Nina Rabinowitz
Nina Rabinowitz

The lab leak hypothesis and other true conspiracies

Why even the mainstream media are starting to accept the narrative that was once considered ‘widely debunked’

I’ve been following the story of the origins of the novel coronavirus since April 2020. I had heard the reports that this novel virus escaped from the Wuhan seafood market, but things weren’t adding up.

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First of all, for a virus to jump from another animal to humans and at the same time be so well-suited to spread among humans is, statistically, exceedingly unlikely. And then there was the strange coincidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is one of the only labs in the world which researches bat-borne coronaviruses and, as its name suggests, is located in Wuhan, the same city where SARS-CoV2 first emerged.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of statistical evidence. There is also geographic, genetic and biological evidence which make the case even more compelling. While we will never have proof that this virus escaped from a lab, as time goes on, more and more evidence supporting the lab leak hypothesis emerges.

Recently the former director of the CDC (a virologist) shared his opinion on US national television that he believes a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology is the most likely explanation for the origins of SARS-CoV2. Later, this claim was defended by Sanjay Gupta.

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Now, when the famous doctor and medical journalist Sanjay Gupta defends a hypothesis so shocking, the mainstream media pays attention. I take Dr. Gupta’s defense of this “widely debunked conspiracy theory” to mean that the mainstream narrative on the origins of SARS-CoV2 is finally reflecting what every scientist who’s been paying attention has known for months — that SARS-CoV2 likely accidentally escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We know that scientists at this lab were working on a field of study called gain-of-function research in which a technique called serial-passaging is done on a virus (in this case — a bat-borne coronavirus) to see how it will change in order to prevent the next pandemic. Unfortunately, this type of research appears to have inadvertently caused this pandemic.

So you can imagine how shocked and confused I was to see this article. At the very beginning of the article, it states as fact that the COVID-19 outbreak was spawned in the Chinese wet market (presumably the one in Wuhan). Yes, wet markets are dangerous because there are so many different kinds of animals right near each other, and thus the likelihood for pathogens to jump between species is much higher than it is in nature. But in this case, there is far greater evidence that the wet market is not the origin of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic.

As strange as it is to say, the emergence of COVID-19 in humans did not coincide with bat season in these infamous wet markets. In fact, the claims that all the early cases of COVID-19 were tied to the wet market were later found to be untrue, which explains why the Chinese government has even admitted that they no longer believe that SARS-CoV2 came from the wet market in Wuhan.

So why did the wet-market origin hypothesis become mainstream without sound evidence? Because we like to trust the experts.

In addition to my studies in epidemiology, I also do research in the field of medical decision making. One of the foundations of decision science (medical and otherwise) is the idea that we humans are cognitively lazy. If there is any way that we can get out of expending cognitive effort, we’ll probably take it. In the case of the origins of SARS-CoV2, it’s much easier for us to accept expert opinion than it is to consider a “widely debunked conspiracy theory”.

The irony is that expert opinion is lowest in the hierarchy of evidence. This means that it is extremely bad practice to make medical recommendations based solely on expert opinion.

This is something that was drilled into our heads as epidemiology students. I would argue that drawing conclusions based solely on expert opinion is completely antithetical to science.

My interest in the widespread denial of the lab leak origin of SARS-CoV2 in spite of the evidence led me to read the articles published in Nature and the Lancet — two highly respected journals — in which alleged experts shared the evidence discrediting the lab leak hypothesis.

Here is my summary of the evidence:

  1. The SARS-CoV2 virus binds to human cells with high affinity (meaning it binds effectively), but more optimal ways for binding to human cells exist. Therefore, it’s unlikely that this virus was manipulated in the lab. [Notice how the conclusion does not logically follow from the premise.]
  2.  To quote directly from this article, “if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used.” Apparently, none of the reverse-genetic systems were used, a fact I cannot confirm or deny because the explanation in this article of the features of SARS-CoV2 which are meant to show how markers of the reverse-genetic systems for betacoronaviruses were not present in SARS-CoV2 is well beyond the scope of my knowledge. However, I can definitively say that the reference cited for this point is an article written by scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including Shi Zhengli, the director of the WIV who swore on her life that SARS-CoV2 was not related to her lab. While Dr. Zhengli may be trustworthy, swearing on one’s own life is not typically considered good science. And speaking of good scientific practice, I searched through the article that was referenced in relation to the quote above. There is only one mention of reverse-genetics in the entire paper and it’s in relation to directions for future research. It appears to me that this reference is insufficient evidence to make the point the writers of the article want to make.
  3. The researchers in the Lancet article took samples of broncheal fluid from nine patients with the disease that later came to be known as COVID19. Each of these samples showed that these patients had this novel coronavirus and eight out of nine of them had been to the Wuhan seafood market. Human-to-human transmission had been confirmed and the ninth patient had been staying at a hotel near the market.  This evidence is probably the best evidence for the market origin of the virus. However, in this article and many others, it’s very clear that this virus originated in bats which were not in season at the market at the time. The study authors hypothesize that an animal which was in season at the market served as an intermediary host. There is no evidence to support this hypothesis in this article, though that wasn’t the objective of this study. Furthermore, this study does not discount the virus’s escape from the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology. We would also expect more evidence to come out to support the market origins hypothesized in this study. I haven’t seen more evidence to support the market origins. But the next articles of “evidence” are extremely telling.
  4. There have been two statements made that warrant investigation. The first, published in March 2020, is a statement of support for the public health professionals in China who are fighting COVID-19. This statement reads like blatant propaganda that the Chinese government asked these scientists to sign and submit to the Lancet. In it, these so-called scientists address the lab-leak hypothesis with little understanding of what the hypothesis is, calling it misinformation and a conspiracy theory. They end their statement by declaring that there are no competing interests.  At this point, I know of at least one of these scientists who has a conflict of interst — Peter Daszak, the president of an institution in New York called the EcoHealth Alliance. This organization works on research to prevent the emergence of zoonotic diseases in humans. The problem is, as part of his work at EcoHealth Alliance, Peter has worked on research with Shi Zhengli, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology mentioned above. This on its own doesn’t discount what Dr. Daszak says, but it does show that he has a vested interest in showing that the COVID-19 pandemic emerged zoonotically with no intervention by his colleagues in Wuhan. He was able to convince many that this was the case as the only American representative in the WHO commission sent to China to investigate the origins of this virus.
  5. The second statement was written by a virologist named Angela Rasmussen in January 2021. Dr. Rasmussen seems to be relatively free of conflicts of interest, at least in comparison to Peter Daszak. However, she doesn’t seem to be free of conflict. In her statement, she also uses inflammatory language about the lab leak hypothesis, associating it with truly baseless conspiracy theories like 5G and Bill Gates’ creation of the virus. She even goes so far as to point out that “Trump said it, therefore it must be false” [paraphrase] and other members of the Republican party said that it was an intentionally leaked biological weapon. She provides no evidence whatsoever to discredit the accidental lab-leak hypothesis, and instead relies solely on associating the hypothesis with actually widely-debunked conspiracy theories.

In other words, the evidence is just expert opinion — an unacceptable form of evidence when other evidence is available. This kind of evidence is especially suspicious when it comes from experts who are mired in conflicts of interest, as is the case with the lab leak hypothesis.

So when we listen to experts, we should make sure both that these experts know what they are talking about and that they don’t have conflicts of interest that are likely to influence their opinion.

My background is in epidemiology, not evolutionary biology or virology, so I’m probably not the right person to ask if you want to know how SARS-CoV2 evolved. (Although, I’d be happy to refer you to evolutionary biologists and the virologist mentioned above who believe the lab leak hypothesis.)

However, my education in epidemiology has taught me to judge evidence and it looks to me like the evidence given to debunk the lab-leak hypothesis is of the lowest quality and is not sufficient to discredit this hypothesis.

My hope in writing this article is that more people can start to question the narrative they are being told in a scientific way. Yes, most conspiracy hypotheses are complete crap, based on false evidence and created by paranoid, albeit creative, minds. But conspiracies do happen. And when they do, we have to be able to recognize them — especially when that conspiracy dictates the widespread acceptance of a narrative that makes it difficult for the scientific community to coordinate its response to an ongoing pandemic. More importantly, if we come to a consensus on the origin of this pandemic, we can prevent pandemics that threaten to arise in the same way in the future.

About the Author
Nina is an epidemiology student and researcher. She writes about scientific heterodoxy. Her superpower is curiosity. Be sure to read her book, Triumph by Trepanation, available on Amazon and Book Depository.
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