naturally, which doesn’t strictly contradict the tweets above. You can believe something is “highly likely” while leaving room for doubt.

But at this point, given the evidence that’s accruing in support of the lab-leak theory, I’d like to hear a virologist explains in layman’s terms why a natural origin remains the most plausible explanation. I’ve read brief explainers about that in the past which boil down to “If you were going to engineer a virus, it wouldn’t look like this virus,” but I want to hear more now. Having a novel coronavirus spreading in the population near a famous viral laboratory with no evidence of an animal host after a year of searching for one seems a little too coincidental to be a coincidence.

Jazz wrote about today’s bombshell WSJ story earlier, noting that an intelligence document is circulating that claims three staffers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology received hospital care in November 2019 for some sort of illness. Could that just be a big ol’ coincidence too? Technically, sure. November is flu season. But Jim Geraghty looked at how common hospitalization for the flu among adults is in the U.S. and found it’s not:

Here in the United States, the two groups at the highest risk of developing serious complications from influenza during flu season are the elderly and the immunocompromised. While it’s not unheard of for a healthy adult to require hospitalization from the flu, it’s pretty rare. The CDC offers two sets of estimated figures for the 2017–2018 winter season. In the first, roughly one out of every 177 American adults between the ages of 18 and 49 years who was diagnosed with the flu required hospitalization. A second estimate calculates that 221 out of every 100,000 American adults between the ages of 18 and 49 years required hospitalization, which comes out to one out of every 452. Neither figure separates out immunocompromised adults; either way, it’s really rare for an American adult to require hospitalization for our “common seasonal illnesses.”

And yet, if this previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report is accurate, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had three hospitalizations either simultaneously or in rapid succession.

Either they had COVID, they had some *other* virus that leaked from the lab, or they all happened to catch cases of the flu that were bad enough that they needed hospital care, Geraghty notes. Doors number two and three seem unlikely. Which leaves door number one.

Or does it? There are more than three doors, in fact. Door number four: What if the “hospital” care that the staffers needed was actually just routine medical care that Americans might seek from a GP?

Maybe their “hospital” visits were mundane doctor’s visits that happened to be located at a hospital, as often happens in China. The Journal’s bombshell would have fizzled.

There’s a fifth door too, that the document is some pandemic version of the Steele dossier passing along half-vetted innuendo to make a political enemy sweat. A Twitter pal notes that intelligence about WIV staffers needing to be hospitalized in November 2019 has been circulating for more than a year but remains conspicuously thin and vague. Read this thread in its entirety for some healthy skepticism about it. It’s strange that the WSJ doesn’t identify where the intel came from, strange that experts seem divided on its accuracy (although one called it “exquisite”), and strange that the “international partner” that provided it to the U.S. isn’t named.

That same account pointed out that other news stories similar to the Journal’s have run over the past year, seemingly based on the same raw intelligence that the WSJ had and similarly unimpressive in their details. Why is that intel popping up again now? The Journal story offers a clue: “The disclosure of the number of researchers, the timing of their illnesses and their hospital visits come on the eve of a meeting of the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, which is expected to discuss the next phase of an investigation into Covid-19’s origins.” Someone with the intel must have pushed it to the paper hoping that a splashy new story about the three allegedly hospitalized researchers would put pressure on the WHO to be more aggressive as it pursues the lab-leak theory. And maybe to put pressure on China to be more forthcoming about the earliest evidence of the virus’s emergence:

The Wuhan Institute hasn’t shared raw data, safety logs and lab records on its extensive work with coronaviruses in bats, which many consider the most likely source of the virus…

Members of the WHO-led team said Chinese counterparts had identified 92 potential Covid-19 cases among some 76,000 people who fell sick between October and early December 2019, but turned down requests to share raw data on the larger group. That data would help the WHO-led team understand why China sought to only test those 92 people for antibodies.

Team members also said they asked for access to a Wuhan blood bank to test samples from before December 2019 for antibodies. Chinese authorities declined at first, citing privacy concerns, then agreed, but have yet to provide that access, team members say.

Given how China hawks in the U.S. have embraced the lab-leak theory, it’s within Beijing’s power to embarrass them by providing the WHO and other regulatory bodies with full access — if, of course, they’re confident that the virus didn’t escape from their lab. Let the scientists come in, poke around, and declare the Americans paranoid idiots. If Beijing’s not willing to grant that access, then we’re left to wonder why.

I’ll leave you with Scott Gottlieb, who’s also increasingly credulous about the possibility of a lab leak. It’s been a year and we’re no closer to supporting the “natural origin” theory, he notes. The same isn’t true of the “lab accident” theory.