Book review: The lab-leak hypothesis goes "Viral" [Updated]
In their new book, postdoc Alina Chan and science writer Matt Ridley provide the most detailed, fair, and yes, scientific account yet of the fierce debate over Covid-19's origins.
When I started this Substack newsletter, I read all the advice that the platform and other Substack writers had to offer. One of the key suggestions was to keep the newsletter tightly focused on one main topic, so that readers would have a cogent reason to subscribe and follow what the writer had to say. Many newsletter publishers have stuck to that advice and have done well as a result; others, including me, have violated it consistently, writing about what we are interested in at any given moment.
Readers of this newsletter might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, however. Given the number of commentaries I have posted about the debate over the origins of Covid-19, it might look at first glance as though that is what this newsletter is mainly about. I admit to a very keen interest in the debate—not only because understanding the origins of a pandemic that has killed more than 4 million people worldwide seems essential, but because the controversy has greatly challenged the skills, ethics, and imaginations of scientists and the journalists who are covering the pandemic.
As I have stated many times, I believe this is a low point for both science and journalism. Political biases and other confounding elements have led many in both fields to abandon some of their essential principles of fairness, neutrality, and a basic respect for facts and evidence. But, as I have also said many times, I do not have a dog in the fight. I do not have an opinion about which competing hypothesis—the lab-leak scenario or the natural origins (zoonotic spillover) scenario—is correct or even most likely, because I don’t believe there is decisive evidence for either one. You might say my main concern is process rather than content.
Fortunately, there is now an antidote available, a vaccine if you wish, for the huge muddle and wrong turns the debate has taken: The new book “Viral,” by Broad Institute molecular biologist Alina Chan and British science writer Matt Ridley. Although both writers lean towards the lab-leak hypothesis based on the evidence that currently exists (and continues to accumulate), and do not try to hide the fact—full disclosure, as it were—they also do the kind of deep dive into the history and science behind the controversy that is badly needed at this juncture.
The timing of the book could not be better, because we are finally entering into a period when it is possible to have an honest discussion of the science. Just this week, four U.S. Senators, two Republicans and two Democrats, called for the creation of a special commission to look into all aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic—including the origins of the virus itself.
That open discussion was largely precluded for more than a year after EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak and a group of scientists declared anything other than the natural origins hypothesis as a “conspiracy theory.” Most scientists and journalists largely kept their heads down for more than a year. It took another group of scientists, also holding PhDs and solid credentials, to open the discussion back up this past May with their own call for a full investigation of the issues.
Of course, during that dark time of quasi-censorship and open disdain for dissenting views, some scientists and journalists did try to keep the question open. Alina Chan, sometimes derided for being a lowly postdoc, was a leader in this effort, and her persistent questions played a big role in encouraging others to speak up. (As a reporter who often covers controversies in science, I can testify to how hard and risky it is for anyone not at the top of the academic ladder to buck the ride of conventional wisdom).
To repeat what I said above, “Viral” should be read not because it proves the lab-leak hypothesis is correct—the authors themselves do not make that claim—but because it does an excellent and, as far as I have seen, unprecedented job of presenting the elements necessary to move forward in the discussion and ask the right questions. Indeed, “Viral” puts forward, in a full chapter, the best arguments I have yet seen for the natural origins hypothesis; when freed of polemics, biases, and attacks, that viewpoint is perfectly plausible as well.
A model of organization.
Someone on Twitter, I cannot now recall who, commented that “Viral” was much better than they were expecting it to be. To be honest, I had the first thought when I started reading it. I assumed that Chan and Ridley, trying to write a book about a pandemic that was changing fast and presented a moving target, had rushed this book into print—that it would be a very rough first draft of history. I believe they did write it fairly quickly, but the book obviously represents a huge amount of work and research. That was necessary to provide readers with the kind of detailed account that makes the book so valuable. In addition to a Prologue and an up to date Epilogue, there are 14 chapters, each devoted to a key aspect of the controversy and the pandemic itself.
The Prologue, entitled “The mystery,” sets the stage for understanding why there is an issue over Covid-19 origins in the first place. During the SARS epidemic that began in 2002, it was possible to establish fairly quickly that the virus arose in humans as a result of a zoonotic spillover. Although it took time to work out the details, scientists concluded that the SARS virus arose in bats and infected humans via an intermediate host, probably a small mammal called a palm civet (they are not cats, although sometimes called that). In other words, it was possible to work out how the virus gradually became adapted to effectively infect humans.
But in the case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, work by Chan and others demonstrated that the virus was already well adapted to human transmission when it was first detected in late 2019 (just when the first cases of Covid-19 occurred is a hotly debated question, and certainly relevant to the origins debate). Indeed, the degree of adaptation appeared to be close to that of SARS near the end of that earlier epidemic, adaptation that required circulating in human hosts for an extended period of time (at least one and half years).
In contrast, although scientists assume that bats were again the original host in the current pandemic, they have not identified bats infected with this virus, and there is no clue what the intermediate host—if there was one—might have been (suspicions that it was pangolins have since been discounted). Moreover, as has become clear since the pandemic started, but was not well known publicly at first, scientists working with coronaviruses had been genetically manipulating SARS-like viruses for many years. And, there have been potential lab leaks.
In August 2020, for example, Alison Young and Jessica Blake reported for ProPublica that there had been several incidents of lab workers being exposed to genetically engineered SARS-like viruses beginning in 2015, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. There, in UNC’s high security lab, mice infected with such manipulated viruses had bitten lab workers several times. Although none of them had become sick, they were not isolated from other colleagues other than being told to wear masks and take their temperatures regularly. One of the lab leaders was Ralph Baric, who has collaborated over the years with both Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance and researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including the famous “Bat Woman” Shi Zhengli.
This is not to say that Covid-19 might have begun in North Carolina, and Baric and others have insisted that the viruses studied there were very different from SARS-CoV-2—although some were definitely SARS-like coronaviruses, according to information the NIH gave to ProPublica. Disturbingly, however, both UNC and NIH gave the publication precious little other information, and willfully withheld requested data, declined to give interviews, and otherwise stonewalled the reporters.
This secrecy about events the public certainly had a right to know about was not as bad as that exhibited by China at the beginning of the current pandemic, however, and which continues today. (China’s lack of transparency was also very much in effect during the first SARS epidemic). But for Chan, Ridley, and many others, the secrecy in China and the U.S. adds to suspicions that someone has something to hide. The authors point out, in their habitual and fair attempts to find alternative explanations for everything that has happened, that Shi and Chinese officials may have had other reasons to be secretive, including national shame and embarrassment that a worldwide pandemic had begun in their country. But as the book goes on, and the examples of prevarication and what appear to be outright lies piles up, that explanation has to be balanced against other, more serious ones.
One example, now well known to coronavirus sleuths, is the affair of the Mojiang copper mine in southwest China’s Yunnan province, where six men were admitted to a hospital after cleaning up bat guano. Three died. Their symptoms were very similar to that of Covid-19, but Shi insisted for a long time that they were victims of a fungal infection. It took an “internet sleuth” (not a fair description, since many of the sleuths are scientists or other experts, and Chan and Ridley generously credit their investigations) to make this connection, which was quickly picked up on by other scientists (see also a commentary on this linked paper by Indian scientists Ralhalkar and Bahulikar).
In this early chapter, Chan and Ridley also tell the story of the coronavirus now called RaTG13, which was isolated from the mine and until recently was the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2 with about 96% genetic identity. The authors and others have written extensively about possible attempts by Shi and her colleagues to avoid revealing the discovery of this virus in the mine, samples of which were transported to the institute in Wuhan, sequenced, and perhaps studied (that we don’t know exactly what Shi et al. did with this virus is part of the problem).
Chan and Ridley treat us next to a chapter providing a detailed history of viruses and viral epidemics, good background for readers just coming into the debate. That is followed by an account of China’s attempts to suppress even the first news of the viral outbreak in Wuhan, punishing doctors and scientists who tried to get the word out—events that are well known by now and have generated much suspicion of Chinese officials and scientists. That refusal by China to publish data critical to understanding the first Covid-19 cases is largely responsible for there being a debate over the origins of the pandemic in the first place, and the authors do a good job of explaining that context and backing it up with details. Their efforts include an exploration of the hypothesis that the pandemic began in Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market, which they show is on shaky ground. They present good arguments that the Wuhan market represented a “super spreader” event and not the site of a zoonotic spillover. (Chan and Ridley continue to emphasize this point even as a number of media accounts have misrepresented a recent Science perspective by Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona to mean that “patient zero” has been found).
As they and others have pointed, we simply have no idea when the first Covid-19 cases arose, but they could have been as early as November, October, or even September 2019. When you add that to reports by U.S. intelligence agencies that three Wuhan researchers fell ill of a pneumonia-like illness in November 2019, all bets are still on the table. Indeed, in Chapter 7, “Laboratory leaks,” the authors argue, with lots of evidence, that lab leaks are almost routine in supposedly high-security pathogen research. In other words, there is nothing outlandish or even unlikely about the lab-leak hypothesis for Covid-19, although of course it—like the natural origins hypothesis—remains to be proven.
My favorite chapters in the book are near the end, when the authors, acting as judge, jury, and legal counsel, attempt to give each of the two main competing scenarios their best shot in light of existing evidence. As I mentioned above, ironically for two people widely seen as proponents of the lab-leak scenario, Chan and Ridley provide the best arguments I have yet seen for the opposite hypothesis. SARS-CoV-2, they point out, “is one of many SARS-like viruses, and SARS-like viruses were invented by Mother Nature, not by people. So the theory that the pandemic began as a natural spillover was from the start, and remains to this day, highly plausible. It is the null hypothesis, the default assumption.”
Chan and Ridley go on to explain why the zoonotic spillover scenario is perfectly reasonable in light of available evidence, and they come to the defense of the Wuhan researchers who are getting the blame from some quarters for starting the pandemic. “To blame those diligent virus hunters for the pandemic is like blaming a bystander or even a first responder for an accident,” they write. “The main case against them is that they were present at the scene. But of course they were present at the scene! They were trying to help…”
In this chapter, the authors raise a bit of circumstantial evidence that has occurred to me as well, a number of times. They are puzzled that if the lab-leak scenario is right, and Chinese scientists and officials knew that, why one or more whistleblowers has not yet come forward with smoking gun evidence for it. China is ruled by an authoritarian state, of course, but it is only a wannabe totalitarian state. As the leaks in the early days of the pandemic demonstrate, things do get out, and it is strange that the dynamism of Chinese society and the large number of dissidents in thought and deed have not led to whistleblowing by now. Perhaps the Chinese are not actually sure where the leak originated, from the Wuhan lab, during transport of bat samples to Wuhan from elsewhere in China or other parts of Asia, or some other way we don’t have any idea about.
I will not further spoil this chapter for readers, nor the following one which argues the case for the lab-leak hypothesis. I will just say that each chapter is a brilliant and comprehensive summing up of the available evidence, which makes irrelevant any public pronouncements by either side of the debate that they somehow have the answer. In my own commentaries, I have often cited an important point made by New York Times columnist and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci: It is not valid to talk about the “probability” or “likelihood” of either of the scenarios when so much data needed to calculate just that is missing, in many cases by design and unnecessary and regrettable secrecy. It would be like (this is my analogy) trying to pick a winner in a horse race when you only know the names and identities of half of the horses that are running.
I will also skip discussing the very interesting chapter on the so-called furin cleavage site (FCS), a molecular insertion in the part of the virus that attaches to human cells via a receptor. But it is essential reading, as both sides of the argument think its presence in SARS-CoV-2 is evidence for their position—meaning, precisely, that is not! It is important to mention, however, as Chan, Ridley, and others have pointed out, that Shi and her colleagues completely failed to mention the presence of this key feature when they sequenced the virus’s genome and reported its main features in Nature back in February 2020, when the pandemic was still in its infancy.
Why not? If there is an innocent explanation, then Shi, Chinese officials, Daszak, and others who have insisted the lab-leak hypothesis is a “conspiracy theory” have contributed greatly to the spread of the theory by their lack of transparency. But perhaps there is not an “innocent” explanation…
Credit where credit is due.
At the end of “Viral,” Chan and Ridley give heartfelt thanks and acknowledgement to the scientists and others, often inaccurately called “internet sleuths,” of DRASTIC and related groups who uncovered a great deal of what we now know about the virus and its background. To them I would add reporters like those at The Intercept and other publications, some “alternative” and some not, as well as activists at U.S. Right to Know, who have used confidential sources and the Freedom of Information Act to pry loose critical information that too many wanted to keep hidden.
In previous posts on “Words for the Wise,” I have complained bitterly about the failures of many science journalists and scientists to put aside obvious biases—some based on sincere desires not to encourage Trump-inspired anti-Asian racism and China bashing—to seriously investigate the origins of a pandemic that has killed over 4 million people worldwide. So I urge everyone who has not already done so to read “Viral” and consider the evidence it presents, which I have not seen all in one place before.
Perhaps we will never know how this terrible pandemic, which has caused upheaval in all our lives and tragically ended so many, actually began. But sometimes it is just a matter of asking the right questions. In “Viral,” Alina Chan and Matt Ridley do just that.
Excellent review… it expands my understanding a little bit, and it stimulates me to read the book to further broaden my meager knowledge about this unprecedented time. Thank you Michael.
Another excellent commentary, this time on the crucial topic of the origin(s) of COVID-19. It certainly makes a powerful case for reading the book "Viral" by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley.