Medical News

The Republican Lab-Leak Circus Makes One Important Point

For more than three hours yesterday, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic grilled a pair of virologists about their participation in an alleged “cover-up” of the pandemic’s origins. Republican lawmakers zeroed in on evidence that the witnesses, Kristian Andersen and Robert Garry, and other researchers had initially suspected that the coronavirus spread from a Chinese lab. “Accidental escape is in fact highly likely—it’s not some fringe theory,” Andersen wrote in a Slack message to a colleague on February 2, 2020. When he laid out the same concern to Anthony Fauci in late January, that some features of the viral genome looked like they might be engineered, Fauci told him to consider going to the FBI.

But days later, Andersen, Garry, and the other scientists were starting to coalesce around a different point of view: Those features were more likely to have developed via natural evolution. The scientists wrote up this revised assessment in an influential paper, published in the journal Nature Medicine in March 2020, called “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2.” The virus is clearly “not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the paper said; in fact, the experts now “did not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” and that the pandemic almost certainly started with a “zoonotic event”—which is to say, the spillover of an animal virus into human populations. That analysis would be cited repeatedly by scientists and media outlets in the months that followed, in support of the idea that the lab-leak theory had been thoroughly debunked.

The researchers’ rapid and consequential change of heart, as revealed through emails, witness interviews, and Slack exchanges, is now a wellspring for Republicans’ suspicions. “All of a sudden, you did a 180,” Representative Nicole Malliotakis of New York said yesterday morning. “What happened?”

Based on the available facts, the answer seems clear enough: Andersen, Garry, and the others looked more closely at the data, and decided that their fears about a lab leak had been unwarranted; the viral features were simply not as weird as they’d first thought. The political conversation around this episode is not so easily summarized, however. Yesterday’s hearing was less preoccupied with the small, persistent possibility that the coronavirus really did leak out from a lab than with the notion of a conspiracy—a cover-up—that, according to Republicans, involved Fauci and others in the U.S. government swaying Andersen and Garry to leave behind their scientific judgment and endorse “pro-China talking points” instead. (Fauci has denied that he tried to disprove the lab-leak theory.)

[Read: If the lab-leak theory is right, what next?]

Barbed accusations of this kind have only added headaches to the question of how the pandemic really started. For all of its distractions, though, the House investigation still serves a useful purpose: It sheds light on how discussions of the lab-leak theory went so very, very wrong, and turned into an endless, stultifying spectacle. In that way, the hearing—and the story that it tells about the “Proximal Origin” paper—gestures not toward the true origin of COVID, but toward the origin of the origins debate.

From the start, the problem has been that a “lab leak” could mean many things. The term may refer to the release of a manufactured bioweapon, or to an accident involving basic-science research; it could involve a germ with genes deliberately inserted, or one that was rapidly evolved inside a cage or in a dish, or even a virus from the wild, brought into a lab and released by accident (in unaltered form) in a city like Wuhan. Yet all these categories blurred together in the early days of the pandemic. The confusion was made plain when Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a hard-core China hawk, aired a proto-lab-leak theory in a February 16, 2020 interview with Fox News. “This virus did not originate in the Wuhan animal market,” he told the network. He later continued, “just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety-level-4 super-laboratory that researches human infectious diseases. Now, we don’t have evidence that this disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question.”

Cotton did not specifically suggest that the Chinese “super-laboratory” was weaponizing viruses, nor did he say that any laboratory accident would necessarily have involved a genetically engineered virus, as opposed to one that had been cultured or collected from a bat cave. Nevertheless, The New York Times and The Washington Post reported that the senator had repeated a “fringe theory” about the coronavirus that was going around in right-wing circles at the time, that it had been manufactured by the Chinese government as a bioweapon. It was hard for reporters to imagine that Cotton could have been suggesting anything but that: The idea that Chinese scientists might have been collecting wild viruses, and doing research just to understand them, was not yet thinkable in that chaotic, early moment of pandemic spread. “Lab leak” was simply understood to mean “the virus is a bioweapon.”

Scientists knew better. On the same day that Cotton gave his interview, one of Andersen and Garry’s colleagues posted the “Proximal Origin” paper on the web as an unpublished manuscript. (“Important to get this out,” Garry wrote in an email sent to the group the following morning. He included a link to the Washington Post article about Cotton described above.) In this version, the researchers were quite precise about what, exactly, they were aiming to debunk: The authors said, specifically, that their analysis clearly showed the virus had not been genetically engineered. It might well have been produced through cell-culture experiments in a lab, they wrote, though the case for this was “questionable.” And as for the other lab-leak possibilities—that a Wuhan researcher was infected by the virus while collecting samples from a cave, or that someone brought a sample back and then accidentally released it—the paper took no position whatsoever. “We did not consider any of these scenarios,” Andersen explained in his written testimony for this week’s hearing. If a researcher had indeed been infected in the field, he continued, then he would not have counted it as a “lab leak” to begin with—because that would mean the virus jumped to humans somewhere other than a lab.

[Read: There is no evidence strong enough to end the pandemic-origins debate]

Rather than settling the matter, however, all this careful parsing only led to more confusion. In the early days of the pandemic, and in the context of the Cotton interview and its detractors, too much specificity was deemed a fatal flaw. On February 20, Nature decided to reject the manuscript, at least partly on account of its being too soft in its debunking. A month later, when their paper finally did appear in Nature Medicine, a new sentence had been added near the end: the one discounting “any type of laboratory-based scenario.” At this crucial moment in the pandemic-origins debate, the researchers’ original, narrow claim—that SARS-CoV-2 had not been purposefully assembled—was broadened to include a blanket statement that could be read to mean the lab-leak theory was wrong in all its forms.

Over time, this aggressive phrasing would cause problems of its own. At first, its elision of several different possible scenarios served the mainstream narrative: We know the virus wasn’t engineered; ergo, it must have started in the market. More recently, the same confusion has served the interests of the lab-leak theorists. Consider a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on pandemic origins, declassified last month. American intelligence agencies have determined that SARS-CoV-2 was not developed as a bioweapon, it explains, and they are near-unanimous in saying that it was not genetically engineered. (This confirms what Andersen and colleagues said in the first version of their paper, way back in February 2020.) “Most” agencies, the report says, further judge that the virus was not created through cell-culture experiments. Yet the fact that two of the nine agencies nonetheless believe that “a laboratory-associated incident” of any kind is the most likely cause of the first human infection has been taken as a sign that all lab-leak scenarios are still on the table. Thus Republicans in Congress can rail against Facebook for removing posts about the “lab-leak theory,” while ignoring the fact that the platform’s rules only ever prohibited one particular and largely discredited idea, that SARS-CoV-2 was “man-made or manufactured.” (In any case, that prohibition was reversed some three months later.)

Where does this leave us? The committee’s work does not reveal a cover-up of COVID’s source. At the same time, it does show that the authors of the “Proximal Origin” paper were aware of how their work might shape the public narrative. (In a Slack conversation, one of them referred to “the shit show that would happen if anyone serious accused the Chinese of even accidental release.”) At first they strived to phrase their findings as clearly as they could, and to separate the strong evidence against genetic engineering of the virus—and what Garry called “the bio weapon scenario”—from the lingering possibility that laboratory science might have been involved in some other way. In the final version of their paper, though, they added in language that was rather less precise. This may have helped to muffle the debate in early 2020, but the haze it left behind was noxious and long-lasting.