British Intelligence: Lab leak is 'feasible' (plus Francis Collins calls for an 'objective investigation')

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

British Intelligence has been skeptical of the lab leak theory since last year but this Sunday the Times of London reported these agencies have reevaluated the issue and are now willing to say it is “feasible.

Western intelligence, including in Britain, formerly believed the lab leak was only a “remote” possibility. Sources indicated, however, that after re-evaluating the circumstantial evidence, the British intelligence community now calls it “feasible.”…

Some intelligence bodies in the UK also suspect that Chinese secrecy and manipulation are impeding the pursuit of truth on the matter. “There might be pockets of evidence that take us one way, and evidence that takes us another way. The Chinese will lie either way. I don’t think we will ever know,” said a western intelligence source familiar with UK involvement in the probe.

Betting on the Chinese to lie about their activities is the safest bet in the world. And that shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone because not knowing how this happened, either through natural transfer or a lab leak, means it could definitely happen again. A conservative MP named Tom Tugendhat told the Sunday Times, “We need to open the crypt and see what happened to be able to protect ourselves in the future.” What we don’t need is the kind of squashing of dissent that has been going on for the past year in the media:

Scientists who challenged the default thinking were branded as “conspiracy theorists,” Jamie Metzl, adviser to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on human genome editing and senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank, told the Times.

“Since the earliest days of the pandemic there were a small number of leading scientists who took it upon themselves to enforce this kind of orthodoxy,” Metzl added.

But the enforcement of orthodoxy isn’t going to work anymore. Too many scientists have come forward and said this needs to be looked at. In fact, another prominent skeptic appears to have changed his tune. Since yesterday there have been a series of stories based on the release of Dr. Fauci’s emails. One thing found in those emails was a message from NIH Director Francis Collins which appears to refer to the lab leak theory as a “conspiracy.

However, today the Atlantic published a piece in which Collins says the lab leak theory should be investigated.

“Far and away, the most likely origin is a natural zoonotic pathway from bats to some unidentified intermediate host to humans,” he told me. “But the possibility that such a naturally evolved virus might have also been under study at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and reached residents of Wuhan—and ultimately the rest of the world—as the result of a lab accident has never been adequately excluded.”

That possibility, Collins believes, calls for a closer look. “A thorough, expert-driven, and objective investigation, with full access to all information about events in Wuhan in the fall of 2019, is needed,” he said. “That should have happened right away, but did not.”

Collins was careful to qualify that the coronavirus is “absolutely not” man-made. “The genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 has a number of unanticipated features that are not consistent with what international experts would have expected from an emerging and dangerous coronavirus,” he told me. “Thus, the hypothesis that this was a human-engineered bioweapon is hard to support. It’s unfortunate that the lab-leak hypothesis has been muddled up with the intentional-bioweapon hypothesis in 16 months of tortured and politically driven rhetoric. That has given way too much credibility to the latter and not enough to the former.”

A couple points about what Collins is saying. First, the call for an “objective investigation’ with access to “all information” is a slap at the WHO investigation that happened a couple of months ago.

Second, Collins claim that the virus is “absolutely not” man-made seems to be based on the arguments put forward last March in Nature Medicine by Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute. That letter argued the virus had not been manipulated in a lab. However, as Nicholas Wade pointed out, the argument isn’t all that convincing once you break it down.

First, they say that the spike protein of SARS2 binds very well to its target, the human ACE2 receptor, but does so in a different way from that which physical calculations suggest would be the best fit. Therefore the virus must have arisen by natural selection, not manipulation.

If this argument seems hard to grasp, it’s because it’s so strained. The authors’ basic assumption, not spelt out, is that anyone trying to make a bat virus bind to human cells could do so in only one way. First they would calculate the strongest possible fit between the human ACE2 receptor and the spike protein with which the virus latches onto it. They would then design the spike protein accordingly (by selecting the right string of amino acid units that compose it). But since the SARS2 spike protein is not of this calculated best design, the Andersen paper says, therefore it can’t have been manipulated.

But this ignores the way that virologists do in fact get spike proteins to bind to chosen targets, which is not by calculation but by splicing in spike protein genes from other viruses or by serial passage. With serial passage, each time the virus’s progeny are transferred to new cell cultures or animals, the more successful are selected until one emerges that makes a really tight bind to human cells. Natural selection has done all the heavy lifting. The Andersen paper’s speculation about designing a viral spike protein through calculation has no bearing on whether or not the virus was manipulated by one of the other two methods.

There’s more to it but basically the argument that this couldn’t have been manipulated in a lab (even for pure research apart from any malign intent) isn’t terribly strong. It would be interesting to know more about why Collins believes what he believes but the interviewer didn’t press him on that point.

Still, the bottom line is that the lab leak theory is no longer a conspiracy theory if the NIH Director is calling for an investigation. Since China won’t be transparent with our scientists, hopefully the world’s intelligence agencies can help shed some more light on the issue.

Finally, here’s Nicholas Wade in an interview discussing the lab leak theory.