If it turns out that this plague really did leak from a lab backed in part by U.S. money, I’m not sure “it would have been wrong not to fund the Chinese” is going to fly with a death toll of 600,000.
And I think we may be at or near the point where, as a political matter, the country accepts as probable fact that the virus leaked. We’ll likely never know one way or another: Unless some animal host is eventually found or China behaves in a very un-China-like way by providing the evidence sought by international investigators, Americans will be stuck forming a best guess as to how SARS-CoV-2 got rolling.
My guess is it’ll shake out at something like 70/30 in favor of the lab leak over natural origin.
Via the Examiner, Fauci was asked at today’s House Appropriations Committee hearing why NIH provided funding indirectly to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Watch 90 seconds for his answer.
We should pin down what it is, specifically, that we think NIH did wrong in funding the Wuhan lab via a grant to EcoHealth Alliance. Because there are different possibilities:
1. They shouldn’t have funded a Chinese lab, period.
2. They shouldn’t have funded a Chinese lab that wasn’t taking maximum precautions to avoid a lab leak.
3. They shouldn’t have funded a Chinese lab that was harvesting dangerous animal viruses.
4. They shouldn’t have funded a Chinese lab, or any lab, that was performing extremely dangerous gain-of-function research.
If the answer is (4), then consider this point from former NYT science writer Don McNeil, who recently declared himself newly open to the lab-leak theory as the evidence to support it mounts:
I was offended by some aspects [of Nicholas Wade’s analysis], such as his attacks on Dr. Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, both of whom I have known for years; I know both are dedicated to saving lives, and they have always told me the truth — or what they honestly believed to be the truth at the time, because evidence sometimes changes. They are now both getting death threats, and that is repulsive.
The N.I.H.-funded EcoHealth Alliance does not do dangerous lab research; it doesn’t even have a lab. It hunts for dangerous viruses in the field; its zoologists teach people how to safely gather samples from bats, birds, chimpanzees and other creatures fortified with claws, teeth, beaks, muscles and pathogens.
If that’s true, then what did EcoHealth do wrong by funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology? Do we not want scientists harvesting and studying animal viruses at all? Because remember, there’s a sort of “hybrid” theory in which the coronavirus is both naturally occurring and leaked from a lab. That is, it could have been harvested from a bat, brought back to the WIV, and then escaped in its natural form into the population via a lab accident. It may not have been genetically manipulated or made more lethal via gain of function procedures.
I think it’s right to criticize NIH and EcoHealth for not insisting on stronger precautions against lab leaks among grant recipients, which the WIV was woefully inadequate on, and it’s fair to conclude that no lab that does gain of function should receive American dollars even if those dollars aren’t being spent on the gain of function research itself. (Money is fungible, after all.) But if the criticism is that EcoHealth simply shouldn’t have been assisting the Chinese in virus-harvesting, I don’t think that works for the reasons Fauci gives in the clip. It’s worth studying naturally occurring viruses to gain insights into how to combat the next SARS. *If* that’s all EcoHealth thought it was doing in dispensing the grant money then it’s hard to fault them for initially dispersing the funds.
The question will be what sort of surveillance they and NIH did to make sure that the lab wasn’t behaving recklessly with the viruses. Money is leverage, after all. Although it wasn’t a ton of money — and what sort of outside surveillance is even possible with a lab based in China?
Meanwhile, suspicious evidence that the Chinese government knows more that it’s letting on continues to emerge. The WSJ reported last night that a secluded mine in southwest China where bats live, and where six miners fell mysteriously ill back in 2012, appears to be closely guarded:
Chinese authorities have obstructed independent efforts to investigate the mine, setting up a checkpoint nearby where unidentified men stopped several foreign journalists in recent weeks, on one occasion warning there were wild elephants ahead.
A Journal reporter reached the mine by mountain bike but was later detained and questioned for about five hours by police, who deleted a cellphone photograph of the mine. Villagers told the reporter that local officials had warned them not to discuss the mine with outsiders.
Scientists from the WIV investigated the case of the miners in 2012 and harvested several new coronaviruses from bats in the cave. One of those viruses is the closest known genetic relative to SARS-CoV-2. Hmmmm.
In lieu of an exit question, read McNeil’s piece from last week if you haven’t yet. All the way to the end, please, as he’s balanced enough to present the lab-leak evidence and the evidence that the virus really did come from an animal and leap to humans naturally.