Did COVID-19 virus escape from a lab? We may never know, but the theory is no longer off-limits

The last person to die of smallpox was a 40-year-old woman named Janet Parker, a medical photographer at Birmingham Medical School in England. She died on Sept. 11, 1978, one month after contracting the disease.

Parker had been working one floor above the microbiology department where staff and students were conducting smallpox research. She became infected either by an airborne route, through the building’s duct system, or by direct contact while using the microbiology corridor.

Which made her the opposite of Patient Zero in a scourge that dated back at least three millennia, its origins unknown. Smallpox killed upwards of 300 million people worldwide in the 20th century alone, often leaving survivors terribly scarred.

Following a global vaccination program, the World Health Assembly pronounced the world free of smallpox on May 8, 1980, a triumph considered by many to be the greatest achievement ever in public health. Smallpox is one of only two infectious diseases to have been declared eradicated. The other, rinderpest, does not affect humans.

Stocks of the variola virus that causes smallpox, for research purposes, are kept in just two places: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the State Research Centre of Virology and Technology in Koltsovo, Russia.

It is unlikely that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, will ever be eradicated. There won’t be a Janet Parker in the annals of the coronavirus. Eventually, the pandemic will become endemic, which means remaining consistently present but limited in outbreak to particular regions, contained by vaccines.

Patient Zero for COVID-19 has never been definitively identified, nor its exact source for that matter. One possibility — pure speculation — is bat hunter and virologist Tian Junhua, a researcher at the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and a competitive rival of Shi Zhengli, known as the “Bat Woman,” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

A documentary released by China in December 2019, just before the COVID outbreak in Wuhan, shows Tian and his research team scaling a cavern wall, catching bats and collecting guano samples, in pursuit of new bat-borne diseases, the basis for potential new vaccines. In the video Tian boasts of having visited dozens of bat caves and studied 300 types of virus vectors. “If our skin is exposed, it can easily come in contact with bat excrement and contaminated matters, which means this is quite risky,” says Tian.

According to a World Health Organization report released in March, the Wuhan CDC denied any storage or laboratory activities involving bat viruses before the coronavirus outbreak. Tian himself has not spoken publicly for more than a year.

Thus, Tian has become a key suspect in conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID. As has Shi, who’s adamantly insisted her lab was not involved in the outbreak, that her team had never come in contact with or even studied this strain of the virus, and therefore it could not possibly have “escaped” from her facility.

Yet suspicions were amplified in January, after the U.S. State Department said it had “reason to believe” several researchers from Shi’s lab had shown symptoms similar to COVID-19 in the fall of 2019. Then, last month, the Wall Street Journal, citing an intelligence report, disclosed that three Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers had been sick enough to go to a hospital.

The problem with following these lines of inquiry — in any event, mostly blocked by Chinese authorities, controlling dissemination of data — is that one ends up in the wacko world of conspiracy theories. While, without malicious intent, contributing to anti-Asian racism that has fuelled xenophobia and violent incidents.

The lab leak scenario was roundly dismissed last year. Nobody — well, no sane person — wanted to be associated with the blame-China mantra promoted by then president Donald Trump, nutbar right wing and the likes of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former political adviser, who trotted out accusations that China had developed the coronavirus as a bioweapon, then purposely unleashed it on the planet.

A World Health Organization team that had international experts fly into Wuhan to see for themselves — a year after the pandemic began — knocked the lab leak theory as “extremely unlikely,” finding it “very likely” that the coronavirus had been passed to humans by an unknown animal, possibly at a Wuhan wet market. Except those wet markets had long been shut down, the experts were permitted only a three-hour visit to Shi’s lab and never got into Tian’s lab at all.

Even WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was unsatisfied with the team’s report, telling a March news conference the theory “requires further investigation.” Further skepticism gained traction when it was discovered that Peter Daszak, one of the Wuhan mission scientists, and a longtime colleague of Shi, had not just signed but actually organized a letter published in February 2020 in the Lancet, among the most respected and influential medical journals in the world. Twenty-seven internationally renowned scientists signed the letter, which asserted: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”

That effectively quashed the origin debate before it got any oxygen, morally off limits. “Nailed to the church doors,” as one coronavirus agnostic put it, and fundamentally unscientific.

Daszak, a revered zoologist, chairs the Lancet’s task force looking into the origins of the pandemic. He also heads the EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit that parcels out grant money from the U.S. Agency for International Development, among other funders.

As reported by several sources, Shi and her colleagues at the Wuhan institute have performed high-profile experiments that made pathogens more infectious. This research is known as “gain-of-function,” controversial among virologists but defended as a means to produce a gain of a desired function, such as higher yields for vaccine strains by altering genotypes — critical to understanding the biology, ecology and pathogenesis of viruses. A microbiologist can increase the lethality of a coronavirus significantly by splicing a special sequence into its genome at a prime location, which leaves no trace of manipulation.

In repackaging grants, Daszak gave funding to facilities conducting gain-of-function research — as reported most recently in an in-depth Vanity Fair investigation — including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That wasn’t mentioned in the Lancet letter. A month ago, Nobel Laureate David Baltimore told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that part of the coronavirus’s genome — the furin cleavage site — was “smoking gun” evidence that it had originated in a laboratory. Last week, however, he walked back the comment somewhat, telling the Los Angeles Times he should have softened the phrasing: “I believe that the question of whether the sequence was put in naturally or by molecular manipulation is very hard to determine, but I wouldn’t rule out either origin.”

Other notable scientists have gone further, lending credence to the lab escape hypothesis. In March, Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CNN: “I am of the point of view that I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory. Escaped. Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out.”

Will it? More probable now that scientific-cum-moral shackles are starting to be removed. Only two other labs in the world, apart from those in Wuhan, are doing similarly aggressive research on extensive collections of bat viruses — in Galveston, Texas, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The lab leak theory is being permitted another, closer look, where a year ago it was vehemently rejected as fringe nonsense. President Joe Biden last month ordered the U.S. intelligence community to intensify investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, with 90 days to report back. As well, 18 prominent scientists on May 14 published a letter in the journal Science arguing that “theories of accidental release” remained “viable.”

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It’s a huge shift. Which, naturally, has boosted the conspiracy theorists, including those, such as Fox News blowhards, who are seriously bonkers. They’ve long accused mainstream media of bootlicking status quo scientists who debunked the lab escape premise.

But this isn’t, as the conspiracy shills are now gleefully asserting, an “aha” moment. At most it’s a … hmm reappraisal.

And lack of evidence still isn’t evidence.