USA Today: Don't discard the lab-accident origin story for COVID-19 yet

Did the COVID-19 virus just cross over to humans in Wuhan’s wet markets to touch off a global plague? Or did the nearby virology lab working on coronaviruses suffer a containment failure? The latter has been treated as a conspiracy theory, but the longer we go without any solid evidence of the virus’ origin, the more we have to look at other hypotheses, writes investigative reporter Alison Young for USA Today.

Both science and journalism require a full and complete look at the possibilities before dismissing any of them, and there’s nothing that has eliminated the possibility of a lab leak, Young argues:

The notion that more than 2.7 million deaths worldwide – so far – could be the result of a lab accident has been met with skepticism and derision by many journalists and scientists who often portray it as a crackpot conspiracy theory fueled by former President Donald Trump’s China-bashing rhetoric. Without question, the lab-leak theory has been politically and racially weaponized in ugly ways. But that rhetoric needs to be separated from legitimate questions about lab safety that are deserving of investigation.

Science, like journalism, is supposed to be about facts and about getting to the truth. But those who dare seek answers to reasonable questions about any lab accidents in Wuhan are accused of peddling conspiracies.

Let me be clear: Labs in Wuhan may not have played any role in the origin of the pandemic. But a year later, no source has been found, and the world deserves a thorough, unbiased investigation of all plausible theories that is conducted without fear or favor.

No matter what, this is a moment for the U.S. and the world to take a hard look at the safety of biological research labs and the risks they can pose – because problems at these facilities are real.

Young wonders how the mainstream consensus was so quick to dispense with this explanation. Lab accidents aren’t all that rare, and neither are unintended releases of antigens with bad public-health consequences. Young reminds us of a few that she’s covered herself, including a SARS leak in 2004:

In 2003 and 2004 – in the months after intense international efforts managed to contain the spread of what was then the first type of deadly SARS coronavirus to infect people around the globe – a series of laboratory accidents threatened to reignite the epidemic that had sickened about 8,000 people in 29 countries, killing nearly 800 of them. This coronavirus virus, which emerged in 2002, causes a disease called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, that killed at a higher rate than the similarly named SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

First, a 27-year-old researcher in Singapore working with specimens of West Nile Virus became infected with the SARS virus in a shared laboratory that used “inappropriate” lab safety practices. Investigators concluded the infection was caused by accidental contamination of the researcher’s West Nile Virus specimens with the SARS virus. Both viruses were discovered in a research specimen the scientist had used before becoming ill. Nobody else was sickened.

Then, three months later at a laboratory in Taiwan, a 44-year-old researcher became infected with SARS, likely by cleaning up spilled liquid waste in December 2003. He flew to attend a meeting in Singapore and didn’t show signs of illness until he returned home, developed a fever and was hospitalized. More than 70 people who had contact with him were quarantined.

“In the post-epidemic period the greatest risk from SARS may be through exposure in laboratories where the virus is used or stored,” the WHO said in an update about the Taiwan lab incident in December 2003.

This raises a lot of questions, especially about the pushback from WHO about the lab-leak hypothesis. They themselves knew about prior lab accidents in China and warned that those accidents were the highest risk for touching off public-health crises. Why are they now dismissing this possibility when no clear evidence exists for another origin of the pandemic?

Perhaps it might raise too many other question about why the Wuhan lab was playing around with this virus in the first place. If this pandemic originated in a lab accident, what exactly did China have in mind with its research? It might have just been a concern over eventual crossovers, given the risks in the wet markets and the use of bats as food, but The Australian reports today that another explanation needs more exploration too — bioweapons research.

It’s behind a firewall, but The Australian’s Claire Lehmann highlighted the relevant portions on Twitter:

This appears to be the same basic reporting from Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin ten days ago, based on an interview with David Asher. The former State Department investigator not only thinks that it’s a possibility, but that it turned out to be incredibly successful:

“The Wuhan Institute of Virology is not the National Institute of Health,” David Asher, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute told Fox News in an exclusive interview. “It was operating a secret, classified program. In my view, and I’m just one person, my view is it was a biological weapons program.”

Asher has long been a “follow the money” guy who has worked on some of the most classified intelligence investigations for the State Department and Treasury under both Democratic and Republican administrations. He led the team that uncovered the international nuclear procurement network run by the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, AQ Khan, and uncovered key parts of North Korea’s secret uranium enrichment. He believes the Chinese Communist Party has been involved in a massive cover-up during the past 14 months.

“And if you believe, as I do, that this might have been a weapons vector gone awry, not deliberately released, but in development and then somehow leaked, this has turned out to be the greatest weapon in history,” Asher said during a panel discussion at the Hudson Institute: The Origins of the COVID-10: Policy Implications and Lessons for the Future. “You’ve taken out 15 to 20 percent of global GDP. You’ve killed millions of people. The Chinese population has been barely affected. Their economies roared back to being number one in the entire G20.”

One note: Asher is relying on China’s own reporting for these numbers, at least in part. There may well be millions dead in China, but if Beijing doesn’t want people to know it, they’ll keep it quiet. The same is true for their economic figures, which can be checked to some extent but are largely opaque.

As hypotheses go, this is certainly one of them, but it’s speculative so far. It would explain why Xi Jinping locked down any access to the facility, even with WHO at first, when the pandemic really went global. The cover-up raises suspicions that something nefarious was afoot, and has all along, which is one reason a number of people thought the wet-market-crossover hypothesis was unlikely to be the whole story, if any part of it at all. Even if it is speculative, though, it’s also not out of the question — and the State Department and the United Nations should be demanding full transparency from China to eliminate that as a possibility.

At any rate, Young correctly argues that we shouldn’t put anything past China until we see solid evidence leading to a firm conclusion on COVID-19’s origins. The rush to close off hypotheses otherwise should itself raise suspicions as to the motives behind those impulses.

Update: On the other hand, don’t criticize China too much … if you’re a professor at the University of San Diego. Hans Bader has the whole nonsensical story.