Scientists, Pundits, and the Origin of COVID-19
Most scientists seem to believe that COVID-19 first infected humans in a Chinese animal market. The pundits I read lean toward the view that COVID originated in a Chinese virology lab. One possible explanation for these differing views is that scientists are reluctant to acknowledge a lab accident that would make their profession look bad. In this case, however, I believe it is the pundits who are mistaken. I suspect that they have correctly intuited that the Chinese government is covering up the origins of COVID-19, but have drawn the wrong inference from that fact.
Throughout history, pandemics have often started in southern China. People in this region consume a wide range of wild animals, and often live in close proximity to animal markets. When I was young, I recall people speaking of the “Hong Kong flu.” If in 2018 you’d asked scientists where the next SARS outbreak would occur, they might have suggested an animal market in a large city in southern China, such as Guangzhou, Chongqing, Chengdu or Wuhan. In fact, SARS-1 originated in an animal market in Guangzhou (in 2002), and almost all of the early cases of SARS-2 (COVID-19) occurred in or near a wild animal market in Wuhan.
Early in 2020, top Chinese scientists like George Gao stated that COVID-19 had begun in the Wuhan animal market, and that the market was shut down for this reason. Case closed? Not quite. Over the remainder of 2020, two conspiracy theories developed; one promoted by the US government and the other promoted by the Chinese government. How this came about is an interesting story.
At first, there was a great deal of sympathy in the West for the unfolding tragedy in Wuhan. In February 2020, President Trump praised the efforts being made by China’s leadership on no fewer than 14 occasions. After March 2020, however, COVID spread to America and it became clear that we were woefully unprepared for the outbreak. At this point, the administration’s attitude toward China flipped, and they began looking for ways to blame China for our own policy failures. False claims were made about China allowing infected passengers to fly out of Wuhan in February 2020.
In the early stages of the pandemic, a few scientists speculated that COVID might have emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). This theory was based on incomplete information, and was eventually discarded by most scientists. Contrary to initial reports, the virus does not “look engineered.” (Similar “suspicious” features have since been discovered in the wild). And the initial outbreak occurred near the animal market, not near the WIV, which is located in a completely different section of this large city. But the theory proved to be a handy cudgel for the Trump administration. With his customary casual disregard for the truth, Trump claimed that our intelligence services had found proof of a lab leak.
[As an aside, the wild animal market theory should actually be more embarrassing for China, as these markets were known to be a risk and were supposed to be banned after SARS-1. But administration officials correctly understood that the public would view a lab leak as a bigger scandal. This is despite the fact that America also has lab leaks, but we do not have Wuhan-style wild animal markets.]
Given these facts, why do most pundits favor the lab leak theory, rather than the animal market? I suspect that the Chinese government shot itself in the foot by covering up the origins of COVID. That cover-up made people very suspicious—“where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
China’s government is unusually sensitive to outside criticism, occasionally placing trade sanctions on a country merely in response to mild criticism. They were infuriated by the US attempt to pin the blame for COVID on China, and created another conspiracy theory to deflect attention from the US government’s conspiracy theory. China began suggesting that the virus might have originated outside of China. One version has the virus entering the country through frozen fish, while another speculated that it might have been created in a US lab. These theories are even more unlikely than the lab leak hypothesis.
So now you have three views of the origin of COVID-19. There’s the mainstream scientific view that it crossed over from a wild animal market, a US government conspiracy theory and a Chinese government conspiracy theory. At this point the Chinese government began denying that the animal market was the source of COVID, even denying that it sold wild animals. So in a sense, all three views became “conspiracy theories,” as all three views involved an implicit assumption that someone was hiding something.
Meanwhile, Western scientists continued to research the origins of COVID, and found more and more evidence pointing to the wild animal market. For instance, early cases near the animal market involved two versions of the virus (A and B), which is much more likely if the virus mutated in the animal market before crossing over. In the course of this research, they also stumbled on evidence that Chinese scientists were covering up the animal market origins of COVID. For instance, in swabs taken in the market they found genetic evidence for the sort of wild animals that China had insisted were no longer sold. A previous study by Chinese scientists had failed to disclose this fact. (No proof the animals were infected, however.)
[Check out minutes 41:00 to 43:00 of this podcast, where they speculate that George Gao changed his view on the animal market hypothesis under pressure from the Chinese government.]
This is an important point missed by pundits with only a casual acquaintance with the COVID origins debate. We don’t know if COVID originated in the Wuhan animal market, but we do know that the Chinese government is actively covering up evidence pointing to an animal market origin. Thus no one should be surprised that the Chinese haven’t found an animal host for the virus; there is no evidence that they are even trying. Instead of supporting the lab leak hypothesis, evidence of a Chinese cover-up increasing points to the animal market as the source of the pandemic. China’s government wishes to muddy the water so that neither the lab nor the animal market is known to be the problem. (And it’s not clear that even they know for certain.)
So why don’t most pundits see things the way that I do? I suspect a number of factors:
1. Some pundits are not aware of how much of the initial lab leak “evidence” has been discredited. Conspiracy theories such as the claim that Kennedy was killed by the CIA attract a flood of grifters, who seek to profit from fake evidence. The lab leak hypothesis is no different. I’m continually amazed at how in comment sections to my posts people keep repeating evidence that has already been thoroughly discredited.
2. I suspect that people were powerfully impressed by the fact that COVID outbreak occurred in a city with a virology lab doing research on coronaviruses. But if “geographical proximity” is the key evidence, then you should adopt the animal market hypothesis. That’s where the initial outbreak occurred.
3. Some pundits may have assumed that China’s government was covering up the lab leak evidence and promoting the animal market, whereas most of the cover-up was aimed at the animal market (because that’s where most of the evidence was that needed covering up.)
4. Pundits view evidence of Chinese virology research very suspiciously, because they don’t know much about the subject. If there’s just been a huge coronavirus pandemic, it’s natural to view nearby lab work manipulating coronaviruses with suspicion. To scientists, such research seems perfectly normal. Ditto for safety issues. It’s not clear that the safety procedures at WIV were unusually bad (although there were problems, as in many other labs). But given what happened later, reports of safety lapses are viewed with extreme suspicion, if not outrage. How many of us are even aware of the number of safety lapses at US virology labs?
Is it possible that the virus escaped from the WIV? Absolutely! A scientist might have gotten infected with version A and brought it to the animal market. Another scientist might have been infected with version B and brought it to the same animal market. Or maybe A mutated to B after being brought to the animal market. But the simplest explanation is that this pandemic began as did so many others, with the virus crossing over in southern China to humans working and shopping in close proximity to the sort of wild animals that can serve as a conduit between bats and humans.
It might seem odd that I am downplaying the probability of a lab leak as the origin of COVID-19, given that I’m on record worrying that future research on viruses might pose a near existential risk to humanity. I still have that fear. But my main interest is not in scoring debating points. Rather, I’m interested in seeking the truth.
P.S. In general, I believe that people view China with more suspicion than is warranted. It’s true that China’s government is becoming increasingly authoritarian and bellicose. That’s a big problem. But many of the specific complaints about China are about things that apply equally to the US. We stole lots of intellectual property when we were a developing country. We bully other countries that don’t agree with our foreign policy. We spy on other countries. We have military bases on islands not far from China. There are plenty of good reasons to be concerned about China’s policy in Xinjiang, or its future plans, particularly with regard to Taiwan. But it doesn’t help to promote unproven scandals just because you believe the target is deserving of opprobrium.
P.P.S. The most famous bat caves are over close to Burma, far from the outbreak of both SARS-1 and SARS-2. But there are plenty of bat caves near Wuhan as well.