Book Review: VIRAL: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19
A balanced and provocative book makes a compelling case for a the possibility of a lab leak
On 9 February 2020 -- less than two weeks after the World Health Organization announced a Public Health Emergency of International Concern focused on the then-emerging COVID-19 pandemic – Dr. James LeDuc, an American biosafety expert with close ties to colleagues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, wrote an impassioned email to a close colleague at WIV, Professor Yuan Zhiming. In the email, obtained by a group called US Right to Know under a Freedom of Information Act request, Dr. LeDuc gently suggested that Dr. Yuan start exploring whether the WIV was the source of the pandemic:
I want to suggest that you conduct a thorough review of the laboratory activities associated with research on coronaviruses so that you are fully prepared to answer questions dealing with the origin of the virus. I'm sure that you have considered this already, but attached are some areas where you may wish to investigate and be prepared to address. You might even consider preparing a manuscript that addresses these topics in an effort to be transparent and proactive. I would be pleased to work with you on such a paper if you think that would be helpful.
I raise these issues since I am receiving questions along these lines more and more frequently. Initially they came from social media and other "alternate information sources" but in the last few days I have been approached by senior officials and major reputable newspapers. Most link the opening of the new BSL4 lab as a possible source of the virus.
Two months later LeDuc explained in an email to another colleague that he never heard back from Dr. Yuan:
I agree that it is certainly possible that a lab accident was the source of the epidemic and I also agree that we can't trust the Chinese government. I sent a rather detailed plan to investigate the possibility that the lab might have been the source of the outbreak to Zhiming Yuan early in the event, but never heard back from him.
These emails, just released last week, add to the evidence that many leading biosafety experts considered it plausible from the very early days of the pandemic that the virus may have emerged from a Chinese laboratory.
The mystery surrounding origins of Covid-19 are the focus of Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, the result of a collaboration between Alina Chan, a post-doctoral researcher with expertise in medical genetics, synthetic biology and vector engineering at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, and Matt Ridley, an award-winning, best-selling authors of many books on science and technology.
Throughout this excellent and measured book, Chan and Ridley go to great lengths to explain that the origin of COVID-19 is a mystery and may forever remain so. But they also make a compelling case for the plausibility of the concern expressed by LeDuc early in the pandemic -- that SARS-CoV-2 may have escaped from a laboratory or from research-related activities. Chan and Ridley document, undeniably, that the Chinese government and some scientists have acted in ways suggestive of muddying the waters on COVID-19 origins or even a cover-up (but of what?).
That a lab leak could be the origin of COVID-19 was a concern of none other than Dr. Shi Zhengli, a leading researcher of coronaviruses at the WIV. Dr. Shi told Scientific American that she “had not slept a wink” out of concern that her lab was the source of the virus, and was relieved when her search of lab records found no match to SARS-CoV-2.
Shi and LeDuc are but a few of the authoritative voices chronicles by Chan and Ridley who in the spreading pandemic considered a lab leak not just a plausible theory but an actual possibility. Viral puts to rest the claims often made early in the pandemic by some scientists and journalists that discussion of a lab leak amounted to a fringe conspiracy theory. In fact, it is a possibility that needs to be taken seriously.
Much of the story related by Viral details a fascinating and bizarre cat and mouse game between a group of online sleuths (operating under the name DRASTIC), many with considerable expertise, and scientists in China and beyond, played out in the scientific literature and online, often via social media. Of course , identifying the origins of COVID-19 is no game, as according to The Economist last month, 17.8 million or more have already died from the disease.
Bizarre episodes related in Viral involve the selective presentation of scientific research, misdirection and the non-disclosure or even hiding of potentially relevant information, some of which was only later revealed due to the work of the DRASTIC team. Viral opens by relating the story of six men who fell ill after clearing bat guano from a cave in south-west China. The experiences of these men, three of whom ultimately died, and the research that followed their illness, would be relevant to any investigation of COVID-19 origins, but as Chan and Ridley relate a series of odd choices made by Dr. Shi upon discovering a close match to SARS-CoV-2 in her laboratory, called RaTG13:
Yet, in publishing their discovery, Dr. Shi and her colleagues neglected to connect the newly renamed RaTG13 to [the identical and previously named] 4991, neglected to cite her own 2016 paper describing its discovery and origins, neglected to identify the mine where the bat sample had been collected, and neglected to mention that RaTG13 was from a site where three people had died of a respiratory illness of unknown origin.
Thanks to work of DRASTIC, knowledge of these miners became widely known, which forced Dr. Shi to admit to these details in a correction to her paper. Later, Chan and Ridley comment on Shi (and colleagues) failure in this paper to comment on perhaps the most remarkable feature of SAR-CoV-2, called a “furin cleavage site,” a key factor accounting for the diseases pathogenicity. Chan and Ridley explain, “It is as if you discover a unicorn and you compare it with other horses, describing in detail the hair and the hooves, but you don’t mention the horn.”
Throughout Viral, Chan and Ridley document many such puzzling choices in research related to SARS-CoV-2 — one involves other curious choices in the conduct and presentation of research on pangolins, which were advanced as a possible source of COVID-19 not involving any sort of lab escape. I’d characterize the pangolin episode as showing all the characteristics of using coordinated research publications as a “head fake.” The odd and curious behaviors by some scientists don’t end there. In this review I won’t have a chance to get into the issues with EcoHealth Alliance, the proximal origins team or the WHO first origins committee. But Chan and Ridley cover these, and other, issues in depth.
I have followed the origins debate closely and have written a number of pieces on it (e.g., here and here). For me, one of the most interesting conclusions I came to after reading Viral is the real possibility that a lab leak or research accident may have occurred, and no one, including the Chinese government or even the hypothetical human vector for the leak, knows exactly how it happened. Such fundamental uncertainty could result from the unique characteristics of COVID-19, such as being transmissible by individuals who show no symptoms. We must be open to the real possibility that identifying a natural origin or ruling out a lab leak may both be practical impossibilities.
Let me emphasize that we don’t know the origins of COVID-19, and Chan and Ridley make this clear. However, the fact that a novel coronavirus with a never-before seen furin cleavage site characteristic emerged in Wuhan, China, proximate to research labs working with both coronaviruses and furin cleavage insertions – all by themselves – should make the notion of a lab leak not just plausible, but an operating hypothesis worthy of sustained investigation. All the strange behavior suggestive of a cover-up only raises more suspicions. Of course, a lab leak is not needed to motivate a cover up by Chinese officials, emergence in a wet market might prompt the same response.
For now, unresolvable uncertainly is the only view consistent with the available evidence. Further investigation is needed. Meantime, I recommend that observers take on a stance of agnosticism on COVID-19 origins. There are multiple possibilities in play that only time and evidence may allow to be resolved.
Viral is an important book, with broad implications for science and policy, whether origins of COVID-19 are ever pinned down or not. I’ll be using it in my spring graduate seminar in science and technology policy. Not only is it recommended to my students, but I recommend it to you as well.