Scientist who signed letter supporting lab-leak theory: We didn't speak out sooner because we didn't want to ally with Trump

AP Photo/Chris Seward

“The science around the lab leak theory hasn’t changed. But here’s why some scientists have.” That’s how NBC headlined this story about the sudden mainstreaming of the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 escaped into the population via a lab accident. I made that point in this morning’s post about Fauci, who now wants the world to believe that he’s always been open to the possibility of a lab leak even though he clearly hasn’t. Why is it that scientists like him are suddenly ambivalent about the virus’s origins when there’s been no new evidence supporting the lab-leak theory to shift their thinking? What data are these allegedly data-focused people seeing that’s moved them from a firm “no” on a lab accident to a modest “maybe”?

The answer, according to a genetic engineer who spoke to NBC, is that there isn’t any. The shift was political, not scientific. Alina Chan is no random scientist either: She’s one of the 18 researchers who signed the now-famous letter to Science magazine last month urging colleagues to consider the possibility of a lab leak. That letter combined with Nicholas Wade’s compelling analysis is what caused the dam holding back interest in the lab hypothesis to break.

And what inspired that letter, according to Chan, is that Trump’s departure from office meant there was no longer any risk of being seen as aligned with him by speaking out.

It’s nice of scientists, I guess, to finally admit that they suppressed the lab-leak theory for nakedly political reasons.

The shift reflects how some scientists who previously avoided the topic, or were quick to dismiss it, are grappling with enduring uncertainties about the virus’s origin, free from the politicization that clouded such discussions under the Trump administration.

Chan said there had been trepidation among some scientists about publicly discussing the lab leak hypothesis for fear that their words could be misconstrued or used to bolster racist rhetoric about how the coronavirus emerged. Trump fueled accusations that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research lab in the same city where the first Covid-19 cases were reported, was connected to the outbreak, and on numerous occasions called the pathogen the “Wuhan virus” or “kung flu.”

“At the time, it was scarier to be associated with Trump and to become a tool for racists, so people didn’t want to publicly call for an investigation into lab origins,” she said.

I thought epidemiologists carving out an exception to social distancing rules for woke protests last summer would be the most egregious example of scientists getting political during the pandemic, but nope. This is worse because of what it implies: If Trump were still president, these people would still be biting their tongues about a lab leak lest they hand him a win or become “a tool for racists” by speaking out.

During a global pandemic, a vocation dedicated to uncovering truths about nature subordinated its professional duties to a political end. If there ever was any hard evidence of a lab leak in China accessible to western investigators, the silence of western scientists about the possibility probably bought the CCP time to destroy it and cover up whatever needed covering up to ensure that the truth would never be known. That being so, what reason is there to doubt that scientists who suspected a lab leak but held their tongues for fear of fostering racism might suppress or even destroy evidence supporting their theory if they became convinced that political actors whom they abhor would benefit from its revelation?

The effort to steer the public away from the lab-leak hypothesis began very early, Politico reported last night:

“For many many weeks we heard from the top docs about wet markets and we had lots of discussions about wet markets and they, at least in this setting, would not talk about the lab leak even though others had brought it up, it was completely dismissed,” said a former Trump White House official…

“We were all in agreement that the virology lab bore consideration, and we were shocked … when supposed experts offhand in February in the Lancet article just completely dismissed that this could have in any way come from a lab,” recalled David Stilwell, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs. “That was ludicrous, so that’s when we began to worry that the science world was not playing above board.”

“Just as a matter of common sense, the CCP destroyed virus samples, they only let the WHO investigation into the laboratory for three and a half hours, they bleached the site of the wet market, they didn’t let Taiwan into the World Health Assembly, not to mention that this lab was so close to the center of the outbreak,” one former senior State Department official said. “To me, I just thought right away, this came from the lab.”

If you can spare 15 minutes, watch former CDC chief Robert Redfield discussing the lab-leak theory and the persistent institutional skepticism towards it with Fox News. “It just seemed like a lot of people wanted to squelch any idea that there was another hypothesis,” he says at one point. “And I think that’s what I find the most disappointing, because I would expect that from politicians. I would expect that from governments. I would never expect that for the scientific community.” Remember that he told Vanity Fair that he received death threats over this — from fellow scientists, not members of the general public. That’s how invested the groupthink was. He also makes a sharp point in the second clip: Although we’ve seen diseases like COVID before such as SARS and MERS, the viruses that cause those illnesses don’t spread very efficiently among humans. SARS-CoV-2 does. Why? Just a fluke of evolution or something more?