[Ed. note: This is special bonus post for today. Basically, I wrote a long discussion at my not-so-secret-other blog about a conspiracy-mongering, misinformation-packed op-ed promoting “lab leak” as the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and, over the weekend, regretted that I hadn’t saved it for SBM. So I decided to take the editor’s prerogative and crosspost a modified version here in addition to my normal weekly post, which will go live soon. Enjoy a double dose of my verbosity! (I hope.)]

Three years ago, I described how the idea that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, had escaped from a laboratory (which had already become known as the “lab leak” hypothesis) was fast becoming a conspiracy theory. I noted at the time that, while it was certainly not impossible that the source of SARS-CoV-2 had been a laboratory, specifically the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the weight of evidence at the time was far more in favor of a more mundane, common origin for viral pandemics, zoonotic spillover. In other words, the “boring” hypothesis that the virus had, as so many viruses before it had done, acquired the ability to infect humans and then to be transmissible between humans, was far more likely to be true, based on the totality of existing scientific evidence, than a “lab leak.” I also noted that every outbreak or pandemic of a new pathogen over the last several decades had spawned conspiracy theories that the pathogen was a “bioweapon” that had escaped (or been intentionally released from) a laboratory, a list that included HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and H1N1. For instance, there was a major conspiracy theory about HIV/AIDS that involved its creation at Fort Detrick when scientists supposedly spliced together two other viruses, Visna and HTLV-1 and then tested on prison inmates. (Interestingly, this turned out to be a Russian propaganda operation codename Operation INFEKTION designed to blame the AIDS pandemic on the US biological warfare program.)

In fairness, I also note that “lab leak” didn’t necessarily start out as a conspiracy theory, as lab leaks have happened before—although none had ever caused a pandemic that has thus far claimed millions of deaths worldwide, over a million in the US alone. However, it did rapidly take on the characteristics of a conspiracy theory such that even those advocating the “lab leak” hypothesis often had difficulty avoiding interspersing their more serious scientific arguments with what can be only described as a heaping helping of conspiratorial thinking. As time went on, if anything, the lab leak hypothesis drifted further and further from legitimate science and deeper and deeper into conspiracyland, such that, try as I might, I can no longer find examples of lab leak advocates who don’t add conspiracy mongering narratives to their arguments; for example, Alina Chan.

I mention Alina Chan here because over the three years since I first noted that lab leak had become a conspiracy theory more than a serious scientific hypothesis to explain the origin of the pandemic, Alina Chan has become the queen of lab leak conspiracy theories, even though, as a Human Frontier Science Program fellow at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, she really should know better. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop her from coauthoring with formerly good science writer turned conspiracy theorist Matt Ridley a book entitled Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, which tries (and fails) to prove their conspiracy theory that COVID-19 arose as the result of a lab leak. Worse, earlier this week the New York Times inexplicably gave her a very prominent bit of op-ed real estate, complete with help from its graphic department, to produce a very slick rehashing of lab leak conspiracy theories entitled Why the Pandemic Probably Started in a Lab, in 5 Key Points. Depressingly, Chan’s article not only rehashes old debunked lab leak conspiracy theories, complete with mis-cited and cherry picked studies to support them, but it was published right before a conspiracy-charged hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic at which Anthony Fauci was deceptively attacked as the author of “lab leak” and therefore the COVID-19 pandemic:

If I were conspiracy-minded myself, I would almost think that the publication of Chan’s conspiracy disinfofest of an article right before every COVID crank in Congress ganged up to attack Anthony Fauci for having made possible the “lab leak” and having covered it up had been—shall we say?—engineered. Indeed, you’ll forgive me if I suspect that. Maybe my delving into conspiracy theories so much is starting to affect me. However the decision to publish this dreck was made, the NYT did its readers a severe disservice publishing old nonsense in a trusted venue such that conspiracy mongers immediately interpreted it as “validation”. My retort is: Just because the NYT op-ed page published a bullshit article by Alina Chan does not mean that lab leak is becoming a “point of consensus”, and all Tony Fauci did was to say that he keeps an open mind regarding the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and to deny that he tried to “suppress” research into a lab leak as the origin of the viral pandemic. Left out is what Fauci also said:

“I don’t think the concept of there being a lab leak is inherently a conspiracy theory,” Fauci said. “What is conspiracy is the kind of distortions of that particular subject, like it was a lab leak and I was parachuted into the CIA like Jason Bourne and told the CIA that they should really not be talking about a lab leak. That’s the conspiracy.”

Or maybe like the conspiracy theory promoted by people like Jeffrey Tucker, who thinks that SARS-C0V-2 was an accidental lab leak as a result of US bioweapons research in China (seriously?) that was used as a pretext to promote mRNA vaccination and suppress “natural herd immunity” approaches to containing the pandemic so that the vaccines could get the credit. Chan’s article is only marginally better than Tucker’s; she’s just better at wrapping her conspiracy theories in a patina of science just good enough to impress the rubes, also wrapped in the respectability of the Old Gray Lady‘s op-ed page. Unfortunately, the NYT gave her article the opportunity to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Let’s dig in.

Why Alina Chan is the queen of lab leak conspiracy theories, in 5 key points

So let’s get back to Chan’s article, Why the Pandemic Probably Started in a Lab, in 5 Key Points. I must confess that the title made me wonder if the headline editor insisted on inserting the word “probably” into the headline, all in order to soften the message a bit and avoid charges of conspiracy mongering. If so, the tactic failed. Early in the article, Chan, being the Queen of Lab Leak, asserts bluntly:

Although how the pandemic started has been hotly debated, a growing volume of evidence — gleaned from public records released under the Freedom of Information Act, digital sleuthing through online databases, scientific papers analyzing the virus and its spread, and leaks from within the U.S. government — suggests that the pandemic most likely occurred because a virus escaped from a research lab in Wuhan, China. If so, it would be the most costly accident in the history of science.

Notice that nowhere does Chan provide any direct evidence. It’s another example of double standards. What do I mean? Lab leak conspiracists frequently criticize the scientific evidence base pointing to a natural origin for SARS-CoV-2 through zoonotic spillover because it is largely a circumstantial base, in which disparate lines of evidence point in the same direction but which also contains a number of holes. Yet, they love to point to a much less comprehensive evidence base that relies largely on anomaly hunting, cherry-picked data and evidence, plus a whole lot of speculation as slam-dunk evidence (or a “growing volume of evidence”) for lab leak. Of course, a “growing volume of evidence” means nothing if what is growing is largely crappy evidence and speculation. However, it’s not even that; in reality the evidence base for a lab leak has remained largely unchanged since I first started writing about it three years ago, other than lab leak aficionados like Chan making like this the famous Pepe Silvia rant that has become a meme:

Lab leak advocates basically do this with the same bits of evidence they’ve been using since 2020.

The first point is the only thing that Chan says that is inarguably true: “The SARS-like virus that caused the pandemic emerged in Wuhan, the city where the world’s foremost research lab for SARS-like viruses is located.” Yup. She’s got us there! Back in late 2019, SARS-CoV-2 caused the first major outbreak of viral respiratory pneumonia that ultimately beyond China to spread to become the COVID-19 pandemic. Chan also goes on to make the following assertions:

  • At the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a team of scientists had been hunting for SARS-like viruses for over a decade, led by Shi Zhengli.
  • Their research showed that the viruses most similar to SARS‑CoV‑2, the virus that caused the pandemic, circulate in bats that live roughly 1,000 miles away from Wuhan. Scientists from Dr. Shi’s team traveled repeatedly to Yunnan province to collect these viruses and had expanded their search to Southeast Asia. Bats in other parts of China have not been found to carry viruses that are as closely related to SARS-CoV-2.

The idea, of course, is that it must have been those careless scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who had those samples from bats that they’d been tinkering with using “gain-of-function” methods and then somehow let one of the viruses get out, all because the bats harboring the viruses most similar to SARS-CoV-2 weren’t in the immediate area. The further implication is that there’s no way natural zoonotic spillover could have happened.

However, Angela Rasmussen notes:

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is, of course, central to lab leak conspiracy theories; so conspiracists do their damnedest to portray it as utterly unique and special, the only possible place where the “lab leak” could have occurred. It’s not. It just happened to be in the city where the first major outbreak due to the novel coronavirus happened.

Next up is the point that initially wasn’t a huge part of the lab leak conspiracy theory but has since become central to it, because it allows conspiracists to blame Anthony Fauci, a scientist named Peter Daszak, and, of course, the Chinese:

The year before the outbreak, the Wuhan institute, working with U.S. partners, had proposed creating viruses with SARS‑CoV‑2’s defining feature.

What, you might ask, was that “defining feature”? Lab leak aficionados will immediately recognize what she’s talking about:

  • In 2021, The Intercept published a leaked 2018 grant proposal for a research project named Defuse, which had been written as a collaboration between EcoHealth, the Wuhan institute and Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina, who had been on the cutting edge of coronavirus research for years. The proposal described plans to create viruses strikingly similar to SARS‑CoV‑2.
  • Coronaviruses bear their name because their surface is studded with protein spikes, like a spiky crown, which they use to enter animal cells. The Defuse project proposed to search for and create SARS-like viruses carrying spikes with a unique feature: a furin cleavage site — the same feature that enhances SARS‑CoV‑2’s infectiousness in humans, making it capable of causing a pandemic. Defuse was never funded by the United States. However, in his testimony on Monday, Dr. Fauci explained that the Wuhan institute would not need to rely on U.S. funding to pursue research independently.
furin cleavage sites
Furin cleavage sites. Why did it have to be furin cleavage sites? Again.

After conceding that the furin cleavage site in SARS-CoV-2 could have arisen naturally through evolution, Chan tries to convince you without evidence, using an argument to personal incredulity, that the site in SARS-CoV-2 could not possibly have arisen naturally and therefore the site must have been engineered:

While it’s possible that the furin cleavage site could have evolved naturally (as seen in some distantly related coronaviruses), out of the hundreds of SARS-like viruses cataloged by scientists, SARS‑CoV‑2 is the only one known to possess a furin cleavage sitein its spike. And the genetic data suggest that the virus had only recently gained the furin cleavage site before it started the pandemic.

What is a furin cleavage site? In brief, as I explained three years ago, the spike protein in SARS-CoV-2 consists of two subunits. Between those two subunits, S1 and S2, sits a site that a human protein called furin recognizes and uses to cleave the protein, resulting in its two functional subunits. Chan appears to be recycling Nicholas Wade’s argument about the SARS-CoV-2 furin cleavage site in which he basically argued that, because a furin cleavage site of this sort hadn’t been seen in SARS-related beta coronaviruses before, it must have been engineered. It was basically a huge argument to incredulity. The problem with that argument is that such furin cleavage sites are common in a wide variety of viruses, including coronaviruses, and that scientists already had identified plausible mechanisms by which it could have ended up where it did in SARS-CoV2:

Moreover, contrary to the implication that SARS-CoV-2 was “engineered,” the result of “gain of function” research on SARS-CoV-1 and other coronaviruses got wrong, everything we know strongly suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is natural, the result of viruses doing what viruses unfortunately do in the wild, evolving to be capable of infecting more hosts. If you want a detailed history of the scientific hunt for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 that is accessible to the layperson, you’d have a hard time doing much better than reading Philip Markolin’s recent post, Treacherous ancestry: An extraordinary hunt for the ghosts of SARS-CoV-2. Let’s just say that the evidence base for a natural zoonotic origin of the virus is far more extensive, multithreaded, and complex than represented by lab leak enthusiasts.

More importantly, though, the grant was never funded. Indeed, I laughed at one of the scientists’s responses to Chan’s article because, seriously, she must know how ridiculous and out of touch with the realities of grant funding her conspiracy mongering sounds, given that she works at the Broad Institute:

It’s even more hysterical to those of us who have been awarded federal research grants and also have submitted lots of federal research grants that didn’t make the cut to be funded. Of course, a little fact like an unfunded grant never stopped a good conspiracy theory, which is why lab leak conspiracists claim without evidence that scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology did the proposed experiments anyway. Unfortunately for them and Chan, not only is there no evidence that such work was carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but, even if the grant had been funded, the gain-of-function work was to have been carried out in the US, under US biosafety regulations:

Also in this point, Chan does her damnedest to convince you that those Chinese scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were so reckless and careless that they didn’t use appropriate lab safety protocols for work with viruses like coronaviruses. She also insinuates a conspiracy in which the scientists there hid what they had:

By 2019, Dr. Shi’s group had published a database describing more than 22,000 collected wildlife samples. But external access was shut off in the fall of 2019, and the database was not shared with American collaborators even after the pandemic started, when such a rich virus collection would have been most useful in tracking the origin of SARS‑CoV‑2. It remains unclear whether the Wuhan institute possessed a precursor of the pandemic virus.

“Remains unclear”? Again, let Dr. Rasmussen explain why all of this is deceptive:

I also like how biochemist Larry Moran addresses point 2 very succinctly:

This is extremely misleading. The researchers at WIV worked in collabortion with scientists in other countries, including the United States, on investigating the features of coronaviruses that could lead to infection of humans. That’s exactly what you would expect them to do. They never created a virus that could be infectious.

Conspiracy theorists gonna conspiracy.

Onward to key point three: “The Wuhan lab pursued this type of work under low biosafety conditions that could not have contained an airborne virus as infectious as SARS‑CoV‑2.” First, see Dr. Rasmussen’s rebuttal above, as well as Larry Moran’s rebuttal:

The labs followed all the standard procedures for work of this type and passed an international inspection.

In brief, if the virus or a close precursor wasn’t there, even if there were a “lab leak” from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it couldn’t be SARS-CoV-2 or a close precursor that could easily acquire the mutations that would make it transmissible between humans.

In an exceedingly weak swing for the fences, Chan also adds:

One alarming detail — leaked to The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by current and former U.S. government officials — is that scientists on Dr. Shi’s team fell ill with Covid-like symptoms in the fall of 2019. One of the scientists had been named in the Defuse proposal as the person in charge of virus discovery work. The scientists denied having been sick.

This is an old claim from at least three years ago that I characterized as “some really thin gruel.” It isn’t even known if these researchers actually had what is now called COVID-19. They could easily have had influenza or another virus. I also cited Michael Hiltzik, who quite reasonably pointed out:

Virologists point out, moreover, that it would be unlikely for COVID to affect only three people seriously enough to warrant hospital care without infecting hundreds of others in the lab or their households. The other victims might have had milder symptoms, but an outbreak of that magnitude would have been difficult to keep under wraps.

The virus, apparently, is exactly as transmissible at every time point as lab leak conspiracy theorists need it to be, no more and no less.

Key point four just made me laugh out loud:

The hypothesis that Covid-19 came from an animal at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan is not supported by strong evidence.

Bullshit. I’m sorry, but this is the purest bullshit. The evidence was actually quite strong three years ago and has gotten only stronger since that the outbreak arose at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. An April 2024 review article published in the Annual Review of Virology by Edward Holmes is the currently most recent and comprehensive summary of the evidence regarding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, although a review article published in the Journal of Virology by Alwine et al in 2023 that concludes the same thing is also quite good. (It’s just more than a year old.) I’m going to quote a key passage from the Holmes article explaining why scientists believe that the virus arose at the animal market:

There are sound reasons to conclude that the Huanan market in Wuhan was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. A detailed analysis of the geolocations of the residences of the earliest COVID-19 cases—155 patients who experienced COVID-19 during December 2019—revealed a strong spatial clustering around the Huanan market (44) (Figure 2). This clustering not only applied to those who had direct contact with the Huanan market but also applied to those with no known links to the market (45) (Figure 2). The latter is expected if the Huanan market was indeed the pandemic epicenter. Although there are likely earlier cases than those documented to date, there is no evidence for any spatial clustering away from the Huanan market, nor of outbreaks in other parts of Wuhan. Similarly, there is no evidence of systematic sampling bias toward the Huanan market, of the Huanan market being part of the early case definition, nor of the Huanan market only representing an amplifying event (44, 45). Indeed, the Huanan market had relatively low visitor numbers compared with other locations inWuhan, even other markets and shopping malls (44).What it did have were wildlife, including those known to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 (see below).

Phylogenetic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences also points to the Huanan market being the epicenter of the pandemic, with the Huanan market sequences falling at the root of the SARS-CoV-2 tree. The earliest split in the SARS-CoV-2 phylogeny, which seemingly occurred in Wuhan, is between the A and B lineages that differ by two nucleotide substitutions (45) yet gave rise to many descendent lineages. Remarkably, despite its relatively low number of visitors, both these lineages were present at the Huanan market (44, 46, 47). The odds of this co-occurrence without the market being the global epicenter are extremely low. Molecular clock studies of SARS-CoV-2 evolution also point to a market origin. Estimates of the time to the most recent common ancestor (tMRCA) for the epidemic as a whole, of the specific outbreak inWuhan, and of the sequences from the Huanan market overlap with a time span encompassing November and December 2019, again suggestive of an outbreak that started at the Huanan market (47). This timescale also means that the virus was circulating for only a short interval before it was first de- tected by physicians in Wuhan. Additionally, these observations fit the available epidemiological and serological data from Wuhan, which provide no evidence for SARS-CoV-2 in that city prior to December 2019 (44, 48).

Holmes addresses lab leak as well:

The allegation that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a research laboratory comes in a wide variety of often mutually exclusive forms, from a willfully engineered bioweapon to an accident during genetic engineering or a routine laboratory procedure and even to a worker infected during bat fieldwork (68–73) (Figure 3). Whether such an escape is deliberate or accidental, the laboratory in question almost certainly must have known that an incident had occurred, such that their denial necessarily indicates a cover-up (74).

This is a master class in calling lab leak a conspiracy theory without actually using the term “conspiracy theory.” Holmes also notes that, if the Wuhan Institute of Virology were the origin, there should be cases associated with the site; there are not. As this post is already getting long, I might discuss this article in more depth another time. Suffice to say that Holmes addresses the furin cleavage site and why it almost certainly evolved naturally, as well as just how weak the evidence is for a lab leak.

Chan was also busted mischaracterizing papers that she cites:

pair of papers published in Science in 2022 made the best case for SARS‑CoV‑2 having emerged naturally from human-animal contact at the Wuhan market by focusing on a map of the early cases and asserting that the virus had jumped from animals into humans twice at the market in 2019. More recently, the two papers have been countered by other virologists and scientists who convincingly demonstrate that the available market evidence does not distinguish between a human superspreader event and a natural spillover at the market.

Greg Tucker-Kellogg calls her out for this misuse of the studies cited:

That would describe Alina Chan.

Finally, she argues: “Key evidence that would be expected if the virus had emerged from the wildlife trade is still missing.”

This is true, but (1) deceptively incomplete and (2) risibly stupid when compared to the amount of evidence that is missing that would be expected if the virus had emerged from a laboratory. As is always the case with lab leak believers, there is an extreme double standard at work regarding the level of evidence they require to start to accept a natural zoonotic origin for SARS-CoV-2 compared to what they accept to convince them of lab leak.

As Larry Moran puts it, saying basically what I said above, just even more sarcastically:

It’s true that the exact infectious animal carrying SARS-CoV-2 has not been identified but the circumstantial evidence is strong—just as strong as the circumstantial evidence that sends some people to jail. It’s crazy to say that evidence for animal transmission is missing when ALL the evidence for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 at WIT is also missing.

And as Angela Rasmussen puts it:

Indeed, and it’s only been a little over four years since the pandemic hit.

Alina Chan is a conspiracy theorist, and the NYT screwed up, bad

I already knew three years ago that lab leak had become a conspiracy theory. Indeed, I’ve been documenting attempts by conspiracy theorists to claim that SARS-CoV-2 had been “engineered,” starting with James Lyons-Weiler’s risibly nonsensical (from a molecular biology standpoint) claim that there were plasmid sequences in the published sequence of the virus, which indicated that it had been engineered. He went on to claim that SARS-CoV-2 had been the result of a failed attempt to make a vaccine against the original SARS (now SARS-CoV-1) that had escaped. When was this? Early February 2020, shortly after the nucleotide sequence of SARS-CoV-2 was first published.

Even so, before I close, let me just reiterate that it is not impossible that SARS-CoV-2 arose in a lab, either due to scientists carrying out modifications on existing coronaviruses or from a collection of natural coronaviruses, in which the virus escaped. The claim is not impossible, like the claims made for homeopathy. However, as I like to say, just because a hypothesis is possible does not mean that it is equally possible (or even more so) compared to a competing hypothesis. You have to look at the evidence. Lab leak conspiracy theorists love to point out missing evidence that would make a natural zoonotic origin for SARS-CoV-2 an unquestioned slam dunk, even as they gloss over the fact that their evidence base is nothing but holes that they try desperately to fill with appeals to personal incredulity that the virus could have arisen naturally, wild speculation as to how it might have escaped from a lab, conspiracy mongering about “cover-ups” everywhere, and lots and lots drawing links between facts and observations that are probably unrelated. Moreover, if there’s one thing that all versions of lab leak share, it’s suspicion and constant finger pointing at the Chinese for being less than enthusiastic and cooperative about letting investigators into the Wuhan Institute of Virology to try to determine if a lab leak happened. This is, of course, not surprising and not in and of itself evidence for a lab leak. China is an authoritarian regime, and such regimes tend to be secretive.

Also, as I pointed out before, what country would welcome investigators with open arms into one of their major research institutions to look for evidence that its scientists had screwed up and caused a worldwide disaster that’s killed millions of people and counting? Even if a government were confident that no such error had occurred, it might not be too thrilled with such an investigation, particularly when it’s coupled with what can only be called very hostile accusations of wrongdoing by high ranking legislators of a nation that is, at best, a competitor and, at worst, a geopolitical global rival, meaning that the investigation is being proposed by powerful people profoundly hostile to your country. Again, that the Chinese have been less than enthusiastic about cooperating with such accusatory investigations is not in and of itself a strong argument in favor of a lab leak. Sure, it could be a sign of a coverup, but it could also just be the normal human reaction to accusations of sloppiness, recklessness, wrongdoing, and even malfeasance by those who are less than friendly to one’s country. We just don’t know.

I can’t help at this point from quoting again Dan Samorodnitsky, as I did three years ago, regarding what lab leak really is. He started by asking a question about the plausibility of lab leak versus natural zoonosis, and then continued:

If the question is “are both hypotheses possible?” the answer is yes. Both are possible. If the question is “are they equally likely?” the answer is absolutely not. One hypothesis requires a colossal cover-up and the silent, unswerving, leak-proof compliance of a vast network of scientists, civilians, and government officials for over a year. The other requires only for biology to behave as it always has, for a family of viruses that have done this before to do it again. The zoonotic spillover hypothesis is simple and explains everything. It’s scientific malpractice to pretend that one idea is equally as meritorious as the other. The lab-leak hypothesis is a scientific deus ex machina, a narrative shortcut that points a finger at a specific set of bad actors. I would be embarrassed to stand up in front of a room of scientists, lay out both hypotheses, and then pretend that one isn’t clearly, obviously better than the other. 

Besides the hazy science, there is an undeniable political aspect to this argument. When violence against Asian people in the US is spiking, it’s naive at best and violent gaslighting at worst to pretend that supporting an evidence-free hypothesis that clearly adds fuel to the idea that China inflicted COVID-19 upon the world, that they did this to us, is noble scientific dispassion. There’s a choice being made here between two ideas — one that falls neatly within the world of biology, and the other that knots together conspiracy theory, political intrigue, and xenophobia.

Nothing has happened in the last three years that alters that, nor has any evidence been presented that changes my conclusion (or Dan Samorodnitsky’s conclusion) that the lab leak is a conspiracy theory. Without compelling evidence, lab leak is indeed nothing more than a scientific deus ex machina, an idea that eliminates the need for any real scientific investigation and, conveniently enough, provides a villain, something that all conspiracy theories require. Samorodnitsky was very prescient too, observing:

And since we will never be able to prove the exact moment that SARS-CoV-2 jumped from an animal to a human, this is instead going to devolve into a culture war. We are witnessing the real-time birth of a new axis of half-truths, convenient omissions, and quackery.

Three years later, that culture war has only increased in intensity and that axis half-truths, convenient omissions, and quackery only become more impenetrable by science, evidence, and reason. Indeed, it’s grown and metastasized to eat the brains not just of conspiracy mongering hacks like the members of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic (like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ronnie Jackson, Brad Wenstrup, and, heck, every Republican on the Committee), but of PhD postdoctoral fellows who really should know better, like Alina Chan, and even more senior scientists (e.g., molecular biologist Richard Ebright and microbiologist Bryce Nickels). Indeed, it’s the COVID-19 conspiracy theory that appears to have become almost equally attractive to the left as well as rightwing nutjobs. The weaponized uncertainty behind the lab leak hypothesis (now conspiracy theory) worked and continues to work to stoke fear. Moreover, if you don’t believe that lab leak is a conspiracy theory, check out this article by Stephan Lewandowsky, Peter Jacobs, and Stuart Neil contrasting the scientific method with conspiracy theory:

Revising or rejecting failed hypotheses in light of refuting evidence is central to the scientific process. Not so with conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. One of their hallmarks is that they are self-sealing: as more evidence against the conspiracy emerges, adherents keep the theory alive by dismissing contrary evidence as further proof of the conspiracy, creating an ever more elaborate and complicated theory.

Sound familiar? This is what lab leak has become; this is what lab leak adherents are doing, building an ever more complicated and unfalsifiable edifice. Lewandowsky correctly compared it to climate science denial; the similarities are striking. No matter how many scientific studies are published supporting a zoonotic origin for SARS-CoV-2 (or how high quality they are and strong the evidence is) lab leak believers always find reasons to reject them in favor of lab leak, without ever producing any evidence for lab leak that is anywhere near as high quality or strong as the evidence for zoonosis.

Indeed, Alina Chan herself is an excellent example of how wondering about a potentially reasonable explanation led her down the road away from reason and deep into pseudoscience, science denial, and conspiracy. In 2021, she was at least still capable of expressing a bit of doubt about whether her “lab leak” conspiracy theory might be the correct explanation for the pandemic:

“I have days where I think this could be natural. And if it’s natural, then I’ve done a terrible thing because I’ve put a lot of scientists in a very dangerous spot by saying that they could be the source of an accident that resulted in millions of people dying,” she says. “I would feel terrible if it’s natural and I did all this.”

Today, I don’t see even this much acknowledgment of doubt from her, and she should feel bad. My prediction is that, having been totally captured by her audience, she won’t. Meanwhile, as former ScienceBlogs colleague Ethan Siegel put it:

By following the evidence, we have learned that is precisely the case. It is natural. The observed recombination patterns that exist in the genome of SARS-CoV-2 must have been left behind by recombination events between parental lineages in the wild: where all of these different viral strains were able to meet and interbreed. Importantly, those patterns that are written in the genome of SARS-CoV-2 cannot be produced, simulated, or faked by any means in a laboratory environment.

Given that information, and the fact that this information is now nearly three full years old, it’s long past time to move past the ever-changing conspiracy theory of the lab leak hypothesis, and embrace reality. The genome of SARS-CoV-2 demonstrates it has a natural origin, whether we ever find the original virus in a wild population of animals or not. The misinformation being spread, and the scientists being vilified, over gain-of-function research has no basis in reality. A lot of scientists are, and have been for a few years now, in a very dangerous spot due to proponents of the lab leak hypothesis, as they are being accused of creating an accident that started the COVID-19 pandemic when in fact they were the proverbial firefighters working to extinguish it. It’s time to replace our conspiratorial fears with scientific truths, and to invest resources where they belong: in scientists who work to understand the Universe as it is, and to help humanity cope with the cold, hard reality that we all face.

As Siegel put it, we knew this three years ago, and in the interim the evidence bas supporting a natural origin for SARS-CoV-2 has only grown. In marked contrast, little regarding the evidence base for lab leak has changed in the last three years except that, increasingly, mainstream news outlets are giving space and fuel to conspiracy theorists like Alina Chan. The New York Times should be ashamed for lending its reputation to a conspiracy theory and the attacks on science and scientists resulting from it, but, sadly, it is far from alone when it comes to mainstream news outlets publishing credulous takes on this conspiracy theory. Even the usually reliable Pro Publica published a “train wreck” conspiracyfest of an article promoting lab leak. Apparently there’s something about this particular conspiracy theory that leads people whom I previously had thought not to be prone to conspiratorial thinking to don their tinfoil hats.



Posted by David Gorski