As the COVID-19 origins debate increasingly comes to resemble an eighteenth century battle-field, more and more scientists now believe that the pandemic virus was the result of a catastrophic lab escape.
For several weeks now people have been sending me links to a variety of articles which offer strong support to the theory that COVID-19, which was first recognised in the Chinese city of Wuhan, originated as a result of a pathogen escaping from a virus lab, rather than through a “natural process”, one which did not involve scientific researchers. Normally one might write “a process that did not involve human hands”, but in this instance such a description would be misleading, for the leading version of the “natural process hypothesis” involves a new viral variant evolving as a result of different species being placed in close proximity at the Wuhan Seafood Market, and it is clear that this too would have involved the participation of human hands. So let me stress that in this particular blog about COVID-19 origins the distinction is between the lab leak hypothesis, and the natural spillover hypothesis.
I had previously written about the possibility of a viral escape from a lab in April 2020, in my article on this site entitled “COVID-19 and the Origins of AIDS Debate”. In that blog, I emphasised that nothing was known for certain, but that a laboratory origin for both COVID-19 and AIDS were possibilities that should not be dismissed. As readers will know, it is my belief that in the case of AIDS the most plausible version of lab leak is provided by the “OPV theory”, which points to an experimental oral polio vaccine that was prepared in local primate cells in Africa, and then tested on several hundred thousand Africans in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi in 1957-60, the final years before Independence.
It is interesting to note that back in March 2020 some of the first scientists to publicly insist that the lab leak theory of COVID-19 origins was not feasible were individuals such as Eddie Holmes and Andrew Rambaut, who back in 2000 (when based at the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford) had been vociferous and often dogmatic in their opposition to the OPV theory. Holmes has for many years now been a major collaborator with, and a visiting professor at, Chinese universities. Their COVID-19 paper was published in Nature Medicine, a journal which will be mentioned again later in this blog. [K.G. Anderson, A. Rambaut, E.C. Holmes et al, “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2”; Nature Medicine; 2020; 26; 450-455; available on-line at: <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9>]
Part of the reason why the lab leak theory initially attracted little sympathy among scientists may have been that back in 2020 the idea had been championed by the then-President, Donald Trump, who made political capital by describing COVID-19 as “the China virus”.
However, since 2020 there has been a sea change. With the latest round of articles, it is apparent that many scientific researchers (perhaps as many as half of those who have published articles or commentaries on the subject in 2021) now believe it to be very possible, or probable, that COVID-19 was iatrogenic (caused by the actions of physicians, though in this instance it might be more accurate to define the term as “caused by scientific researchers”). And the location most frequently proposed for those researchers was the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the WIV, which was situated just a few kilometres from the Seafood Market.
One of the most significant of these recent articles was a summarising piece written by Nicholas Wade, a science journalist of long standing who has had many articles on microbiological and medical issues published in the New York Times. His impressively detailed analysis appeared in the May 5th 2021 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and was titled “The origin of COVID: Did people open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?”
Among other things, Wade’s article summarises “gain of function” research (in which the virulence of a pathogen is intentionally increased) on coronaviruses which has been carried out in recent years at the WIV. Wade stated that from June 2014 to May 2019 such investigations had been part-funded by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to an organisation led by Peter Daszak called EcoHealth Alliance, which has for many years been collaborating on GOF research in Wuhan. Daszak was one of the 27 scientists (several of whom apparently had professional links to China) who published a letter in the Lancet in March last year, entitled “Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19″‘ [Lancet; 2020; 395; 642-643]. This letter stated “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” [See: https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2820%2930418-9]
It is relevant to point out that GOF research is not only extremely dangerous, but is also a crucial component of biowarfare research. The interested reader will find many further articles on line, including some which are referenced in the Wade article. Over the last year I have read or skimmed perhaps as many as a hundred such articles, many of which I have accessed after tip-offs by email correspondents, including readers of this site.
In contrast with the Wade piece, let me also offer a link to a recent article by science journalist Laura Spinney in the Guardian which argues that the natural origin theory of COVID remains more plausible, and which quotes extensively from David Robertson, another former member of Eddie Holmes’ group at Oxford. Spinney is the author of “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World”, which was published in 2018 (to a somewhat mixed response: see for instance the GoodReads reviews), and she appears to be a firm believer that almost all pathogens evolve through natural processes.
In my blog of April last year I also took pains to emphasise that because the implications for humanity were so serious, it was vitally important that the government of China should invite a team of international scientists to Wuhan, to launch an independent investigation into COVID’s origins, one that would be conducted without let or hindrance. A team of scientists from the WHO was indeed (rather belatedly) invited to visit China in February this year, but they were not allowed access to viral collections at the WIV, and their interviews with scientists at the lab apparently had government representatives present, encouraging the perception that those interviewed might not have felt able to speak freely. Moreover, the WHO team spokesman whom I saw on TV seemed more concerned with the issue of avoiding political embarrassment to China than with exhaustively pursuing how the pandemic might have started.
A significant letter about the WHO visit to China and the resultant China-WHO joint study was published in a recent issue of Science; [Science; 2021; 372; 694]. It was written by a group of 18 leading scientists “with relevant expertise” led by Jesse Bloom, who studies the evolution of viruses, and was titled “Investigate the origins of COVID-19”; [see: <https://science.sciencemag.org/content/372/6543/694.1>] The letter highlighted the fact that “the information, data and samples for the study’s first phase were collected and and summarized by the Chinese half of the team; the rest of the team built on this analysis.” It went on to point out that although the joint study had arrived at “no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a lab accident”, it had assessed the former as being “likely to very likely”, and the latter as “extremely unlikely”. It also pointed out that only 4 pages of a 313-page report had addressed the latter possibility. The implication was that the China-WHO joint study had been intent on reinvigorating the Seafood Market hypothesis, and that the possibility of a lab escape had been downplayed by the Chinese side.
The 18 scientists wrote: “As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general, the United States and 13 other countries and the European Union that greater clarity about the origins of the pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimise the the impact of conflicts of interest. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.”
An article about the Science letter by James Gorman and Carl Zimmer and titled: “Another Group of Scientists Calls for Further Inquiry Into Origins of the Coronavirus” appeared in the New York Times of May 13th. The lead author of the Science letter, Jesse Bloom, stressed “Most of the discussion you hear about SARS-CoV-2 origins at this point is coming from, I think, the relatively small number of people who feel very certain about their views.” He went on to state that there was not enough evidence available for anyone to make conclusive statements about origin, adding “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable”.<https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/13/science/virus-origins-lab-leak-scientists.html>
One of the 18 authors of the Science letter was Michael Worobey, who told the Times “the recent WHO report on the origins of the virus, and its discussion, spurred several of us to get in touch with each other and talk about our shared desire for dispassionate investigation of the origins of the virus…I felt I had no choice but to put my concerns out there.”
It will be recalled that Worobey had previously played a notable (and far less impartial) role in the origins of AIDS debate, by writing a series of articles about the age of HIV-1, all of which claimed that the first index case of HIV-1 occurred in the first 31 years of the 20th century, in other words some years before the oral polio vaccine trials in the former Belgian territories. In a letter published in Nature in 2004, Worobey (backed by other phylogenetics specialists such as Paul Sharp and Beatrice Hahn) claimed that his work had “refuted” the OPV theory. (M. Worobey et al., “Origin of AIDS: contaminated polio vaccine theory refuted”; Nature; 2004; 428; 820.] But as I and many others have repeatedly pointed out, phylogenetic dating work on HIV is highly controversial, for some 90% of HIV’s evolution occurs through recombination, rather than mutation, and recombination cannot be addressed by the “molecular clock” model that the phylogeneticists use for their calculations. Using phylogenetic dating to assess the likely age of viruses which do not tend to recombine, such as smallpox viruses, is legitimate, but for retroviruses such as HIV phylogenetic dating analysis is, quite simply, phoney science.
Another scientist who has previously made some statements decrying the OPV hypothesis is Simon Wain-Hobson of the Pasteur Institute, but it is notable that he too has been quoted as urging caution about the origins of COVID, and the importance of understanding the source of the pandemic, whatever it might be. See: “In its zeal to blame China for Coronavirus, the Trump administration is thwarting investigations into the pandemic’s origins”, by Mara Hvistendahl, published May 10th 2020 in the Intercept. [See: https://theintercept.com/2020/05/19/coronavirus-pandemic-origin-trump-china/.]
I feel it is germane to point out that from a career standpoint it is probably easier for Western scientists to question the role that a government may have played in the genesis of a pandemic when the government involved is China, rather than a Western power such as the USA or Belgium!
It is worth adding that in recent times other members of the scientific community who, some 20 years ago, arrived at a convenient consensus about the origins of AIDS have recently changed position. Back in 2001 virologist Robin Weiss (co-organiser of the 2000 Royal Society discussion meeting on “Origins of HIV and the AIDS Epidemic”) declared that “some beautiful facts have destroyed an ugly theory”. [R.A. Weiss, “Polio vaccines exonerated”; Nature; 2001; 410; 1035-1036.] Once again, the ugly theory that he claimed to have destroyed was the OPV theory. However, in a recent interview Professor Weiss backtracked, saying: “In 2001 I jumped off the fence on the polio vaccine hypothesis in favour of ‘disproved’…But I am open to persuasion that my conclusion was premature.” [See my blog: “An introduction to Lochlann Jain’s article about the OPV/AIDS hypothesis, and its treatment at the Royal Society meeting on the ‘Origins of HIV and the AIDS epidemic'”; published August 26, 2020, on this site.]
As an aside, Lochlann Jain’s article has prompted a number of approaches from members of the academic community, expressing support for the OPV hypothesis, and disquiet about the way in which a politically convenient verdict on that hypothesis was promulgated on the basis of flimsy evidence by a number of scientists, several of whom later turned out to have had partisan interests in the debate.
There is more to say about those who are changing positions in the origins of COVID-19 debate, but I shall leave it at that for now, merely adding my voice to those who emphasise that the discussion is not closed, and that further investigation of how the pandemic began is not only warranted but essential.
Let me be clear. Even if COVID-19 is eventually widely acknowledged (or even proved) to have resulted from a lab escape, that will of course not mean that the AIDS pandemic also originated from a laboratory. What it will mean, however, is that both scientific researchers and the lay public will be more open to the idea that dangerous and ill-advised research is sometimes carried out in apparently respectable institutes and labs, and that bad things sometimes happen as a result. It will also strengthen the perception that governments tend to be loath to own up to having sponsored, or overseen, catastrophic scientific blunders.
On the other hand, as one of my email correspondents has stressed, even if neither COVID-19 nor AIDS had a lab origin, either disease could have originated in this fashion, a fact that inherently justifies strong action, such as the banning of gain-of-function research, in order to diminish the possibility of launching future pandemics.
I repeat that there are many dozens of researchers and commentators investigating the origins of COVID, and that it is my intention to continue taking a back seat in that particular debate. However, I shall continue to publish new and relevant material about the genesis of AIDS – an issue which has never been properly settled, as Robin Weiss has rather belatedly conceded.
POSTSCRIPT: In the last 48 hours, as I was completing this blog, three significant new articles were brought to my attention by email correspondents. One is a pre-print of a new article by Jesse Bloom, the lead author of the aforementioned letter to Science. Titled: “Discovery of deleted deep sequencing data sheds more light on the early Wuhan SARS-CoV-2 epidemic”, this remarkable document reveals that Bloom managed to recover from the Google Cloud early sequences which had been published on (and later deleted from) the NIH’s Sequence Read Archive, allowing him to “reconstruct partial sequences from 13 early epidemic viruses” from Wuhan. These 13 sequences lacked three mutations that were evident in sequences obtained from individuals thought to have been infected in the Wuhan Seafood Market in the early days of the epidemic, and were more similar to “the progenitor strain of known SARS-CoV-2 sequences”, which is itself more closely related to bat coronavirus relatives of the pandemic virus. The implication is that the sequences from persons infected in the Seafood Market may not be typical of the earliest COVID-19 sequences from Wuhan, but may represent a later variant. Dr Bloom comments: “it seems likely that the sequences were deleted in order to obscure their existence” and adds “this suggests a less than wholehearted effort to trace early spread of the epidemic.” [See: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.06.18.449051v1.full.pdf ] I have just learned of the publication of a New York Times article about this research, entitled “Scientist Finds Early Virus Sequences That Had Been Mysteriously Deleted”. This refers to doctors Bloom and Worobey as belonging to “an outspoken group of scientists who have called for more research into how the pandemic began”, and confirms that no information is available about who requested the deletion of the sequences from the NIH archive, or why this happened. However, it would appear very possible that it was one of the Chinese scientists who originally uploaded the sequences to the on-line database early last year, none of whom have responded to recent follow-up emails. [See: <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/23/science/coronavirus-sequences.html?action=click&algo=bandit-all-surfaces-engagement-time-weight&block=trending_recirc&fellback=false&imp_id=539022102&impression_id=51760c02-d4fc-11eb-877f-f5a9546d15d1&index=7&pgtype=Article&pool=pool%2F91fcf81c-4fb0-49ff-bd57-a24647c85ea1®ion=footer&req_id=176941574&surface=most-popular-story&variant=4_bandit-all-surfaces-engagement-time-weight>.]
I have also been fascinated by a recent commentary published by award-winning journalist Ian Birrell who, together with Damon Albarn, is the founder of Africa Express. He recently posted an article entitled “Beijing’s useful idiots. Science journals have encouraged and enforced a false Covid narrative.” [See: https://unherd.com/2021/06/beijings-useful-idiots/] This commentary claims that it was “Peter Daszak, the British scientist with extensive links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology” who was secretly the main mover behind (and drafter of) the letter by 27 scientists published in The Lancet in March 2020, and contends that “clearly this was designed to stifle debate”. Birrell adds that when the Lancet later set up a commission on COVID origins, they selected Daszak to chair it. (Daszak, whose scientific skills are not in doubt, also apparently sits on the WHO committee on COVID origins, which raises further questions about potential conflicts of interest.) The Birrell commentary includes an insert by Matthew Crawford on “The Corruption of Science” and another by Bret Weinstein on “Why we should welcome the lab leak hypothesis”. These two short commentaries point out that in recent years journals in the Nature stable (including Nature and Nature Medicine), together with other leading journals such as Science and The Lancet have acquired major financial connections to China, which include multi-million dollar sponsorship agreements which, it is proposed, inevitably encourage the publication of articles that are approved by the Chinese government, and the non-publication of articles which might cause embarrassment in Beijing.
This is not to suggest that all articles about COVID-19 in these journals are biassed (see, for example the letter by Bloom et al. in Science, mentioned above). But it does raise significant questions about the overall impartiality of some of the most widely-respected journals in the field of Science. I should add that for years I have been documenting the negatively biased (and indeed unscientific) coverage that the OPV theory has received in the pages of journals such as Nature, Nature Medicine and Science. Although clearly this could not be linked to any of the aforesaid Chinese connections, the foregoing article does support the idea that coverage in these journals may sometimes be influenced by non-scientific, political considerations.
A further relevant article that has just been published is another piece by the afore-mentioned Mara Hvistendahl, who was formerly lead China correspondent for Science. [See: “I Visited a Chinese Lab at the Center of a Biosafety Debate. What I Learned Helps Explain the Clash Over Covid-19’s Origins” in The Intercept.
https://theintercept.com/2021/06/19/lab-leak-covid-origins-virology/.] Here, Hvistendahl describes her visit to the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, which apart from the WIV is nowadays the other BSL-4 lab (Bio Safety Level 4, indicating maximum security) in China. (Many readers will recall that coincidentally Unit 731, the HQ of the secret Japanese biological warfare programme during World War Two, was also based in a suburb of Harbin, which was then part of Japanese-held Manchuria.) Hvistendahl relates her interview with the “soft-spoken and likeable” Professor Chen Hualan, who was head of the Harbin institute when, in 2013, there was an avian virus outbreak in China which caused the deaths of seven people. At that stage Professor Chen had for some years been quite openly conducting gain of function research on a different avian flu virus. Frightening, illuminating, and well worth a read.
June 24th 2021