The quest for truth-in-COVID did pick up some steam in late spring 2021.
Not about the vaccine, though.
About the origins of the virus.
From the first days of the epidemic, strong circumstantial evidence suggested Sars-CoV-2 had leaked from a Chinese lab. Both the virus itself and the facts around its emergence pointed to human intervention.
Wuhan, the city of 10 million people where the first cases were found, is home to China’s most important viral research laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The institute aggressively researched bat coronaviruses, which China had viewed as a serious risk since the original SARS outbreak in 2003.
In 2017 the institute opened China’s first Biosafety Level 4 laboratory. Level 4 labs are the most secure available, designed to handle deadly pathogens such as Ebola. But just months after the lab opened, U.S. State Department officials visited and reported in a cable to Washington that the new facility was at risk of a serious accident. They found “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”
The troubled lab was located only miles from the first cluster of cases in central Wuhan. And it had worked with a virus very similar to Sars-CoV-2 known as RaTG13 (or RaBtCov/4991), which had been found in a cave in 2013 after several miners working there became seriously ill with pneumonia.
That cave—like other caves that had large numbers of the bats that were the original animal hosts for naturally occurring coronaviruses—was nowhere near Wuhan. It was located in southern China, several hundred miles away. And the Chinese couldn’t trace a chain of human transmission from that region to Wuhan. They had reported no early cases in the villages and cities around the caves, or between the caves and Wuhan.
Early on, Chinese and international reports had offered a different potential explanation for the fact Sars-CoV-2 had emerged first in Wuhan. They linked the outbreak to a large “wet market” there. Wet markets, which are common in China, sell wild and domesticated live animals for slaughter. An NPR reporter visited a similar market in Hong Kong and reported that “it’s quite obvious why the term ‘wet’ is used. . . . The countertops of the stalls are red with blood as fish are gutted and filleted.”
But the theory was discounted within months, because Chinese researchers could not find Sars-CoV-2 in tissue samples of animals taken from the Wuhan wet market.
Meanwhile, from the start of the epidemic, Chinese authorities at every level behaved as if they had something to hide. Sending police to silence Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who in late December 2020 had first warned about the new pneumonia, was only the first step.
An Associated Press investigation in June 2020 found that China had “sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information. . . . Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on Jan. 11.” The next day, China shut down that other lab for “rectification.”
Beijing also told the World Health Organization it did not believe people could transmit the virus to each other. Five days later, with hospitals in Wuhan filling, China reversed course and acknowledged that people could and did spread Sars-CoV-2.
Still, China refused to give the WHO detailed data on COVID patients for another 10 days, according to the Associated Press investigation. Nor would it let international experts visit Wuhan to see what was happening firsthand. On February 7, the New York Times reported, “C.D.C. and W.H.O. Offers to Help China Have Been Ignored for Weeks: Privately, Chinese doctors say they need outside expertise. But Beijing, without saying why, has shown no interest so far.”
Finally, three days after that article, China allowed an international team inside its borders.
At best, China’s attitude revealed badly misplaced national pride. Through 2020 and into 2021, long after the virus had become a far larger problem in the United States and Europe than in China, the People’s Republic continued to stonewall.
In January 2021, more than a year after the coronavirus first emerged, China finally allowed a WHO team of scientists to speak to researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology for an investigation. But the inquiry faced such severe Chinese-imposed restrictions that no one expected it to investigate aggressively.
A Novel Virus Made More Dangerous
Meanwhile, Sars-CoV-2 itself had several characteristics that suggested it might not be entirely natural.
From the start, it was both remarkably communicable and surprisingly stable, as if it had been optimized to infect humans. Throughout 2020, it hardly mutated. (The sudden acceleration in variants came alongside widespread vaccinations, and viral mutation is a known risk of vaccinations.)
At the same time, it turned out that civet cats and many other possible “intermediate hosts” for the virus didn’t seem vulnerable to Sars-CoV-2. For other coronaviruses, including the original SARS and MERS, intermediate hosts had provided a crucial link between the bats that had originally hosted the virus and humans. The lack of a plausible intermediate host was puzzling.
Further, the genome of Sars-CoV-2 contained a very unusual sequence that made it more dangerous, the “furin cleavage site.”
A May 2020 article in Nature highlighted the power and danger of furin cleavage:
Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, estimates that [the site] gives SARS-CoV-2 a 100–1,000 times greater chance than SARS-CoV of getting deep into the lungs. ‘When I saw SARS-CoV-2 had that cleavage site, I did not sleep very well that night,’ he says.
But bat coronaviruses generally do not have furin cleavage sites, raising the question of how Sars-CoV-2 had acquired its own. RaTG13, the virus that the Wuhan Institute had admitted working with, was the closest known viral relative of Sars-CoV-2, but by virology standards it was still relatively distant, and it lacked the furin cleavage site.
One possible answer for how the virus could have added the genes necessary to make the furin cleavage site lay in what scientists called “gain-of-function” research. The phrase is euphemistic, bordering on Orwellian.
In plain English, it means altering a virus’s genetic code to make it more dangerous.
Gain-of-function research can be targeted and complex, with scientists making tiny and precise changes to a virus’s RNA and tracking whether they make the virus more infectious. Or it can be as simple as infecting lab animals with different viruses simultaneously and then seeing how the viruses recombine with each other.
Whatever the method, the goal of gain-of-function research is often to figure out how to make a virus more infectious, more lethal, or both. In theory, this work can help scientists and public health experts figure out which viruses are most dangerous and how to manage them. But many scientists have sharply criticized gain-of-function research, saying its risks far outweigh any potential benefits. In 2018, Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard professor who is one of the world’s top epidemiologists, argued forcefully against manipulating the flu this way:
This chapter makes the case against performing exceptionally dangerous gain-of-function experiments that are designed to create potentially pandemic and novel strains of influenza. . . . The additional scientific value of this so-called gain-of-function research of concern . . . is relatively modest compared to what can be learned from [gain-of-function] experiments that do not create [viruses potentially capable of causing pandemics], combined with other approaches to experimental and observational influenza studies.
The concerns about gain-of-function research became so serious that in October 2014 the National Institutes of Health imposed a moratorium on it. But researchers with labs in the business of gain-of-function research protested.
Among the most prominent defenders of the research was Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina, who before the moratorium had worked with Shi Zhengli, a senior scientist at the Wuhan lab, on coronavirus gain-of-function research.
On November 12, 2014, Baric and another scientist would write to express their “profound concerns regarding the recent US Government directive to ‘temporarily halt all new funding for experiments . . . using gain of function strategies that might increase pathogenesis and transmissibility in mammals.’”
Among the other proponents of gain-of-function research was one Anthony Fauci. In December 2011, he was the lead author—along with Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the NIH—of a Washington Post opinion piece headlined “A Flu Virus Risk Worth Taking.”
A few months later, Fauci went even further. In a commentary for the American Society of Microbiology, in September 2012, he wrote: “In an unlikely but conceivable turn of events, what if that scientist becomes infected with the virus, which leads to an outbreak and ultimately triggers a pandemic? . . . Scientists working in this field might say—as indeed I have said—that the benefits of such experiments and the resulting knowledge outweigh the risks.”
The view of proponents like Dr. Fauci carried the day. In December 2017, the NIH dropped its restrictions, enabling Baric and others to move forward with gain-of-function research if they chose.
Of course, the Wuhan lab had never been subject to American rules. And documents released in September 2021 appeared to show that it had continued to work on gain-of-function research all along. So Sars-CoV-2 had been the subject of what could only be called a cover-up at the highest levels of the Chinese government, it had unusual genetic elements, and it had emerged in the city that held a lab performing risky research on coronaviruses.
As I sometimes liked to write on Twitter, Nothing to see here, folks!
The case for the lab leak theory was compelling—though it was still circumstantial. Meanwhile, with neither Sars-CoV-2 nor any very close viral relative anywhere to be found in the wild, the support for the theory that the coronavirus had emerged naturally was also entirely circumstantial.
Essentially, the natural origins theory went something like this: Lots of coronaviruses exist. They regularly mutate and trade pieces of their genomes with each other. An intermediate host will be found sooner or later, even if some of the obvious candidates haven’t panned out. (The path of the original SARS—bats to civets to humans—had been tracked less than a year after that outbreak began in November 2002.)
Or maybe the virus had jumped directly from bats to humans in more or less its current form and was still lurking in a Chinese cave somewhere, waiting to be found. The first two dangerous coronaviruses that had emerged since 2000, SARS and MERS, had had natural origins. This one did too.
I found one of these two theories far more plausible than the other. As an unnamed White House official would tell the Washington Post in April of 2020, “The idea that it was just a totally natural occurrence is circumstantial. The evidence it leaked from the lab is circumstantial. Right now, the ledger on the side of it leaking from the lab is packed with bullet points and there’s almost nothing on the other side.”
At the very least, an honest appraisal of the relative strength of the two theories suggested that scientists, journalists, and governments should aggressively investigate the possibility the virus had leaked from a lab. That’s not what happened.
By mid-February 2020, virologists and other scientists had launched a coordinated campaign to squelch any discussion of the lab leak theory. The first shot across the bow came on February 19, when The Lancet published its “statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19.”
A month later, on March 17, five top virologists published a short letter in the journal Nature Medicine claiming, “We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
To support their theory, they noted that some features of Sars-CoV-2 could be found in coronaviruses that infect pangolins, an anteater found in Africa. How exactly those pangolin coronaviruses would have traded genes with those found in bats in Chinese caves was a question for another day. (And even the pangolin coronaviruses didn’t have furin cleavage sites, as the letter acknowledged.)
The letter was heavy on unsupported conjecture and lacking hard evidence. If the question of the virus’s origins were a trial—The World v. Wuhan Institute of Virology—the letter would have been no more than an opening statement. Nonetheless, almost four thousand other research papers—an extraordinary number—have cited it.
Major media outlets also leaned heavily on the letter—and the scientists who signed it—to shoot down any discussion of a potential lab leak.
Sometimes journalists deliberately conflated the leak theory with the far more implausible view—offered by a few genuine conspiracy theorists—that the Chinese had created Sars-CoV-2 as a biological weapon and released it intentionally. (Given that the coronavirus was generally not dangerous to healthy military-age adults, it would have made a lousy weapon of war.)
But more often they attacked even the potential of an accidental lab leak—especially after Trump said at the White House on April 30 that intelligence agencies had evidence of a leak. “We’re going to put it all together,” Trump said. “I think we will have a very good answer eventually. And China might even tell us.”
Reporters roundly attacked this claim.
The Atlantic referred to Trump’s statement about “the virus first appearing in a Chinese lab” as “a notion that scientists have dismissed.” The Washington Post posted a “Fact Checker” on May 1 headlined “Was the New Coronavirus Accidentally Released from a Wuhan Lab? It’s Doubtful.” (This piece ran just weeks after Josh Rogin’s column in the Post on the State Department’s concerns about the Wuhan Institute of Virology.)
But then the Post had been insisting on the natural origins theory as early as February, long before anyone had definitive evidence either way. In an attack on Senator Tom Cotton, it called the lab leak idea “a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked.”
Fauci fueled the anti-lab leak sentiment in a May 4 interview with National Geographic. Fauci “says the best evidence shows the virus behind the pandemic was not made in a lab in China,” the magazine reported.
Some reporters went even further, arguing that the lab leak theory was racist. The online magazine Slate claimed in February 2020 that “rumors of a lab escape or a bioweapon stem from historical amnesia, a caricatured villain, and good old-fashioned racism.” More than a year later, Apoorva Mandavilli, who covered the epidemic for the Times, would tweet that the theory had “racist roots.”
I never understood why pointing out the lab leak theory was considered racist, while mentioning that Chinese people buy wild animals for slaughter in unsanitary markets was fine. No matter. Woke rules are woke rules. The lab leak theory quickly became so toxic that Facebook actively censored it.
As the months passed and neither Chinese authorities nor anyone else found any plausible animal host for the virus, I assumed that the lab leak theory would have to be taken more seriously.
By the fall, only a few brave scientists spoke out to call for further inquiry—notably Alina Chan, a junior researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For the most part, they were ignored. (I tweeted regularly about the theory, too; I couldn’t believe how cavalierly reporters had dismissed it.)
After Biden won, I assumed reporters would take a fresh look. I had become so cynical that I assumed that the journalistic consensus was an effort to ensure Trump could not blame China for the crisis. Once again, I was wrong. Most reporters seemed to believe genuinely in the consensus view—just as they believed, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that “342 masks” suppressed the virus and school closures protected kids. In February 2021, after Biden’s inauguration, Ari Shapiro of NPR’s “All Things Considered”—the ultimate voice of the elite media consensus—told listeners, “OK, so it’s clear the virus did not come from a lab.”
Still, the World Health Organization investigation marked the beginning of the end of the efforts to demonize the lab leak theory, mainly because it proved to be so toothless that it actually provoked a backlash. It came to the wildly implausible conclusion that the virus was more likely to have been imported into China in frozen food than to have leaked. A Wall Street Journal op-ed on February 21 summed up the skepticism: “WHO Said What about Wuhan? International Investigators Ignore the Lab-Leak Theory but Investigate Frozen Fish.”
In fact, when the WHO finally released the formal results of the investigation on March 30, the cover page described it as a “Joint WHO-China Study, January 14–February 10, 2021, Joint Report,” a title that suggested the WHO hardly wanted full responsibility for the findings.
But the dam really broke in May 2021, 17 long months after the virus had emerged. On May 2, Nicholas Wade, a former science reporter for the New York Times, self-published a magazine-length piece on Medium headlined “Origin of COVID—Following the Clues.”
The article concluded:
Perhaps the international community of virologists will come to be seen as a false and self-interested guide. The common-sense perception that a pandemic breaking out in Wuhan might have something to do with a Wuhan lab cooking up novel viruses of maximal danger in unsafe conditions could eventually displace the ideological insistence that whatever Trump said can’t be true.
And then let the reckoning begin.
Wade’s piece was thoughtful and well-written. But it contained almost no points that the lab leak contrarians had not made for more than a year. It simply arrived at the right time.
Just over three weeks later, on May 26, Biden ordered intelligence agencies to review what they knew about the origins of the virus. (That review very predictably came to an inconclusive answer when it was released in August.)
And, in an unapologetic about-face, Facebook announced that it was no longer censoring the theory. Facebook’s statement was stunning. Social media companies were now announcing publicly which ideas they found acceptable and which they would prohibit.
A few days later, some real news broke.
It was about a potential cover-up. Not in China. In the United States.
BuzzFeed published an archive of emails to Fauci’s official account at the National Institutes of Health, which the outlet had received through a Freedom of Information Act request. In what might have been the most overt display of bootlicking of Fauci in the entire epidemic (and the competition was fierce), many reporters treated the cache as little more than evidence of how hard he had been working.
“Fauci’s Emails from the Pandemic Show His Stress-Filled Days,” People magazine gushed.
“Thousands of emails from and to Dr. Fauci reveal the weight that came with role as a rare source of frank honesty within the Trump administration’s COVID-19 task force,” CNN “reported” in a tweet.
CNN was right, the mail dump was revealing. But what it revealed was not frank honesty.
Quite the contrary. The emails showed that, within weeks after it first emerged, Fauci had been warned that Sars-CoV-2 might have been genetically modified and leaked from a lab. On Friday, January 31, 2020, Kristian Andersen, a California virologist, had emailed Fauci to warn him that the genome of the virus had “unusual features . . . some of the features (potentially) look engineered.”
Within hours, Fauci had set up a conference call for the next day, which was a Saturday, with Andersen and other prominent virologists to discuss the email. Early Saturday morning, he also emailed Dr. Hugh Auchincloss, his deputy, a copy of the 2015 paper in which Ralph Baric had reported his coronavirus gain-of-function research he had conducted with the Wuhan lab’s Shi Zhengli.
“Read this paper as well as the email that I will forward to you now,” Fauci wrote. “You will have tasks today that must be done.” (In one of my favorite Fauci moments, he then ended the email with a breezy “Thanks, Tony.”)
Fauci has never disclosed what the “tasks” he gave to Auchincloss were or what he discussed with Andersen and the other virologists on the conference call—which has never been released. But we do know that the coordinated campaign to discredit the lab leak theory began days later.
And the lead author of the March 17 letter published in Nature Medicine that became the ur-text used against the leak theory was . . . Kristian Andersen. Yes, the same virologist who had told Fauci on January 31 that the virus appeared “engineered.”
And the emails contained still more damning evidence, showing the central role that a man named Peter Daszak had played in trying to steer inquiries away from the lab leak. To say Daszak had a conflict of interest was an understatement. His non-profit, EcoHealth Alliance, had helped funnel money from the NIH to fund coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab.
At best, the emails suggested that behind the scenes Fauci and top virologists and infectious disease researchers had had serious concerns about a lab leak—concerns based on a top virologist’s observation that parts of the Sars-CoV-2 genome might have been artificially engineered—and acted in bad faith when they publicly dismissed it.
China might never have cooperated with an investigation no matter how much pressure the United States put on it, but our own public health officials had ensured that the scientific and medical community never even came together to demand that the Chinese open their doors. They had ensured China would have plenty of time to destroy whatever evidence it had.
This scandal was genuine, worthy of the world’s best investigative reporters.
Who ignored it.
The primary contribution of the New York Times to the story came on June 14, when it published a “conversation” with Kristian Andersen (calling it an interview would have been too confrontational, I suppose). Over email, Andersen explained that the concerns he had expressed privately to Fauci in January hadn’t matched the public letter six weeks later because—well, because science.
But you can trust Andersen. After all, he said so! “My comments and conclusions are strictly driven by scientific inquiry, and I strongly believe that careful, well-supported public messaging around complex topics is paramount,” he claimed.
Best of all, the subhead of the hard-hitting “conversation” was this groundless assertion: “In early 2020, Kristian Andersen wrote to Anthony Fauci about the possibility of an engineered coronavirus. His research has since dispelled those suspicions.”
What research? Andersen was no closer to identifying a natural host for Sars-CoV-2 in June 2021 than he had been in January 2020. And any “research” he had done before supposedly changing his mind would have had to take place in a matter of weeks in the winter of 2020. This was not journalism but stenography, the equivalent of the Vogue Arabia interview in 2019 when Kayne West interviewed Kim Kardashian, his (then) wife.
But even with outlets such as the Times refusing to step forward, I thought the public discussion of the lab leak was a hopeful sign, as was the fact that Facebook had backed off on its censorship. Media outlets were once again acknowledging realities that I and other skeptics had hammered since the start of the epidemic.
With the fight over COVID vaccines heating up, I hoped I was seeing a new commitment to the truth from both social and legacy media outlets.
I was about to learn how wrong I was.