Jul 13 2023

About Those Lab Leak Documents

It was recently revealed that the House subcommittee probing the origins of COVID-19 accidentally released a “trove” of documents related to their investigations. The documents include e-mails and internal communications among the scientists and experts who put together the first analysis of the proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2, published in Nature in March 2020. The documents reveal that there was a lot more discussion and credence given to the lab origin theory of SARS-CoV-2 in February 2020 than was reflected in the final published paper, which some see as evidence of a deliberate coverup. Further, because the documents are now publicly available, an army of online sleuths can pour over every word to find more evidence of something sinister.

Having looked through the reports myself, I don’t see anything unusual at all. Here is a typical exchange:

“I believe RaTG13 is from Yuanan, which is about as far away from Wuhan as you can be and still be in China,” Andersen wrote, referring to a virus that produced Covid-like symptoms in miners in 2013, a strain that was later stored and researched at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “What are the chances of finding a viruses that are 96% identical given that distance? Seems strange given how many SARS-like viruses we have in bats.”

Rambaut responded on Slack suggesting they back off such interrogation. “I personally think we should get away from all the strange coincidence stuff. I agree it smells really fishy but without a smoking gun it will not do us any good,” he wrote. “The truth is never going to come out (if [lab] escape is the truth). Would need irrefutable evidence. My position is that the natural evolution is entirely plausible and we will have to leave it at that. Lab passaging might also generate this mutation but we have no evidence that that happened.”

These are scientists discussing through various possibilities. Remember, this was February 2020 – we knew virtually nothing about the virus, the origin of COVID, the source of the virus (we are still not sure about the animal vector), or what was happening at the Wuhan lab. We have the genetic sequence of the virus, that was it. You’ll note they are still talking about bats, a theory that was later refuted.

This is what scientists do, they argue about various lines of evidence that seem to be in conflict and decide what is the most likely scenario. What many of the quotes are referring to is the fact that the lab release or lab escape notion was based on pure circumstantial evidence, and that it would be irresponsible to promote that idea without any evidence. Others thought it should be put forward for discussion. When asked why the paper was so negative about the lab release theory, the authors stated that more information came to light between these discussions and the ultimate draft of the paper.

What there is not in these documents is any smoking gun of a coverup. The closest you get is this phrase in an e-mail from one of the authors – “Anyway, it’s done. Sorry the last bit had to be done without you…pressure from on high.” But we don’t have the e-mail this is responding to, we don’t know what “the last bit” refers to, or where the pressure was coming from. We do know that Nature reviewers thought there was not enough evidence to support the lab release theory and that the evidence was strongly against it, which did affect the final published version. Of course, that’s the job of reviewers.

This episode is similar to the global warming e-mail scandal (remember “hide the decline”). Whenever you are privy to private uncensored conversations there is going to be a lot of innocent statements that can be made to seem sinister when taken out of context. There is also likely to be a lot of unfiltered discussion. Scientists especially will want to raise every possibility behind the scenes, and this will not be reflected in a final paper which will be much more clean and sanitized. That is standard, and nothing unusual. Many off-the-cuff speculations do not deserve to be in a final formal paper. This is basically the background noise that will be present in any such process, where complex topics are being worked out by committee (how the sausage is made, as it were).

But perhaps most importantly – who cares what experts thought in February 2020?  We barely had any idea about the virus at that time. What we did have was the sequence of the virus itself, and that did not show any signs of deliberate engineering. That was the dominant fact at the time against any lab release theory.

Now we have had three years of subsequent investigation. The lab release theory has morphed into the lab leak theory, which speculates that the virus may have been of natural origin but was accidentally leaked from the Wuhan lab. This deals with the evidence from the genetic sequence of the virus itself. I would summarize the current evidence for a lab leak theory this way. The US intelligence community feels that a lab leak scenario is probable, but this is largely based on the fact that China is being squirrely with their information. China appears to be hiding something, and perhaps that is information that they are responsible for COVID. If the US government has any other information, they have not made it public, despite pressure to do so.

The scientific community, by contrast, favors a zoonotic spillover, probably from the Wuhan wet market. The best animal candidates for hosts of the virus origin are minks, red foxes, and racoon dogs, all of which are sold in the Wuhan wet market. Epidemiological evidence also traces the first infections back to the wet market. For this reason this is the most popular hypothesis among scientists.

I tend to favor the scientific view over the intelligence community view (which should be no surprise) but I acknowledge that there is still some uncertainty. We still haven’t found the smoking gun animal origin of the virus. We also don’t have the smoking gun evidence for a lab leak. So there is room for doubt either way. Hopefully future investigations will settle the issue, at least for people for whom evidence is meaningful.

What will not resolve this debate is what scientists were thinking back in February 2020. Even if the released documents did contain a smoking gun that there was a deliberate government attempt to minimize the lab release theory (which there isn’t), that would have zero effect on the current debate about the origins of the virus. Remember, right now it’s the government that is favoring a lab release. These documents only serve as raw material for conspiracy theorists.

No responses yet