To answer the question I posed in the title: No, we did not. No new facts emerged that would help us understand the key events that occurred in Wuhan, China, in the closing months of 2019. What we did see was a flood of news stories and opinion pieces of highly variable quality. Why?
A report from the Department of Energy (DoE) on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic was brought to the attention of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), sparking a story. Other reporters then weighed in, as did Opinion writers – some with minimal command of the underlying science. The gist of what the WSJ reported is that, apparently based on new evidence, the DoE had recently changed its report to conclude, with “low confidence,” that the COVID-19 virus had leaked from a Wuhan laboratory. It’s not known what facts had changed or how recently any change took place. Investigative reporters are now digging hard into the origins of the WSJ story, so a fuller picture may soon surface.
A few days after the WSJ article was published, the FBI repeated what it had reported a year ago: its conclusion was similar to DoE’s but with “moderate confidence.” Four federal intelligence community agencies and the National Intelligence Council have, however, drawn a different “low confidence” conclusion – that the more likely event was the transmission of the virus from an animal to a human(s) in a Wuhan “wet market,” where wildlife and people come into close proximity. The “opinion score” is now therefore 5-2 in favor of the wet market origin. As animal-human transmission in a different Chinese wet market spawned the first SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2002, it is not unreasonable to believe something similar happened in Wuhan in late 2019.
It’s worth noting that all of this happened in a week when the Republican-controlled House held its first hearings on pandemic-related topics and US-China relations. Many Republican representatives are “China hawks,” and a significant number of them want to hold China culpable for the COVID-19 pandemic. The WSJ article certainly amped up media coverage of these hearings.
The lab leak and wet market theories have been around for three years. There is insufficient solid evidence to choose between them, which is why different federal agencies have drawn different conclusions – none with “high confidence.” International investigations have also failed to identify how the pandemic started – for the same reason. We may never know for sure what happened. The key facts lie in China, and officials there have had a long time to bury anything problematic.
If the COVID-19 virus did leak from a Wuhan laboratory, the international outrage would be obvious. And if a wet market transmission happened, it did so 17 years after the Chinese government could have acted to prevent a recurrence of the 2002 SARS outbreak. China has no incentive to move away from its characteristic secrecy and release new information. Perhaps one day, that government’s officials may change their attitude, or maybe a spy agency or knowledgeable defector will transform the narrative by revealing truly hard facts. But we can’t count on such events happening.
There is little more the scientific community can now accomplish to better understand the pandemic’s origins. There are no more samples to analyze, as the Wuhan market was thoroughly sanitized early in the pandemic – an action justified on public health grounds and not inherently sinister. But while there is much we may never know, some of the comments made during the past week deserve to be challenged.
The lab leak argument is not a conspiracy theory. Although scientific opinion and a majority of government reports generally favor the wet market origin story, the lab leak scenario is taken seriously. However, the idea that the COVID-19 virus was engineered in the Wuhan laboratory for release as a biological weapon has no factual support and should be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. For one thing, over one million Chinese citizens are thought to have died of COVID-19 in the past three months (not that their government will admit this officially). Vaccine rollout in China was poor, and the vaccines used there are mediocre compared to the more advanced designs that saved many millions of lives here and worldwide. A bioweapon should not devastate the host population.
I also see fever dreams and conspiracy theories in what has been alleged about scientific cover-ups and bribery, not just this week but for much of the past three years. I am a working scientist with experience in virology and vaccine science. I have competed for and been awarded multiple NIH research grants during the past 28 years. I understand the process of science and the grant-funding system. Because of my experience in these areas, I take great exception to what I see as smears and slurs.
Much of the manufactured controversy stems from discussions between Dr. Tony Fauci, a few other agency leaders, and a small group of scientists very early in the pandemic, soon after the SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence was first released (via a Chinese scientist). Initial opinions were expressed that some key features of the viral spike-protein did not look “natural” (i.e., must have been engineered). The implication was that the virus had been made or manipulated in a laboratory and must, therefore, have leaked from it. Even that early on, there were allegations about Chinese bioweapons that could not be ignored. Those early opinions about the spike-protein soon changed. Why? Because more time brought more awareness of what the natural properties of coronaviruses can be.
Some spike-protein features that were initially hard to explain became better understood. The best explanation I have seen of what happened during those turbulent few days is that new insights were obtained from virologists who had actually worked with animal coronaviruses. These specialists understood what was and were not plausibly natural. Their input may have changed the narrative. I do not doubt that some of the people involved in those stressful and rushed initial discussions made comments that they wished they could take back. But changing one’s mind based on new information is not a sin – it’s the process of science and happens all the time. It has to! No credible scientist could remain locked into an initial opinion when new knowledge emerges.
Unfortunately, some Opinion writers, journalists, and Republican politicians see those early discussions in a sinister and malicious light. A Congressional memo issued last week contains no new information on the pandemic’s origins but instead obsesses over who said what to whom and when, before and during the drafting of an early scientific publication. Any change of mind seems to be interpreted as part of a cover-up – the intent being to protect the NIH from blame because Dr. Fauci’s institute had funded work on coronaviruses in the USA and, via a grant sub-contract, to a Wuhan laboratory. (The Chinese government was also funding that laboratory, it should be noted).
Allegations have been made that some participants in the early discussions were “rewarded” with NIH grants to thank them for their silence. I regard those allegations as foolish beyond belief: the scientists involved had the expertise to participate in the early discussions on the COVID-19 virus. The same expertise made them strong candidates for NIH grants to work in the relevant research areas. The linkage is the expertise, not the alleged quid pro quo. I know all too well the tortuous and prolonged process of earning research grants. They are not handed out as baubles for (alleged) good behavior or withdrawn merely because one has inconvenient opinions.
This part of the origins controversy is driven in large part by Republican animosity towards Dr. Fauci. Scientists and physicians throughout the infectious diseases arena know Dr. Fauci to be an incredibly hard-working and knowledgeable advocate for scientific truth. But that’s not how so many Republicans have been conditioned to see him – “Fauci Derangement Syndrome” seems very real. The animus comes from a hostile right-wing and political media operation, driven by resentment of how Dr. Fauci promoted pandemic policies based on sound public health principles when advising the Trump administration in 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed millions of people worldwide. What’s been written this week may have (metaphorically) killed just as many trees. And yet, again, nothing new was revealed. Two, among many government reports, have concluded that the lab leak theory may be correct. Perhaps that is the correct conclusion, and perhaps it is not. But what was said in front of Congress and by some media outlets this week often equated “low confidence” to “definitely happened.” That’s simply silly. Grandstanding for the C-SPAN cameras is not the same as speaking the truth for the benefit of the American public.
Whether the COVID-19 pandemic began in a laboratory or an animal market, lessons are being learned, and actions must be taken. That’s because both scenarios need to be taken into account when planning how best to prevent the next pandemic. Sadly, however, the demonization of science and a disregard for the facts darken the prospects for evidence-based decision-making in our ultra-polarized society. Those politics-driven dynamics make preventing the next pandemic that much harder. What is now unfortunate could easily become a tragedy.
John P. Moore, PhD
Weill Cornell Medicine, New York
Dr. John P. Moore is a tenured Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. He received his B.A., M.A., M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Cambridge University, UK. He moved to the USA in 1992, joining the Medical College in 2000.
Moore was an Elizabeth Glaser Scientist of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation and held a Merit Award from NIAID. He is an Editorial Board member for several journals, and has served on multiple study sections and review committees for NIH and charities.
Moore’s research for many years has focussed on understanding how HIV-1 enters cells and how to inhibit virus entry with specific drug candidates and antibodies. He presently directs intra- and multi-laboratory projects involving the design of HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein trimers for neutralizing antibody induction and structural studies. Some of these immunogens are now in Phase 1 clinical trials. Since March 2020, a significant proportion of Moore’s time has been spent on virology and vaccine topics related to SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly to provide guidance to reporters and members of the public.