Lab leak theory very unlikely

Submitted by martin on 15 June, 2021 - 11:12 Author: Zack Muddle
Wuhan Institute

Jim Denham makes apt criticisms of the Morning Star in his article in Solidarity 596, for yet another article that is both demagogic and championing the Chinese ruling class. Yet he is gives too much ground to the continued viability of a lab leak theory of SARS-CoV-2's origins.

Contrary to what Jim's article implied, the WHO mission did investigate the possibility of a laboratory leak. They found "direct zoonotic spillover... a possible-to-likely pathway; introduction through an intermediate host... a likely to very likely pathway; introduction through cold/ food chain products… a possible pathway; introduction through a laboratory incident... an extremely unlikely pathway.”

Jim's statement that "'extremely unlikely' is not quite the same as 'impossible'" is incomplete: the confidence criteria and stringency for “extremely unlikely” in most such scientific reports is not so far from what, in ordinary parlance, would be deemed “impossible”. No, it cannot be categorically ruled out, and further investigations are almost always good. Indeed, the WHO's mission so far was only phase 1, with a phase 2 always planned, informed by the initial phase's findings. As of the end of March at the latest, for the proposed phase 2 “all hypotheses remain on the table”.

But climate change deniers often make use of such losses-in-translation: what the IPCC deems “very high confidence” is, to all intents and purposes, certain.

I do not equate the weight of evidence in the two different cases; and it is at least possible in good faith to argue that the lab leak theory has not been given sufficient, balanced consideration.

The latest (late May) reports from the Wall Street Journal add little but specificity to previous claims that Wuhan laboratory staff had had flu-like symptoms that could have been Covid-19 — and even these claims remain not strongly evidenced.

The fairly high rates of conventional flu in China give a straightforward explanation of these reports: the lack of a “record of viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2”, or its component genetic parts in the laboratory; the fact that the workers there all reportedly lacked antibodies for it in January 2020; and the wider lack of evidence cut against it.

Yes — the lacking records and record of a lack could be a cover up by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. With the an ever-expanding circle of conspiratorial actors comes an ever-shrinking plausibility.

Zoonotic spillover should not be allowed to let the Chinese ruling class off the hook. Ever-more frequent zoonotic spillover is fuelled by climate change, environmental destruction, and intensive global animal agriculture: the Chinese ruling class has helped drive all three within and outside its borders no less than the British ruling class which the Morning Star myopically focusses on.

Conversely, evidence of the - not trivial - dangers posed by biosecurity labs should encourage further caution wherever such labs exist.


Submitted by Zac Muddle on Tue, 22/06/2021 - 09:24

My article should have been stronger. 1) The widely cited and circulated letter in Science that I referenced when I said that "it is at least possible in good faith to argue that the lab leak theory has not been given sufficient, balanced consideration", was not signed and circulated with as straightforward intentions and good faith as it has on the face of it. 2) The Wall Street Journal article's lead author is an arguably discredited journalist.

1) As one of the signatures on the letter puts it: "as a co-signer or the letter to Science, I’d like to explain my motivation for adding my name: namely, I thought the letter would have the effect of prompting more funding for searching for natural viruses in animal reservoirs, which I personally have always assumed represent the origin of SARS-CoV-2 infections in humans. Perhaps naively, I did not anticipate that the letter would be used to promote the lab origin hypothesis. Looking back on the wording of the letter, however, I now think that I should have realized this would happen and should have been more proactive — either not signed the letter at all or else requested more wording changes to make my position clear."

2) The Wall Street Journal article is the "recently credible evidence" cited by Jim, and sparking resurgent speculation about the lab leak theory. The article's lead author, Michael R. Gordon, was also the lead author of the September 8, 2002 article falsely claiming that Iraq's president Saddam Hussein was trying to build nuclear weapons. The New York Times later apologised for that article. The journalist has reportedly written other such discredited articles, on different topics.

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