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Sprinkles from the Left

Commentators on the Left appear to agree with the growing number of scientists who reject the validity of the WHO’s Wuhan report and call for a more thorough, independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

  • They contend that fully understanding the origins of the pandemic is critical to preventing similar outbreaks in the future, calling attention to what many see as the only two remaining plausible theories – zoonotic transmission, and the lab-leak hypothesis.

As terrible as COVID-19 has been, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that we’ll face another pandemic unless we identify how this crisis began and fix our biggest shortcomings. Yet, well more than a year after the outbreak, we still lack a credible, comprehensive international investigation into the origins of the pandemic. That should frighten everyone.

Although global media reports have repeatedly referenced a “World Health Organization investigation” into COVID-19 origins, it may surprise many people to learn that this review process was not carried out by the WHO and was not, by the admission of its leader, even an investigation. Instead, an independent committee of experts organized by the WHO, with a very limited mandate, spent only two weeks on the ground in Wuhan, China, engaging in a highly curated, restricted study tour during which they were denied access to basic essential information…

There’s a reason why no stone is left unturned investigating plane crashes. Even though it’s good to promote airline safety in general, finding the specific problem that caused a particular crash allows us to address what tragedy has shown us to be an imminent threat. Until we identify and fix that problem, other planes remain at risk.

The same is true with understanding the origins of COVID-19. There are many things we should do to prevent future pandemics, but we can’t do everything at once. Figuring out how this particular crisis began — like understanding why a particular plane crashed — is essential to prioritizing our next steps.

Jamie Metzl, technology futurist and a member of the World Health Organization international advisory committee on human genome editing, and founder and chair of OneShared.World, a global social movement focusing on facilitating global collective-action (published in The Hill)

Surely, more research could fruitfully probe zoonotic spillover. Already, more than 80,000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples were collected from 31 areas in China, and none tested positive for the virus before or after the outbreak.

The laboratory leak theory also deserves more careful scrutiny. This is not to stigmatize Asians or to bash China, nor to embrace the Trump administration’s use of the laboratory leak theory to divert attention from its failures. The reason to investigate is the persistence of unanswered questions about research being carried out at the Wuhan institute under Shi Zhengli to modify viral genomes to give them new properties, such as the ability to infect a new host species or transmit from one host to another more easily. The research involved testing novel chimeric viruses with different spike proteins, like that on the pandemic coronavirus strain, using “humanized” mice, with cells modified to resemble human respiratory cells.

Did some byproduct of the research leak, or did workers become inadvertently infected? Was the research carried out in less protected BSL-2 laboratories instead of the more secure BSL-4? Did Dr. Shi successfully manipulate a virus in the lab to add genetic features boosting affinity for human cells, as science journalist Nicholas Wade has suggested in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists? These and other questions have been met with stout denials and roadblocks from China. In response to the Science letter, which called for opening records of research labs, Dr. Shi said, “It’s definitely not acceptable,” and, “Who can provide an evidence that does not exist?”

That brings us no closer to identifying the pandemic’s origins. If the laboratory leak theory is wrong, China could easily clarify the situation by being more open and transparent. Instead, it acts as if there is something to hide.

Editorial Board, Washington Post

The organizers of the letter, Jesse Bloom, who studies the evolution of viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, said they strove to articulate a wait-and-see viewpoint that they believe is shared by many scientists. Many of the signers have not spoken out before…

Unlike other recent statements, the new letter did not come down in favor of one scenario or another. Recent letters by another group of scientists and international affairs experts argued at length for the relative likelihood of a laboratory leak. Previous statements from other scientists and the W.H.O. report both asserted that a natural origin was by far the most plausible…

While this group of scientists does not single out any researchers by name, the letter finds fault with those who have also been vocal in supporting the theory of a natural origin, citing a lack of evidence.

James Gorman, New York Times ($)

Sprinkles from the Right

Commentators on the Right are universally critical of the WHO’s report, which they say was highly influenced by the Chinese Communist Party and did not give enough credence to the lab-leak theory.

  • They also side with the growing number of scientists who reject the validity of the WHO’s Wuhan report and call for a more thorough, independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

[The lab leak theory] wasn’t a definitive case, but the circumstantial evidence kept piling up. What were the odds that a novel coronavirus that originated in bats would spontaneously and independently cause an outbreak in the middle of a city that housed not one but two laboratories researching novel coronaviruses that originated in bats? If about 40 percent of those infected with SARS-CoV-2 are asymptomatic, would a lab technician or other employee even know they had been infected?…

At that point, we hadn’t even known about the U.S. State Department memos warning about a lack of trained personnel at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Or the claim that cell-phone use in part of the WIV stopped for three weeks in October 17, suggesting a potential evacuation or decontamination. Or the World Health Organization investigation concluding that some Wuhan Institute of Virology staffers got sick with flu-like symptoms in autumn of 2019, but that it’s “not a big thing,” because the Chinese government said they tested negative for COVID-19. Or Chinese state-run media running articles about “chronic inadequate management issues” at laboratories, including problems with biological disposal, or Chinese lab employees illegally selling off lab animals on the black market. Or even the use of “gutter oil” in wet markets!”…

We’ve got the lab-leak theory that has a lot of circumstantial evidence but no definitive proof. And we’ve got the naturally-jumped-to-someone-outside-of-the-lab theory, which . . . doesn’t really have any definitive proof, either. As the Post editorial notes, “already, more than 80,000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples were collected from 31 areas in China, and none tested positive for the virus before or after the outbreak.” This virus spreads like wildfire in human beings; why is it so hard to find it in other animals?

Jim Geraghty, National Review

The WHO investigation was pitifully inadequate. On March 4, a group of skeptical researchers issued an open letter questioning the WHO report and calling for an independent “forensic investigation” into the origins of COVID-19. If the Chinese government has nothing to hide concerning the origins of the COVID-19 virus, then it should welcome such an inquiry. If not, then Chinese researchers and officials should expect continued—and increased—skepticism about their assertions that the COVID-19 virus was not introduced to the world via a lab leak.

Ronald Bailey, Reason

Dr. Anthony Fauci can keep downplaying the possibility that the pandemic began at a Chinese lab partially funded by a grantee of his government institute. But even Dr. Fauci’s numerous media admirers cannot prevent scientists from asking appropriate questions about the Wuhan Institute of Virology…

Among both scientists and non-scientists, a substantial number of people regard as troublesome the whole idea of gain-of-function research. Engineering deadly monsters to learn how to defeat them in case they ever occur naturally may seem like the stuff of science fiction, or at least intellectual hubris…

The Wuhan Institute of Virology received some funding from Dr. Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases via a U.S. group called EcoHealth Alliance. Now the Fauci institute is answering a question about whether the Wuhan lab did any gain-of-function research by saying, “It is impossible for us to be aware of nor can we account for all of their activities.”

The whole world has a legitimate need to know what happened in that laboratory.

James Freeman, Wall Street Journal

The truth is that each of these theories is just that — a theory, unsupported yet by direct, material evidence. But the lab theory can’t be blithely dismissed, even though, incredibly enough, the WHO study treats more seriously a debunked theory pushed by the Chinese government stating that the disease originated in China when it arrived on foreign frozen-food packaging…

Given how much we still don’t know, it would serve the public, not to mention history and science, to have a truly trustworthy and comprehensive investigation into the origins of this calamity. What we do know is that such an investigation will never be forthcoming from the WHO or under the CCP.

Editorial Board, National Review