The real story
By Scott Sumner
There’s been a lot of buzz about former NYT journalist Nicholas Wade’s article on the origin of the Covid-19 virus. Much of the discussion revolves around his claim that the virus was probably created in a Chinese lab, and then accidentally infected several researchers who worked there. In fact, the article contains a far more explosive accusation.
Wade suggests that the global community of virologists has knowingly and recklessly engaged in highly dangerous research that threatens the lives of millions (if not billions), and then covered up an accident to avoid scrutiny. To be clear, he does not make that accusation in so many words, but I see no other way to interpret his claims:
1. Wade claims the virus was probably created in a lab in China, and then accidentally escaped.
2. Wade claims that “gain-of-function” research is an accepted practice among virologists, and indeed the Wuhan research was actively encouraged and even financed by western scientific institutes.
3. Wade claims that Western virologists denied that Covid-19 could have been created in a lab, even though in fact it clearly could have been created in a lab.
The Wade article presents a picture of scientific research creating a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, the worst nightmare of any Hollywood film.
Just to be clear, I have no idea if any of his accusations are true. The WSJ says:
There seems to be some debate about whether the Wuhan coronavirus work really did involve “gain-of-function” research—genetically engineering viruses to attack people under the premise that such research assists in learning how to counter future threats. In February the website PolitiFact reported, “All parties involved in the grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology have denied that it involved gain-of-function research.” PolitiFact attributed a quotation to the National Institutes of Health, the parent agency of Dr. Fauci’s organization:
The NIH told us: “The research supported under the grant to EcoHealth Alliance Inc. characterized the function of newly discovered bat spike proteins and naturally occurring pathogens and did not involve the enhancement of the pathogenicity or transmissibility of the viruses studied.””
But PolitiFact also stated:
MIT biologist Kevin Esvelt reviewed a paper that appears to have been published with financial assistance from the grant. According to Esvelt, certain techniques that the researchers used seemed to meet the definition of gain-of-function research.
This column contacted the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases this afternoon on this issue and a spokesperson says, “We’ll get back to you.”
One thing that makes me skeptical of Wade’s account is that he doesn’t seem to understand the implications of the facts that he presents. Here’s Wade:
Here are the players who seem most likely to deserve blame.
1. Chinese virologists. First and foremost, Chinese virologists are to blame for performing gain-of-function experiments in mostly BSL2-level safety conditions which were far too lax to contain a virus of unexpected infectiousness like SARS2. If the virus did indeed escape from their lab, they deserve the world’s censure for a foreseeable accident that has already caused the deaths of three million people. True, Shi was trained by French virologists, worked closely with American virologists and was following international rules for the containment of coronaviruses. But she could and should have made her own assessment of the risks she was running. She and her colleagues bear the responsibility for their actions. . . .
2. Chinese authorities. China’s central authorities did not generate SARS2, but they sure did their utmost to conceal the nature of the tragedy and China’s responsibility for it. . . .
3. The worldwide community of virologists. Virologists around the world are a loose-knit professional community. They write articles in the same journals. They attend the same conferences. They have common interests in seeking funds from governments and in not being overburdened with safety regulations.
Virologists knew better than anyone the dangers of gain-of-function research. But the power to create new viruses, and the research funding obtainable by doing so, was too tempting. They pushed ahead with gain-of-function experiments. They lobbied against the moratorium imposed on Federal funding for gain-of-function research in 2014, and it was raised in 2017.
Sorry, but this ranking makes no sense to me. It’s like saying that when a father let’s his 6-year old drive the family car, the child is most responsible for an accident that occurs. Certainly the virologists in Wuhan would deserve a great deal of blame if this account is true, but Wade is accusing the global community of virologists of engaging in a truly monstrous crime. Anyone who has ever worked in a lab knows that accidents are inevitable. Would you allow scientists to do experiments on H-bombs in the middle of Manhattan? And no, this isn’t hyperbole; a rogue virus could kill hundreds of millions of people. Wade is suggesting that the global community of virologists actively sought to have the ability to do such research, and then covered up an accident that has killed millions of people (so far.)
I find this claim to be so incredible that I’ve searched my brain for some sort of explanation. Perhaps the potential benefit of such research exceeds the cost. Maybe this research will eventually lead to medical breakthroughs that save hundreds of million of lives, more than making up for the death toll from Covid-19.
It only takes a moment of reflection, however, to realize that this excuse won’t work. If gain-of-function research actually were essential, but could also cause a horrific global pandemic if there were an accident, then it obviously should have been done in remote sites in the middle of the desert, where workers had to quarantine for weeks after leaving work and returning to society. This is how the astronauts were handled after the moon landing of 1969, and the threat of viruses from the moon is much smaller than the threat from gain-of-function research. The astronauts didn’t just wear masks; they wore spacesuits on the moon!
In the past, I’ve usually discovered that when something makes no sense, I have somehow misunderstood the relevant facts. One possibility is that Wade is simply wrong. (I suspect this is the case.) Maybe gain-of-function research is not being done. Or maybe it presents no threat of a global pandemic. Maybe the scientists who say the Covid-19 virus could not be man-made are correct.
One thing is clear—Wade is an unreliable narrator. He presents facts without seeming to understand the explosive nature of his claims. He suggests that he is presenting a Chinese conspiracy theory (and he is), but embedded within the article is a far more explosive claim about the Western scientific establishment. If his claims were true, this would be by far the worst scandal in global history.