‘Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots. But alas, that day is not yet here,” a writer named Apoorva Mandavilli recently posted on Twitter. It would have been easy to scroll right past the comment—Twitter is full of people ranting about COVID and calling everyone racist—but for the writer’s Twitter bio: “Reporter @nytimes on mainly #covid19.” Later that day, the Times reporter took down her tweet, saying it had been “badly phrased.” The day in question was May 26, 2021. The mounting evidence that the COVID-19 coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, rather than spontaneously emerging from nature, had become the hottest topic in journalism and potentially the most consequential science story in a generation.
If researchers had manipulated the SARS-CoV-2 virus to be more virulent, and then that virus had escaped the lab, it would mean the pandemic was arguably the worst manmade disaster in history. (A slightly less creepy—but still horrifying—possibility: COVID-19 is caused by a naturally occurring virus that happened to leak while being studied at the Wuhan Institute.) Many observers have compared the accident to the Chernobyl meltdown, another high-tech screw-up compounded by government deceit. But, with a global death toll likely to approach 4 million, a Wuhan lab leak, if it did in fact occur, would be perhaps 10,000 times deadlier than the Ukraine nuclear accident.
For a science journalist, helping figure out the true genesis of this catastrophe would be the opportunity of a lifetime. And yet here was one of the New York Times’ top pandemic reporters fretting that too many people were interested in the question. In a way, you can understand her frustration. Elite institutions and media outlets had been trying to get people to “stop talking about the lab leak theory” for over a year. From their perspective, the issue was raised by the wrong sort of people—including Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton and President Donald Trump—and giving the story oxygen might mean lending credence to conservative talking points. Moreover, focusing on China’s sloppy research practices and possible cover-up would distract the public from the media’s preferred COVID narratives: Trump’s incompetence, racial injustice, and red-state recklessness. Desperate to avoid those risks, media outlets, health organizations, government agencies, even the scientific community labored seemingly in concert to discount the lab-leak possibility and discredit anyone who raised it.
But, to the frustration of gatekeepers like Mandavilli, evidence that COVID-19 did originate at the Wuhan Institute of Virology keeps getting stronger. In recent months, there has been one bombshell disclosure after another. Even some scientists who initially pooh-poohed the idea are now demanding an investigation.
The dam is breaking. And with the surging floodwaters, comes a stunning realization: Almost across the board, our elite institutions got the most important question about COVID wrong. Worse, they worked furiously to discourage anyone else from getting it right. The leading scientific experts turned out to be spinning the truth. Our public-health officials put their political agenda ahead of any scientific mandate. And the press and social-media giants eagerly played along, enforcing strict rules about which COVID topics were acceptable and which had to be banished from the national conversation.
During the Trump years, we heard a lot of hand-wringing about the public’s unwarranted “distrust” of our society’s designated experts and leaders. But to be trusted, people and institutions have to be trustworthy. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a profound corruption at the heart of our expert class. The impact of that revelation will reverberate for years to come.
Interestingly, the idea that the virus might have leaked from a lab wasn’t particularly controversial in the early weeks of the pandemic. Initially, no one thought it was “racist” to note the coincidence that a disease caused by a virus similar to ones found in Chinese bats just happened to emerge at the doorstep of the world’s top laboratory devoted to studying…Chinese bat viruses. But once Senator Cotton brought up the possibility in a January 2020 Senate hearing, the lab-leak notion had to be squelched.
Our country’s most esteemed media outlets moved as one. First, they twisted Cotton’s question. He had said we should investigate whether an accidental leak had occurred. But the Washington Post suggested that Cotton had called COVID-19 a deliberately released bioweapon. It was all downhill from there: Politifact labelled that idea a “pants-on-fire” lie. The Post accused the senator of “fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has already been debunked by experts.” Slate attributed the notion to “good old-fashioned racism.”
Overnight, the self-appointed fact-checkers all agreed that the lab-leak question was “a lunatic conspiracy theory,” as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting put it last year. Of course, that meant anyone who raised the question couldn’t simply be searching for the truth—such a person had to have a political agenda. When Trump mentioned “the theory from the lab,” last April, CNN’s John Harwood concluded that the president was “looking for ways to deflect blame for the performance of his administration.” In an interview on CBS, China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, showed a surgical deftness in manipulating elite American opinion: He cagily warned that pursuing lab-leak questions “will fan up racial discrimination, xenophobia.”
Our leading institutions took their cue, universally declaring that the Wuhan theory wasn’t just incorrect but dangerous and malicious. The World Health Organization called the spread of the idea an “infodemic” of misinformation. Social-media platforms tweaked their algorithms to ensure that these dangerous notions wouldn’t infect the defenseless population. When a New York Post opinion writer raised the possibility of a lab leak, Facebook slapped a “False Information” alert on the piece and made it impossible to share. Facebook also warned it would throttle the accounts of any users who persisted in spreading such wrongthink, ensuring that any dissenters from the approved COVID talking points would fade into the social-media background.
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It almost worked.
For nearly a year, mainstream news outlets barely mentioned the lab-leak hypothesis (except to ridicule it). The scientific community, too, largely banished the topic. In February 2020, a group of 27 eminent virologists had published a statement in the influential medical journal the Lancet, soundly rejecting the idea that the virus might have emerged from a lab rather than passing to humans from bats or some other animal. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the scientists wrote. One of the organizers of that letter was Peter Daszak, an epidemiologist and president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a group that helps distribute federal grant money to researchers studying viruses. Not surprisingly, discussions about a potential lab leak tapered off dramatically. Working scientists’ careers depend on getting their papers published and winning research grants. How many want to contradict the biggest names in their fields? Only later did it emerge that Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance had funneled some U.S. government research money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak’s efforts to shut down debate on the question of that lab’s role in the disaster entailed a massive conflict of interest.
Perhaps most disturbing was the response of the U.S. intelligence community. Two different teams in the U.S. government—one working out of the State Department, the other under the direction of the National Security Council—were tasked with examining the origins of the outbreak. According to a blockbuster investigation by Vanity Fair reporter Katherine Eban, those researchers faced intense pushback from within their own bureaucracies. Four former State Department officials told Eban they had been repeatedly advised “not to open a ‘Pandora’s Box.’”
In particular, they were urged not to reveal the role the U.S. government might have played in helping fund the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s controversial “gain-of-function” projects. Gain-of-function research involves manipulating potentially dangerous viruses to see if they might more easily infect human cells. Advocates, including Peter Daszak, say the process can help scientists anticipate future outbreaks and possibly develop vaccines. Critics say, “It’s like looking for a gas leak with a lighted match,” as Rutgers professor of chemistry and chemical biology Richard Ebright told Eban. Either way, the possibility that U.S. research grants might have helped finance the creation of a super-virus was a revelation some members of the intelligence establishment were loath to see exposed.
Despite the resistance, the State Department team uncovered some stunning intelligence supporting the leak hypothesis. In particular, researchers discovered that three WIV scientists studying coronaviruses had fallen ill in November 2019 and had gone to the hospital with COVID-like symptoms. The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 began erupting around Wuhan less than a month later. In the chaotic last days of the Trump administration, the State Department released a vague statement about its Wuhan finding, but the news didn’t gain much traction at the time. Then the incoming Biden administration promptly disbanded the State Department’s Wuhan team.
The whole investigation into COVID-19’s origins might have petered out at that moment. The story of why the line of inquiry survived is not an account of leading scientists and health organizations dutifully parsing the evidence. Instead, it is largely the story of little-known researchers—many working outside the bounds of elite institutions—who didn’t let the political implications of their findings derail their efforts. Much of what we know today about the Wuhan Institute’s risky research is thanks to these independent skeptics who challenged the institutional consensus. Some risked their careers to do so.
One key group was an international assortment of independent researchers—few of whom were established virologists—that self-assembled on the Internet. The group called itself the Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19, or DRASTIC. The name made them sound like a band of online gamers, but the group diligently uncovered a series of damning facts. Defenders of the Wuhan Institute often describe the lab as a virtually fail-safe Biosafety Level 4 facility. But one DRASTIC researcher discovered that much of the work at the Wuhan lab was performed at lower levels—BSL-3 or even BSL-2, a degree of protection similar to that in a dentist’s office. Another showed that SARS viruses had previously leaked from China’s top research labs with alarming regularity. “The DRASTIC people are doing better research than the U.S. government,” a State Department investigator told Vanity Fair.
Alina Chan, a young molecular biologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, was particularly fearless in challenging the premature consensus laid down by the elders in her field. She zeroed in on the virus’s genetic structure. If the virus had gradually evolved to target humans, those changes should have left traces in the genome. Instead, SARS-CoV-2 appeared “pre-adapted to human transmission,” she wrote in May 2020. Other researchers confirmed that the virus contains a particular genomic sequence that doesn’t typically occur naturally in this family of viruses but that is commonly inserted during gain-of-function research. By early 2021, these sorts of revelations were building into a compelling argument that the virus emerged from the Wuhan lab. Meanwhile, researchers trying to find the natural “reservoir” of the virus—in bats or some other animal—were coming up shockingly empty.
Throughout the pandemic we’ve often heard admonitions to “follow the science.” Looking back we can see that few scientists—and even fewer journalists—really did. 60 Minutes, which aired a skeptical report on the WHO’s milquetoast COVID-origin investigation, was a rare exception. But most journalists who aggressively pursued the Wuhan story tended to work slightly outside the mainstream. In January 2021, Nicholson Baker—a novelist, rather than an established science writer—published “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis” in New York magazine. In May, former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade published a massively detailed argument for the theory on the self-publishing website Medium. Wade (who has faced criticism on the left for his writings on genetics and race) quoted Nobel Prize–winning microbiologist David Baltimore saying that a specific genetic modification at the virus’s “furin cleavage site” was “the smoking gun for the origin of the virus.” Two weeks later, Donald G. McNeil Jr.—who was humiliatingly forced out of the Times last year due to his perceived violations of woke etiquette—posted on Medium a piece entitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lab-Leak Theory.”
Notice the irony here: While two refugees from the New York Times were publishing deep, well-reported articles on an alternative outlet, the Times itself was still mostly ignoring the Wuhan-lab story. And one of its current pandemic specialists, Apoorva Mandavilli, was on Twitter urging everyone to “stop talking about the lab leak.” Fortunately, people didn’t stop talking. The lab-leak hypothesis had moved into the mainstream. Scientists and journalists could finally discuss it without fear of excommunication. Facing mounting pressure, the Biden administration reversed course on May 26, announcing it had asked U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate the “two likely scenarios” for the virus’s origin. But so much damage had already been done.
When the pandemic hit last year, we were all urged to fall in line and listen to the authorities. Scientists and bureaucrats were elevated to near-divine status. “Let us pray, now, for science,” Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote last February. “Pray for reason, rigor and expertise…. Pray for the N.I.H. and the C.D.C. Pray for the W.H.O.” Now the public is waking up to the fact that, prayers notwithstanding, those institutions largely failed us. The WHO kowtowed to China’s deceptions. Anthony Fauci trimmed his public statements to fit the prevailing political winds. Some of the nation’s top virologists didn’t just dismiss the lab-leak possibility, they appeared to be covering up their own involvement with Wuhan gain-of-function research. Journalists and social-media companies conspired to suppress legitimate questions about a disease that was killing thousands of Americans each day.
We may never get complete confirmation that the virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute; certainly, China will never allow an honest investigation. But the idea that the virus resulted from scientific research—and that some U.S. scientists then tried to hide their involvement—is already gaining acceptance with the public. How will Americans react to this perceived betrayal? Not well, I’m afraid. “We may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger,” writes Thomas Frank. The financial crisis of 2008 triggered widespread suspicion of elite institutions and free markets, burning over political ground that eventually became fertile for both Bernie Sanders and Trump. If the public concludes that COVID-19 was, in effect, an inside job, the political fallout could last a generation. I don’t mean people will believe the virus was deliberately released—although far too many will embrace that idea—but that they will see the disease as a product of an elite power structure that behaves recklessly and evades responsibility.
It would be tempting to cheer on a populist uprising against elite expertise and institutions. But that would be a tragic mistake. The vast majority of scientists, health-care institutions—even many public officials—did vital heroic work during the pandemic. Just look at those miraculous vaccines! Moreover, we can’t survive in a complex and dangerous world without expertise. Replacing today’s expert class with conspiracy theorists, anti-vax charlatans, and populist mountebanks might satisfy the public’s anger for a time. But it would only make our society more vulnerable—to domestic unrest, pandemics, you name it. Can we reform the institutions that failed us? Can they reform themselves, perhaps to be more humble, more attuned to facts and less focused on power? I wish I could say I’m optimistic.