Bats, panthers, and the utterly plausible lab-leak hypothesis

Every analogy has its limits, of course, but this one is grounded in reality and an extraordinary set of coincidences. The WIV is around 10 miles from the site of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, whereas the natural coronavirus variants that most closely resemble SARS-CoV-2 come from a region in South West China more than 900 miles away. The WIV runs the world’s leading effort geared toward collecting wild coronaviruses from that region, and they are reported to have tinkered with the wild viruses to develop potent new strains. Two years before the onset of the pandemic, U.S. diplomatic scientists visited WIV and sent back strongly worded reports to the State Department warning of inadequate safety conditions. And when a delegation from the World Health Organization visited the institute earlier this year, Wuhan officials limited the team’s makeup and restricted their access…

But there is one thing that I believe we can assert definitively: The statement by a WHO official that “it was very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place” is wrong to a profound degree. It doesn’t take a human factors expert to understand that asking people to work with dangerous materials as part of their day-to-day routine for years at a time makes a safety lapse almost inevitable. Policies governing institutes like WIV should be designed with Murphy’s Law as an inescapable truth, not an afterthought.

All that said, it is still pretty likely that Covid-19 was a spillover event from nature, and we should be humbled that it didn’t kill nearly everyone. But we also shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of a lab leak as mere conspiracy theory. Clearly, our estimates of risk were catastrophically wrong, as we had been warned many times. We need to separate ourselves from the natural reservoirs of novel infectious diseases to the greatest extent possible.