The virus of irrational hatred

The Covid lab-leak theory has jumped from unsayable to most plausible. Why?

The sudden consensus that the most likely origin of the pandemic was a manufactured virus that accidentally leaked from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology really is a wonder to behold.

This was always an eminently plausible explanation, if not the most likely one. It has never been contested that SARS-CoV-2, or novel coronovirus, originated in Wuhan. The original consensus held that this was almost certainly the product of a bat virus being transmitted by an intermediary animal into human beings via the Wuhan wet market.

Wuhan, however, just happened to be the site of the Institute of Virology. It just happened that research was being done there not merely on bat viruses but on “gain of function” bat viruses — viruses which are altered to make them far more lethal to humanity, ostensibly to work out how to protect humanity from them but possibly as bio-weapons. Dany Shoham, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who has studied Chinese biological warfare, was reported on January 26 last year saying that the institute was linked to Beijing’s covert bio-weapons programme. The Wuhan lab also just happened to have been found previously to be following sub-standard security protocols for a lab of this degree of sensitivity. 

All of that always seemed a truly remarkable coincidence. The apparent disappearance of various individuals associated with the initial outbreak in Wuhan, and the secrecy with which the Chinese Communist Party shrouded and obfuscated these events, reinforced the eminently reasonable suspicion that the origins of SARS-CoV-2 were rather more sinister than the Chinese, and their patsies in the World Health Organisation, would have us believe.

Until recently, however, anyone who suggested this — as did US Senator Tom Cotton near the start of the pandemic — was denounced, tarred and feathered and ejected from approved social circles as a politically malign conspiracy theorist. 

Most disgracefully of all, scientific journals refused to publish any such evidence and smeared those who tried to open up the debate.

The veteran science journalist Nicholas Wade says he first read the lab-leak theory in March last year and has been following the evidence ever since. But many scientists dismissed it. In February last year, a group of virologists and other public health scientists wrote in the Lancet:

We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin 

because scientists 

overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.

The following month, another group of scientists wrote a letter in Nature Medicine which declared: 

Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.

But none of these scientists could possibly have known at the time what had or had not produced this novel coronovirus. What we do now know, however, is something else. In a must-read, comprehensive and authoritative piece published early last month, Wade wrote:

It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organised and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Dr. Daszak’s organisation funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Dr. Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to the Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.” 

Virologists like Dr. Daszak had much at stake in the assigning of blame for the pandemic. For 20 years, mostly beneath the public’s attention, they had been playing a dangerous game. In their laboratories they routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature. They argued they could do so safely, and that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent natural “spillovers,” the cross-over of viruses from an animal host to people. If SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China. “It would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom,” an MIT Technology Review editor, Antonio Regalado, said in March 2020.

In September last year, Dr Li-Meng Yuan published a report claiming that 

SARS-CoV-2 shows biological characteristics that are inconsistent with a naturally occurring, zoonotic virus, 

that

the genomic, structural, medical, and literature evidence… strongly contradicts the natural origin theory

and that this evidence showed instead that 

SARS-CoV-2 should be a laboratory product created by using bat coronaviruses ZC45 and/or ZXC21 as a template and/or backbone.

She also wrote that such a theory, that the virus might have come from a research laboratory, 

is, however, strictly censored on peer-reviewed scientific journals.

True to form, a report in the MIT Press Journal Rapid Reviews called her study misleading and wrote that

the manuscript does not demonstrate sufficient scientific evidence to support its claims.

Last weekend, in a piece in the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Quay and Richard Muller wrote that the most compelling reason to favour the lab-leak hypothesis was the fact that the genetic fingerprint of SARS-CoV-2 could not have developed naturally. They wrote: 

In gain-of-function research, a microbiologist can increase the lethality of a coronavirus enormously by splicing a special sequence into its genome at a prime location. Doing this leaves no trace of manipulation. But it alters the virus spike protein, rendering it easier for the virus to inject genetic material into the victim cell. Since 1992 there have been at least 11 separate experiments adding a special sequence to the same location. The end result has always been supercharged viruses.

The gain of function supercharge features a specific genetic combination known as “double CGG”. This has never been found naturally in the entire class of coronoviruses. Wrote Quay and Muller: 

Now the damning fact. It was this exact sequence that appears in CoV-2. Proponents of zoonotic origin must explain why the novel coronavirus, when it mutated or recombined, happened to pick its least favourite combination, the double CGG. Why did it replicate the choice the lab’s gain-of-function researchers would have made?

Yes, it could have happened randomly, through mutations. But do you believe that? At the minimum, this fact—that the coronavirus, with all its random possibilities, took the rare and unnatural combination used by human researchers—implies that the leading theory for the origin of the coronavirus must be laboratory escape.

When the lab’s Shi Zhengli and colleagues published a paper in February 2020 with the virus’s partial genome, they omitted any mention of the special sequence that supercharges the virus or the rare double CGG section. Yet the fingerprint is easily identified in the data that accompanied the paper. Was it omitted in the hope that nobody would notice this evidence of the gain-of-function origin?

But in a matter of weeks virologists Bruno Coutard and colleagues published their discovery of the sequence in CoV-2 and its novel supercharged site. Double CGG is there; you only have to look. They comment in their paper that the protein that held it “may provide a gain-of-function” capability to the virus, “for efficient spreading” to humans.

This piece followed the WSJ’s revelation that

Three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care.

Yet despite all this, some still cling to the conspiracy theory. In Forbes, Ethan Siegel writes that believing the lab-leak theory means believing there must have been an enormous actual conspiracy. Yeah, right — I mean, who could possibly imagine that the Chinese Communist Party would ever be associated with an actual conspiracy?? Duh!

As I wrote here, while there are indeed conspiracy theorists who believe baseless explanations for stuff they find overwhelmingly threatening and cannot understand, there are also meta-conspiracy theorists who decide that all views they believe to be unarguably wrong are by definition conspiracy theories cooked up by the malign and the imbecilic.

Which brings us to why the Wuhan lab-leak theory, which was previously dismissed as too stupid to be taken seriously, has now become almost the accepted wisdom. There is one overwhelming reason why this thing has turned on a dime, and that’s the removal from the White House of former President Donald Trump.

This was effectively admitted on May 17 by Donald McNeil, the prize-winning former science reporter for the New York Times. In March last year, he said, he prepared an article which stated that the novel coronavirus was “clearly not a lab leak”. But his story never ran — chiefly because his colleagues on the paper were sharply divided. He wrote

My colleagues who cover national security were being assured by their Trump administration sources — albeit anonymously and with no hard evidence — that it was a lab leak and the Chinese were covering it up. We science reporters were hearing from virologists and zoologists — on the record and in great detail — that the odds were overwhelming that it was not a lab leak but an animal spillover. Frankly, the scientists had more credibility.

… The “lab-leak theory” migrated back to the far right where it had started — championed by the folks who brought us Pizzagate, the Plandemic, Kung Flu, Q-Anon, Stop the Steal, and the January 6 Capitol invasion. It was tarred by the fact that everyone backing it seemed to hate not just Democrats and the Chinese Communist Party, but even the Chinese themselves. It spawned racist rumours like “Chinese labs sell their dead experimental animals in food markets.”

But then he read Nicholas Wade’s article; and only then he started to read the evidence that he should have read and taken seriously long before. 

So why hadn’t he done so? And why did all those scientists assert something for which they had no evidence while dumping on those who were actually following where the evidence led?

The answer surely lies in the madness that swept all before it among opponents of  former president Donald Trump. For such people, Trump toxified all discourse. If he’d said the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, anyone who said the same thing would  have been denounced as a white supremacist, racist xenophobe and Nazi. 

To such opponents, it was axiomatic and unchallengeable that anything Trump said had to be totally false and malign. So when he called SARS-CoV-2 the “Chinese virus” and said it had originated in the Wuhan lab, this was denounced as “Sinophobia”.

And even now that this claim is being said to be the most plausible explanation, the Trumpophobes are still justifying their substitution of partisan hysteria for rational thought. Thus Philip Elliott in Time lists the reasons why it was all Trump’s fault that his claim about the Wuhan lab wasn’t believed, and concludes: 

It’s possible to be correct and untrustworthy at the same time. 

We don’t know whether the lab-leak theory is correct or not. What we do know is that a proper discussion of this theory was stifled until very recently. The most plausible reason why people did so, by calling it fraudulent, spurious, unfounded, racist, xenophobic, insane and politically motivated, was that it was being advanced by people who were deemed to represent all those qualities — because they were their political opponents and therefore totally beyond the pale. That is, Republicans, conservatives and, above all, Donald J Trump.

In other words, we are battling not just SARS-CoV-2 but also the virus of irrational hatred which, as we have now seen far too often, has the capacity to shut down the human mind. 

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