Did a strange lab leak cause the COVID-19 pandemic?

Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

In November and December 2019 a novel corona virus began circulating in China. The world -and China’s citizens- first learned of this thanks to a group of Chinese whistle blowers , including Opthamologist Dr Li Wenliang, who would ultimately die of the virus. These whistle blowers were denounced by their administrators and some of them -such as Dr. Wenliang- received a police warning. After he died from COVID-19 on February 7, 2020 there was a wave of popular outrage, and sympathy for his pregnant widow, which caused authorities to censor Chinese social media platforms. So the Chinese state sought to conceal the COVID-19 outbreak in its early stages, much as it once did with SARS. But where did the virus come from? And what do we know about its origins?

Wet markets have often been associated with the start of earlier outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as avian influenza and SARS. This makes sense because these environments bring together a diversity of wild animals that may carry unknown pathogens. Packed into cages in poorly ventilated areas, viruses can passage across the species barrier in a way that would be difficult to achieve in the wild. When the outbreak first appeared in China, many people first looked at cases that appeared to be associated with a local wet market. But as earlier cases became known, the tie to the wet market lacked strong support in the data, although a recent study perhaps strengthens this case.

Attention turned to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which reportedly had collected novel bat viruses, including some from a cave in Yunnan. Lab leaks have caused pandemics before. For example, in 1977 an influenza pandemic swept the world. Because the virus was nearly identical to historical samples from an earlier outbreak, there have been suspicions that it began as a result of a lab leak in the Soviet Union. Gain of function experiments -in which scientists deliberately increase either the transmissibility or infectiousness of an infectious agent have been controversial for many years for this reason. Accidents have happened.

Nearly a decade ago I was attending an influenza conference in Oxford, and happened to have breakfast with three well-known figures in the field of influenza virology. One of the people at the table was an outspoken advocate for gain of function research. This person’s work had attracted international controversy on this issue. He/she was an outspoken, confident person, who was more than willing to talk about the gain of function debate, and appeared to enjoy both the attention and the controversy. I thought that this person was eloquent, informed and generous in sharing their thoughts with a complete nobody like me. I was enjoying the conversation immensely. But as the discussion went on, another person at the table -a legend in influenza virology- became increasingly glum looking as he or she picked at their eggs. I felt increasingly awkward, and noticed that my charming colleague didn’t seem to be noticing their colleagues’ withdrawal from the conversation.

Finally, the gain of function researcher turned to another person -a German colleague- and said words to the effect: “You understand how these constraints are maddening.” And this German researcher said (as best as I can recall): “Yes, but I don’t do anything nearly as dangerous as you do.” One thing that I loved when I used to lecture in Germany (actually, I loved everything about Germany) was how frank my students were in giving feedback, and this response was true to form. What I took from the debate was the extent to which gain of function research worried even those people with the best practical knowledge of laboratory work with influenza viruses. As time has passed, there has been increasingly skepticism that gain of function research will produce knowledge at all worthy of the risks. But did the Wuhan Institute of Virology in fact have novel corona virus sequences, and -if so- what kind of research was being done with these strains?

While China has refused to allow further access to key researchers or the Wuhan Institute of Virology, we have learned that China did have relevant information that it failed to share. Even more, there seems to have been an effort to scrub digital information related to the early outbreak from sources such as data banks. One can learn part of this story from Carl Zimmer’s NYT article, “Those Virus Sequences That Were Suddenly Deleted? They’re Back.” The article tells the story of how Jesse Bloom, a virologist in Seattle, discovered that 200 sequences of early COVID-19 cases had been deleted from an online data base called Sequence Read Archive. Bloom was able to recover a number of these sequences. About two weeks after Bloom’s discovery was announced, a Chinese researcher uploaded these sequences to a Chinese data base at the China National Center for Bioinformation.

Of course, it’s impossible to know the motivation for the disappearance of these sequences. What we do know is that this information was removed for a prolonged period, and only made available after its disappearance became a subject of international attention. And there appeared to be different explanations for why exactly this deletion had happened. What other information may exist in other digital sources related to COVID’s origins and early spread? There is evidence (see the references below) that Vietnam hacked Chinese health ministries early in the pandemic, in a desperate effort to understand the health threat that it faced. Perhaps the Vietnamese may have more information on this topic? What else may we learn in coming weeks?

If you are on Twitter, “the Seeker” and Alina Chan are a couple of great sources to follow for information on COVID’s origins. Without trying to recap all the news, there have been many revelations on this topic over the last six months, many of which these two individuals have highlighted. Among the key points: we don’t have good evidence for natural origins hypothesis; in 2012 Chinese miners in Yunnan suffered from an atypical pneumonia, which a master’s thesis suggests was caused by a corona virus in a horse shoe bat; the Wuhan Institute of Virology was doing work on bat coronaviruses. On December 2, 2019 the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention facility moved, which created an environment in which it would have been difficult to maintain safety protocols. This was an entirely separate lab from the WIV, and a separate topic for further investigation.

There were also a number of actions at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in late 2019 that raise questions, as Robert Redfield and Marc Siegel have pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article: “On Sept. 12, 2019, coronavirus bat sequences were deleted from the institute’s database. Why? It changed the security protocols for the lab. Why? It put out requests for more than $600 million for a new ventilation system. What prompted this new need?” 

The Chinese government used every tool to conceal information on this topic, and to shut down the debate. It prevented the US CDC from visiting the lab in early 2020. We also know that key scientists with strong links (and funding) with China sought to prevent discussion of the lab leak hypothesis; the Chinese government pressured to a WHO inquiry to drop the lab-leak hypothesis. two activists publishing information on the early days of COVID-19 have been sentenced to fifteen months in jail for “picking quarrels and causing trouble.” These efforts have not eliminated all relevant information. Despite Chinese efforts to censor key information, Chinese activists have archived critical material on Github. It’s plausible that this pandemic began with a lab leak, either through an accident with a researcher, or the careless disposal of lab waste.

My sense is that the expert consensus is trending in favor of the lab leak hypothesis as more information becomes available, although much is still unknown. Even the WHO’s experts have backed away from their initial skepticism of the lab leak theory, as Ashleigh Furlong reported in a recent Political article: “The latest tinder to ignite the flames of conspiracy came Thursday when it emerged that a top World Health Organization official leading investigations into the origins of the pandemic has described a version of the lab leak hypothesis as a “probable” scenario for how the virus began to spread.”

If I had one wish, it would be to be able to bring those three virologists from the Oxford conference back to the table, and eavesdrop on a conversation among them about this news, so that I could hear their thoughts on the lab leak hypothesis.


The Diplomat podcast: Ep Making Sense of Vietnam’s Suspected COVID–19 Cyber Espionage on China – May 7, 2020. (2020, May 7). https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-diplomat-asia-geopolitics/id852773346?i=1000473991560

Stubbs, Jack, and Ralph Satter. “Vietnam-Linked Hackers Targeted Chinese Government over Coronavirus Response: Researchers.” Reuters, April 22, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-cyber-vietnam-idUSKCN2241C8.

Thayer, Carl. “Did Vietnamese Hackers Target the Chinese Government to Get Information on COVID-19?,” April 20, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/did-vietnamese-hackers-target-the-chinese-government-to-get-information-on-covid-19/.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

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