There is no lab leak theory

It's still just vibes in search of a hypothesis

If we’re going to do this again, I’m gonna tell this story again.

A decade ago, I traced a deadly epidemic back to a politically explosive source. It was the fall of 2010, and Haiti was reeling from a massive cholera epidemic. Rumors flew that the outbreak was caused by United Nations peacekeepers. Some variations on these rumors were extremely far-fetched.1 Many were politically motivated. But within the rumors was a testable hypothesis: that a specific group of U.N. soldiers at a specific base had introduced the disease in a specific way—by dumping infected sewage into the country’s main river system.

Now I could have written a story based on the rumors alone. I could have done a meta-analysis over whether we were “allowed” to have the debate over cholera’s origins at all. But I was a journalist living in Port-au-Prince. So I went to the base — a riverside outpost of recently arrived soldiers from Nepal — and found the first hard evidence implicating the U.N. That first story kicked off years of research by myself, epidemiologists, and others. It was not easy: The U.N. and its partners in the U.S. government covered up and fought us every inch of the way. But in the end, we established an evidentiary timeline showing when, where, and as close as we could get to how the U.N. introduced cholera to Haiti. Six years later, I extracted a grudging admission from the U.N. Secretary-General.

Given that experience, you might think I’d have been among the first to buy into the allegations of the “lab leak” origin of COVID-19. Indeed, I’ve heard through the grapevine that some of my old Haiti cholera crew are buying the hype. But I’m not. At least not yet. That is because the lab leak is still missing the key element of the U.N. cholera story that made it more than just a bunch of rumors: an actual coherent theory of the case that could be refuted or confirmed.

When you peel back the label, it seems “lab leak” is a jaunty alliteration that papers over a variety of wildly different, often mutually exclusive, ideas. It isn’t a theory but a bundle of loose hypotheses that contradict each another on basic facts: the nature of the virus in question, the timeline of introduction — even the identity of the lab at which the alleged leak occurred.

Now, even those contradictions in and of themselves are not necessarily disqualifying. Science famously evolves, and multiple competing ideas can exist at once. But I can’t help but notice that whenever one of these myriad “theories” gains cultural currency, even proponents of directly contradicted hypotheses claim vindication. It is as if they don’t actually care what happened, so long as it affirms their notions of who was wrong and whom the guilty party should be. It’s maddening to watch—especially as someone who thinks that finding the origins of an epidemic is important.

So first, let’s get something out of the way. A pair of incontrovertible facts underlies most of the lab leak narratives: SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, was first detected in the city of Wuhan. And there is at least one lab that studies coronaviruses in Wuhan.

But that is not a theory. It isn’t even a hypothesis. It’s just a vibe: two facts, possibly correlated, possibly not, that are a good jumping-off point for formulating a question. And, to be clear, it is a valid question! Though it is a question that has been asked, repeatedly.

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal spurred the newest round of question-asking when it published a front-page story headlined: Lab Leak Most Likely Origin of Covid-19 Pandemic, Energy Department Now Says.

As we will see in a moment, the story behind the paywall was not nearly as interesting as the headline. But the suggestion of confirmation triggered an avalanche of takes. Nate Silver and Ross Barkan (once again) chided liberals, scientists, and the media for having “suppress[ed] discussion” of the virus’ origins.2 Alina Chan — a molecular biologist who co-wrote a core text of lab leak lore — crowed to a Boston radio station that she felt “validated.” Jonathan Chait — who it seems is contractually obligated to be wrong about everything these days — took a swing at “dead-enders on the left” who, he claimed, “continue to treat legitimate scientific questions as tantamount to crank beliefs.”

On the hard right, meanwhile, the details of the story were ignored completely. Tucker Carlson just flat-out lied, telling his viewers that the Biden administration had determined that “corona leaked from the China lab.” This was done, he said, with a level of malice that would be hard for “a middle-class Christian American” to imagine. He added: “In fact, one of the very first things we knew about COVID was that it was an engineered virus that escaped somehow, intentionally or not, from a Chinese military biolab in Wuhan.”

I probably don’t have to tell you that was all bullshit. But I will anyway. For one, there is nothing in there about a “Chinese military biolab” in the WSJ story. In fact, the WSJ flatly refuted that entire line of speculation, noting: “the update reaffirmed an existing consensus … that Covid-19 wasn’t the result of a Chinese biological-weapons program, the people who have read the classified report said.”

(That means it is also refuting the position of the House Republican caucus, which emphasized in their report last year that “SARS-CoV-2 may have been tied to China’s biological weapons research program and spilled over to the human population during a lab-related incident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”)

Second, the WSJ story did not say that the Biden administration was endorsing the lab leak. The story noted, correctly, that the DOE’s intelligence arm is just one of eight U.S. intelligence bodies tasked by the administration with answering the question — and that half of them, plus the National Intelligence Council, still back a “natural origin.” Two remain undecided. Just two — DOE and the FBI — think a “laboratory-associated incident” was more likely.

Third, the story made clear — albeit in the fifth paragraph — that DOE made its new minority judgment with “low confidence.” Here’s how the Office of the Director of National Intelligence defines that piece of “estimative language”:

A low confidence level generally indicates that the information used in the analysis is scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be in- ferred from the information, or that the IC has significant concerns or problems with the information sources.

Now to be fair, the five agencies that back a natural origin also did so with “low confidence.” And the FBI supported its pro–lab leak view with “moderate confidence.” Adding to the contradictions, the WSJ reported that “while the Energy Department and the FBI each say an unintended lab leak is most likely, they arrived at those conclusions for different reasons.”

But OK, fine, the spies and cops disagree about their conclusions. Let’s talk about their evidence. What new proof — questionable, fragmented, or problematic as it may be — did the DOE rely on to make their latest “low confidence” estimate?

The WSJ had no idea. The reporters did not actually see a copy of the five-page report; the unnamed officials who told them about it “declined to give details.” (FBI director Christopher Wray repeated his agency’s conclusion in a Fox News interview Tuesday, also refusing to provide details.) But CNN claims to have the goods:

Three sources told CNN that the Department of Energy’s shift was based in part on information about research being conducted at the Chinese Centers for Disease Control in Wuhan, China, which was studying a coronavirus variant around the time of the outbreak.

Take a closer look at the name of the lab in that quote. If you have been reading anything about the lab leak for the last three years, or even just looking at the pictures, you will no doubt recognize the name Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Well, it may interest you to know that the Chinese Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] is not the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It is, in fact, an entirely different institution — nine miles away, on the other side of Wuhan, across the Yangzi River. To put it in American terms: If the CCDC was near the White House, the WIV would be somewhere in Falls Church, Virginia.

These sort of details are important when talking about the introduction of a disease. The exact location of the Nepalese base in Haiti was a key piece of evidence, because it was on a river immediately upstream of the first cluster of cholera cases. If someone else had come out with a report arguing that the cholera epidemic had actually begun several miles downriver — even if that report also pointed at the U.N. — I would not take that as “validation” of my theory. I would have taken it, in fact, as a challenge, and set out immediately to check both my math and theirs.

As it happens, switching the lab at the center of the story would solve one big problem the lab leakers have been struggling with for three years: that the earliest known cluster of COVID cases was nowhere near the WIV. During the initial wave of unexplained pneumonia, doctors immediately identified the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, on the west side of Wuhan, as the common link. That was why, to the chagrin of investigators since, Chinese officials immediately closed and sanitized the market on January 1, 2020. Since then, evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey and his colleagues have provided even more detail for the case that the market was the “epicenter” of the pandemic.

This has been a source of embarrassment and confusion for those attached to the WIV as the source of COVID-19. Leading lab leakers have called Worobey a “stooge,” or worse. Even Carlson felt the need to mock the market theory on his show this week, screeching: “[Covid] didn’t emerge organically from a pangolin, whatever that is, at the wet market, whatever that is” and insisting that “no one had seen” any mammals for sale there anyway. (In fact, Worobey et al. found photos of mammals being sold at the Huanan market. This matters because it is assumed that a third-party mammal would be needed as a reservoir for the virus to make its way from bats into humans.)

The irony is that the very DOE story Carlson was piggybacking off of fits better with the market being the first major site of contagion. That’s because, while the Huanan market was far from WIV, it was very close to the CCDC. So, points for the lab leakers, right?

Maybe, maybe not. While switching out the lab does solve the distance issue, it creates bigger problems for the lab leakers. That is because it would probably invalidate their most cherished idea: that the virus not only escaped from a lab, but was engineered in one.

The problem here is that, while WIV does have a history of doing potentially dangerous gain-of-function research, all indications are that the CCDC in Wuhan does not. Here’s virologist Angela Rasmussen:

Now, admittedly, a lack of engineering may not be fatal to the CCDC-centered hypothesis in and of itself. That is in part because, the confident declarations of Carlson and others notwithstanding, the evidence that COVID-19 was engineered remains extremely thin. It mostly hinges on speculation over a piece of biological arcana — a “molecular key” known as a furin cleavage site, that helps the virus invade human cells. Alina Chan and her co-author, Matt Ridley (who is best known as leading climate change apologist), devote a full chapter to the furin cleavage site in their book, Viral, going so far as to imply strongly that the director of the WIV, Dr. Shi Zhengli, intentionally covered up the existence of the FCS to hide her lab’s responsibility for the pandemic.

But other scientists, including Rasmussen, have argued that furin cleavage sites occur naturally in coronaviruses all the time. Even Chan and Ridley felt compelled to insist, in the most recent version of their book at least, that they were “agnostic” on the question of whether the FCS was natural or man-made.

So a naturally occurring virus would fit with what we know about the DOE’s low-confidence hypothesis — though, in doing so, it would consign to the dust bin of history three years of screaming about Fauci and his Chinese Communist engineered “plandemic.”

OK, so then, what are we even arguing here? Is the “lab leak theory” that an engineered supervirus was released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in November 2019? (Or October?) Or it is that a natural virus emerged from a totally different lab on the other side of the city in December?

Is the theory that the reported three sick WIV workers carried the virus to a nearby hospital? Or are they irrelevant, which is why they don’t even bear mentioning in the Republican House Intelligence report? How can Chan and Ridley — who wrote an entire book implicating the Wuhan Institute of Virology — shift seamlessly to offering evidence that a totally different facility was at fault? Does Carlson think the FBI and DOE are lying deep staters when they say COVID wasn’t a bioweapon, but telling the truth when they say — for apparently different reasons! — that they think it is most likely that it came from … some lab? Somewhere?

Contrast all of that to the parsimony of the market hypothesis: In a city of 11 million people, bigger than all five boroughs of New York City combined, the first known cases were clustered around a single market. That market housed caged mammals capable of contracting and spreading SARS-CoV-2: animals farmed in areas suspected of being a source of the virus. The samples taken from the surfaces on the area where the animals were housed tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Vendors and customers at the market got infected, they brought the virus home and to jobs elsewhere, and soon it spread across Wuhan, and then the world.

That story is not without holes: most notably, researchers haven’t yet produced the intermediary species needed for it to work. But it is coherent, clear, and more importantly, testable. (It also happens to be a story that resembles the way nearly every other viral epidemic in human history began, including the original SARS-CoV-1 in 2003.)

Maybe someday — even someday soon — someone will come up with a coherent story of which lab COVID emerged from, when, and how. When they do, we can all consider it, test it, and come to our own conclusions. But until that happens, I don’t even understand what theory we’re talking about. It just seems like a lot of talk.

Join the conversation

or to participate.