The Department of Energy in the United States, which has responsibility for a network of national scientific research laboratories, has changed its mind. It now thinks it likely the pandemic began in a Chinese laboratory, not in a seafood market, on the basis of new evidence it has seen.
It has not divulged what that new evidence is, but in reporting its change of mind to the White House and Congress, it implies something significant has been uncovered, even though its confidence in its conclusion is still “low”. It joins the FBI, which has “moderate” confidence in the theory, while four other US agencies still have low confidence that the origin was natural and two are sitting on the fence.
Those of us who have been arguing for years that a lab leak needs to be taken seriously and looks increasingly likely (though not certain), can now feel a sea-change happening. Following the failure to find evidence of infected animals in the markets, and the failure of the Wuhan lab to release its database of viruses they were working on, there’s just too much evidence pointing at the lab to ignore.
Incidentally, nobody serious thinks it was a deliberate leak, but the research being done in Wuhan – whether it led to the pandemic or not – was, we now know, extremely risky and completely failed in its ostensible aim of predicting the next pandemic.
The public, opinion polls show, are ahead of us, and are largely persuaded it all began in the lab. The geographical coincidence of a bat coronavirus outbreak happening in the city with the largest bat coronavirus lab in the world, a long way from where they live naturally, is damning. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine, laments Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca.
Many scientists, politicians and scientists agree. But a small band of western virologists has deluged social and mainstream media with insistence this is a “conspiracy theory”, when it’s actually the opposite: a cock-up theory about somebody dropping a test tube while conducting a risky experiment of the kind we know they were doing routinely in Wuhan.
The diversion began right at the start of the pandemic with a letter in the Lancet three years ago this week denouncing the slurs against Chinese scientists implied by suspicion of a lab leak. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that 2019-nCoV does not have a natural origin,” wrote Dr Peter Daszak, a close collaborator and funder of the Chinese lab, while failing to divulge his massive conflict of interest. He got 27 people to sign his letter but failed to reveal his role in orchestrating it.
Yet the campaign to prevent the lab leak theory winning over the establishment almost succeeded. Pretty well every organisation with a three-letter acronym, from the WHO to the BBC, via the CIA and CNN, refused to take the lab leak seriously, spouted nonsensical “debunking” points and gave air time only to one side of the debate. Hired spin doctors on Twitter are still hard at work.
That is what makes the announcement from Washington this week so momentous. If a US government department has seen enough to change its mind, under a Democrat president, then the dam is breaking and the Blob might be catching up with the public. One of the rudest Twitter trolls working for the virologists tweeted at the weekend: “affirmative evidence of a lab origin could change my view”.
In America, the Republicans, having gained control of the House of Representatives, are starting to demand answers from Dr Daszak and others in a way that Democrat run congressional committees repeatedly refused to do.
Here in Britain the establishment worked hard to stifle any lab leak chat. Leading figures such as Sir Patrick Vallance and Sir Jeremy Farrar might now be held to account for that. We are one of the leading biomedical research nations in the world, with a strong capability in virology, bioinformatics and epidemiology. Yet as far as I can tell none of our great research universities even tried to get a grant to investigate the possibility of a lab leak.
When I pressed the Royal Society to hold a debate on the origin of the virus, they told me they were “not convinced that – as things stand – the specifically scientific dimensions of this question are clear enough to warrant a Royal Society sponsored debate.” I thought questions that are not clear are exactly the things you debate?
When I pressed the Academy of Medical Sciences to hold a debate, I was told the topic was “too controversial”. I thought controversial topics were the very ones you debate?
With a few exceptions, even those MPs who criticise China mention the Uyghurs, Hong Kong and Taiwan but rarely the fact that the Chinese authorities have refused to co-operate or be transparent about what happened at the epicentre of an outbreak that killed north of 15 million people and ruined many people’s lives.
Why won’t the British establishment be more open minded? I think there are four main reasons. First, Chinese investment in and collaboration with British universities and firms have left them reluctant to rock the boat. Every time a Chinese billionaire hoves into view at a university, professors pull their punches. The scientific journals are heavily dependent on Chinese funding these days and have largely “abdicated their responsibility to do in-depth investigative reporting”, as one experienced science journalist puts it.
Second, many think admitting that scientists might have caused the pandemic would be bad for the reputation and funding of science. To which I say, denying the possibility and then being proved wrong would be far worse. I am a big fan of science, vaccines, biotechnology and low-risk virology, but I think truth is more important than consequence.
Third, a large part of the environmental movement – which is part of the establishment now – has been hoping to use this pandemic as a cautionary tale about the dangers of cutting down forests and encroaching on nature. The fact that it began in an area that has been rapidly reforesting, not deforesting, and that people have been going in to bat caves for millennia, is inconvenient for this theory. But nobody has a similar vested interest in the lab leak theory.
Fourth, many people don’t bother to read the detailed arguments and take their views from people they trust. I discussed this topic with a brilliant molecular biologist early on and he told me he had consulted a virologist friend who told him a lab leak could be ruled out. If I want to rely on arguments from authority, I replied, I’ll join the Catholic Church.
Now that even China has unlocked, and scientists from Wuhan are free to travel abroad to conferences, it is possible we may start to learn more about what happened in the weeks leading up to that fatal day in (probably) November 2019 when somebody started coughing in (probably) central Wuhan. Some in the US government say they have evidence the first three hospital cases were lab workers. If so, let’s see it.