Covid Could've Started in a Lab. Yes, That Matters

Once a conspiracy theory, now plausible.

Covid Could've Started in a Lab. Yes, That Matters
Photo by Braňo on Unsplash

A few years ago, the lab leak hypothesis on the origins of Covid was widely written off as a crackpot conspiracy theory.

Not anymore.

Now it's a plausible explanation, taken seriously by politicians across the aisle and reported on in the same media outlets that once dismissed it. Even the Biden administration has released new guidelines for the NIH and other agencies for running experiments, specifically gain-of-function research on viruses with pandemic potential. Biden also suspended all federal funding for EcoHealth, a scientific organization that once drew $80 million in government bucks and partnered frequently with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

What was the reason for the suspension?

Failure to disclose risky experiments.

The FBI and the Department of Energy both concur now that a lab leak was "the likely origin" of the pandemic. Even as senators and scientists admit we'll never know for sure, the lab leak theory has become plausible if not compelling. It matters for a range of different reasons.

First, the U.S. and other countries have continued to plunge right ahead with dangerous research on zoonotic diseases. Last year, the USDA opened "a massive new high-security laboratory" in the middle of rural Kansas, one that can house "big animals tainted with the most hazardous infectious agents, including Nipah virus." This huge facility will also run experiments with Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Japanese encephalitis, and other diseases with morality rates somewhere between 40 and 70 percent.

Farmers don't like the new presence. They see it as a threat to their livestock, and you know what? They're not wrong.

As the story goes, nobody else wants a lab like that in their backyard. So of course, the USDA would drop it in the middle of the corn belt. As Princeton biosecurity expert Laura Kahn remarked, it wasn't the brightest idea to put a giant disease lab "in the middle of livestock country and tornado alley." In fact, a risk assessment posed the likelihood of the lab triggering major outbreaks of highly contagious diseases like foot and mouth disease at 70 percent.

What could go wrong?

In addition to the Kansas lab, the NIH has partnered with the Colorado State University and EcoHealth to build a giant facility to import bats from around the world and infect them with diseases ranging from Ebola to Nipah. Experts say it will "boost America's ability to study the role of bats in disease transmission and help us become even stronger in researching emerging zoonotic pathogens." The university officials claim that "proper care and study of bats and pathogens is critical to protect global public health" and declare themselves "a world leader in research on zoonotic infections."

Ah yes. Officials in favor of these labs routinely tell us they're using the strictest biosecurity measures, and they're studying these diseases to improve our understanding of pandemics and how to fight them.

Something doesn't square here.

It's always fun to play around with deadly diseases, but this rationale doesn't make total sense. Look at how our politicians, our media, and the general public have responded to the diseases that are already kicking our butts. They won't do anything to stop the spread, and they aren't exactly chomping at the bit to develop better vaccines or Long Covid treatments. Big pharma CEOs welcomed the end of mask mandates as a growth opportunity.

They want us to get infected.

The USDA, FDA, and CDC are currently letting bird flu run rampant through the meat and dairy industries, while relying on sadly outdated models of transmission to keep the public comfortably numb. They refuse to upgrade pasteurization standards, or even test for asymptomatic spread among workers. We know exactly what mutations bird flu needs to gain the ability to infect humans. We know it's actively evolving toward that endpoint, and yet there's no plan beyond making enough vaccines to dispense among the elite.

In short:

We don't seem to be using what we learn about viruses from these dangerous gain-of-function experiments. We're clearly not leveraging the knowledge to inform or protect the public. So it makes you wonder why our government continues to fund the research. The Kansas lab alone cost $1.25 billion. Annual maintenance costs will run into the tens of millions. That's almost as much money as the entire amount allocated to funding research on Long Covid.

That's one reason the Covid origins matter.

Here's the evidence:

A molecular biologist at Harvard and MIT, Alina Chan, makes a convincing case for the lab leak theory. As she explains, the closest relatives to the Covid virus circulate in bat caves a thousand miles away from Wuhan. They almost never spill over to humans. There's no trail of infection and "no known trace" showing how else such a virus could've spread over that distance. The Wuhan Institute was explicitly working on ways to make coronaviruses more contagious and how to jump between species. Leaked documents obtained by The Intercept revealed that the institute had plans to engineer a virus "strikingly similar to SARS-CoV-2." It was called the Defuse Project, and the scientists intended to give a coronavirus a unique furin cleavage site specifically to enhance its contagiousness to humans. According to Chan, it's highly unlikely that this coronavirus would've developed a furin cleavage site on its own.

The director of the Wuhan Institute speculated that the virus came from her lab. The institute often did dangerous work. Even before the pandemic, they managed to accidentally make viruses with "a 10,000-fold increase in the quantity of virus in the lungs and brains of humanized mice." According to testimonies and hearings, the lab did this kind of work in secret.

They were also sloppy.

Documents show they intentionally operated at less strict biosafety levels to keep their operations "highly cost-effective." In the words of their own partners and financers, "U.S. researchers will likely freak out."

It was also leaked to newspapers and confirmed by U.S. intelligence officials that researchers associated with the Defuse Project fell ill in the fall of 2019 with symptoms similar to Covid.

As the pandemic exploded in early 2020, evidence shows that the Chinese government blocked reporting of cases that couldn't be traced to the wet meat market. They destroyed those samples, while otherwise doing everything they could to eradicate evidence of any competing theories. It's not surprising. The U.S. would probably have done the same thing. Meanwhile, genetic sequencing shows that the outbreak at the meat market most likely "happened after the virus had already been circulating in humans." On top of that, "not a single infected animal has ever been confirmed at the market." While scientists found several key indicators of animal origin in previous SARS and MERS pandemics, all of those key markers are missing for Covid.

New York Times

As The New York Times reported back in 2021, lab leaks do happen, exposing workers and their families to dangerous and contagious viruses. Alison Young explains just how frequently these leaks occur and how dangerous they've been. In her book Pandora's Gamble, Young describes "numerous case studies of near-miss incidents, infections and outbreaks caused by lax safety at some of the world's top labs" and "the extraordinary efforts to downplay the significance of safety breaches and keep accidents secret." We're talking about accidents that expose lab workers to highly pathogenic bird flu, without a peep to public health officials and insufficient quarantine periods. We're talking about busted pipes gushing thousands of gallons of disease-infested waste into public waterways. We're talking about pathogens on par with anthrax, that should theoretically "never" escape the lab, infecting hundreds of "disease-free" outdoor breeding monkeys and potentially spreading downstream near major cities.

Even worse, nobody knows "who's doing what in terms of gain of function or similar research." There's no agency tracking the institutes, militaries, and private labs messing around with deadly viruses.

I'm reading Young's book now, and it's disturbing. If these various institutes put half as much energy into controlling diseases as they did covering up their mistakes, there wouldn't be a problem.

All this was so concerning that in 2014, the U.S. federal government paused funding for gain-of-function research. Strangely enough, the pause ended in 2017. It's worth pointing out that it was the Trump administration who lifted the pause and turned a blind eye to these dangerous experiments.

Many of us pride ourselves on the ability to admit we were wrong. We believe we're capable of changing our opinions based on available evidence. Well, this would be a good time to model that. It's not a good look to say you trust science, then dig your heels in and continue to insist something sounds like a conspiracy theory when new evidence surfaces.

We're not doing ourselves any favors by rejecting the lab leak theory. If this virus did emerge from a lab via dangerous gain-of-function experiments, that's all the more reason to insist on good mask policies and clean air. As we keep seeing, viruses that evolved or originated from the result of human intervention wind up being way worse. Viruses happen, but these monstrous pandemic pathogens have emerged from our factories, our industrialized farms, our overcrowded cities, and our wars. Human-driven climate change has also brought us into the pandemicene, an age where spillover will happen more and more as animals and humans compete for space.

If you want to know what unregulated scientific research looks like, remember the secret medical lab discovered in California last year. It was "filled with infectious agents, medical waste and hundreds of mice bioengineered to catch and carry the Covid-19 virus." There was no secret plan to make bioweapons. It was just a poorly run test-kit lab, one that just happened to have 20 different infectious pathogens on site including malaria, HIV, and at least one freezer marked "Ebola." That's comforting. The lab was a mess, an epidemic waiting to happen. While they weren't doing gain-of-function research, it's just a good example of how bad things can get without oversight.

We need much stronger regulations and enforcement for research on dangerous diseases, including gain-of-function research.

Experts in biosecurity have raised alarms over the last year about the rising threat of bioweapons and biological warfare. Bad actors are working harder than ever to develop weapons that are more deadly and easier to control. As a 2022 article in Health Security warns, they're using artificial intelligence to engineer bioweapons that can target more specific populations. In their exact words, "rapid developments in the field of synthetic biology may broaden the repertoire of bioweapons, enabling tactical versatility and more precise attacks." We're also learning that the real payoff of biowarfare isn't in deaths, but in the economic disruption and institutional trust it erodes. The news about our own military's ant-vaxxer misinformation campaigns in Asia confirms these risks.

If we're doing it to them, they'll do it to us. Experts in biosecurity predict that things are changing faster than we can track. By 2030, we could witness biowarfare as a common practice.

Maybe it's just me, but these billion-dollar research labs in the middle of nowhere seem designed to play a role in the emergence of a new class of biological warfare, if not directly, at least indirectly.

As we've seen over the last few years, they'll call you a crackpot conspiracy theorist for talking about it, right up until the moment they can't. If the only reason for them was to understand diseases better, you'd expect a little more return on investment than agencies telling us repeatedly to ignore the very diseases they're so eager to learn more about, then going silent when one of their babies escapes, and refusing to share important information.

The public seems to be waking up to the risk that gain-of-function research poses. For what it's worth, EcoHealth's funding suspension has thrown the future of Colorado State's bat lab into question.

Here's the deal:

Yes, research on deadly diseases can help us understand them better. Theoretically, they could inform public health responses and help us prepare better for pandemics. They come with risks.

You can't exactly use public health as a carte-blanche rationale for this kind of research if, you know, you're actually not taking public health seriously and you're letting companies like Pfizer shower elected officials with tens of millions in lobbying money. Given the denial and wishful thinking we continually see from our government agencies on the topics of Covid and bird flu, and given the high risk of leaks and spillover from these labs, I don't see this research quite paying for itself in terms of the risk-benefit ratio.

Maybe I'm wrong.

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