An argument for why the lab-leak theory of COVID’s origin remains unlikely

David Baltimore. Photo (cc) 2014 by Bob Paz.

Last week I wrote an analysis for GBH News on why the media dismissed the Wuhan lab-leak theory as the origin of COVID-19. I argued that the lab explanation got caught up in Donald Trump’s anti-Chinese racism and multifarious lies about the pandemic, compounded by some botched reporting of comments by Sen. Tom Cotton.

So I want to share with you two recent columns by Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, someone whom I really respect. The Times has a tight paywall, but you should be able to access both of them by switching browsers after you read the first.

About a week ago Hiltzik examined the theory itself and concluded that, though it couldn’t be ruled out entirely, the scientific consensus remains that COVID almost certainly jumped from animals to humans outside the lab. He writes:

No one disputes that a lab leak is possible. Viruses have escaped from laboratories in the past, on occasion leading to human infection. But “zoonotic” transfers — that is, from animals to humans — are a much more common and well-documented pathway.

That’s why the virological community believes that it’s vastly more likely that COVID-19 spilled over from an animal host to humans.

Then, earlier this week, he reported that Nobel Prize-winning biologist David Baltimore was backing away from a quote he gave to former New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade in which he referred to genetic evidence that had been found as “the smoking gun for the origin of the virus.” Wade’s May 5 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists helped move the lab-leak theory to the center of the conversation. Hiltzik writes:

Baltimore told me by email that he made the statement to Wade, also by email, and granted him permission to use it in print. But he added that he “should have softened the phrase ‘smoking gun’ because I don’t believe that it proves the origin of the furin cleavage site but it does sound that way. I believe that the question of whether the sequence was put in naturally or by molecular manipulation is very hard to determine but I wouldn’t rule out either origin.” [Pardon me for not explaining “furin cleavage site,” but it’s related to the genetics of COVID.]

I think we have to regard both the lab-leak theory and animal-to-human transmission as possibilities, and we may never know the truth. But Hiltzik makes a powerful case that the animal-to-human explanation remains considerably more likely, and that it would be a mistake to regard the two explanations as equally plausible.

12 thoughts on “An argument for why the lab-leak theory of COVID’s origin remains unlikely

  1. Steve Ross

    I’ve been doing CDC work off and on since January 2020 when I was asked to help “scale” Chinese reported mortality rates in the elderly. It was clear that something was wrong with the Chinese data… under-reporting of morbidity among the elderly. They lied.

    It was also well reported at the time that Chinese national authorities had suppressed warnings from a covid victim , who then died. So again they lied. Maybe local officials hid the bad news.

    In Wade’s BAS article, I had been surprised at Baltimore’s smoking gun statement and I’m glad to see him pull back on it.

    BUT the species of bats at issue are more common in South China and uncommon in Wuhan. Our intelligence services say (with no background) that three lab workers were hospitalized pre-pandemic with covid-like symptoms. Again maybe local officials hid the bad news. Maybe the symptoms were not due to COVID.

    But really: The Wuhan lab, most advanced in China and similar in functionality to labs in Roxbury and in Harlem (!) is an easy walk from the market (one of many in Wuhan and thousands in China) where the Chinese say COVID19 probably originated.

    The world is a big place. China is a big place. Remarkable coincidence, isn’t it?

    BTW, I don’t consider myself particularly well qualified to be a mass media pundit on this. There are dozens of b2b journalists and hundreds of researchers right here in Boston who would be better. Next to any of them, the mass media pundits i have heard are, without exception, pond scum.

    Nieman Lab and CJR have gone over media coverage on this at length. Neither has mentioned a year of b2b writing and warnings on this issue. It is a serious journalistic failing that is repeated every day.

  2. Marcus J Breen

    This phrase is gratuitous blasting of the entire journalism commentary community (“mass media pundits”), and as such a waste of space.

    “BTW, I don’t consider myself particularly well qualified to be a mass media pundit on this. There are dozens of b2b journalists and hundreds of researchers right here in Boston who would be better. Next to any of them, the mass media pundits i have heard are, without exception, pond scum.”

    Clearly not well qualified!

    Continuing the anti-Chinese propaganda is equally unhelpful. When Ross notes that the US Government and its security personnel also “lied,” he can be taken seriously. Until then he’s a voice for prejudice and bias.

    1. Steve Ross

      You obviously trust China rather than consider any other alternative. And what is your expertise to make such a clear statement in an ad hominum attack? I cited facts. Either counter with facts or shut up.

      1. Steve Ross

        Also, I thought BC professors could read. I clearly noted lack of backup for USA statement on 3 Chinese lab workers sickened.

  3. This is another good read. As a journalist, however, I’ve grown uncomfortable with the phrase “lab leak.” To those who are not following the issue (I have not directly covered it, but have touched on it) it gives the image of a literal leak, like an oil leak, which is absurd. I know it’s a handy term, but I think “lab accident” is better. I also am growing uneasy with the idea of good journalists slamming each other, like this: https://twitter.com/amymaxmen/status/1403002433010208768
    It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    1. Steve Ross

      Let me clarify. The “leak ” is almost always human in these labs. The only things that go in and out are filtered air and people. The equipment for filtering air is wildly redundant. People and bench chemistry are far more variable. Almost every documented “leak” in these labs worldwide has been due to workers missing something in the personal decontamination process. The protocols are very thorough (showers, clothing changes) and even routine quarantine when dealing with the most dangerous stuff and even less dangerous stuff if there is an accident with lab equipment during experiment or study.

      It is axiomatic in quality control that when you make a product, you have to “design in” quality. You can’t rely on inspection. But for lab experiments, opportunities for designing in quality (measured by safety) are limited.

      I wrote a lot of papers on this, especially in the 1970s. My big book on this (Product Safety and Liability: A Desk Reference, McGraw-Hill, 1977, co-authored with John Kolb) was translated into Japanese by Kiru Ishikowa, inventor of quality circles. The book (in English) and individual chapters (in Chinese) was widely pirated in Taiwan and mainland China. When PRC joined the International Copyright Convention, I got a large royalty check. Taiwan was shamed into following mainland China in that regard.

      BTW, I wrote the original ASTM test protocol for K95 masks — did NOT develop the test, but drafted the instructions for running it. I’ve also reviewed (at invitation of Chinese authorities) the new Chinese test for its KN95, which was supposed to go into effect last July 1 and was delayed to this July 1.

      I’m not in the habit of spreading “anti-chinese” propaganda, no matter what the opinion of me is at BC. Google, for instance, two columns I wrote in Broadband Communities about Huawei. (For the past two years, my regular column has been judged 3rd best of all business magazines by ASBPE.) But I did run afoul of those fun-loving truth tellers in 2014 when China and Russia kicked the UN’s internal UNHCR news organ, IRIN, out of the UN for daring to report on China and Syria. I helped IRIN become an independent news organization, now named The New Humanitarian.

    2. Steve Ross

      Also, I thought BC professors could read. I clearly noted lack of backup for USA statement on 3 Chinese lab workers sickened.

  4. Sorry, I wasn’t commenting on the “leak” term in reference to any particular post or story, but in general. It’s everywhere, and I’ve used it before, but upon reflection, I feel it’s misleading, for many of the reason’s Mr. Ross points out. This is good reading: https://www.selectagents.gov/resources/publications/docs/FSAP_Annual_Report_2019_508.pdf

    Also, I did write about this topic recently here: https://www.thestreet.com/latest-news/the-next-pandemic-could-start-in-a-lab-rutgers-scientist for full disclosure and in the past, back when BU’s lab was proposed what feels like a million years ago. I’ve always found the topic interesting and welcome any ideas.

    1. Steve Ross

      I’ve done two calibration jobs in a level2 lab, years ago. Easier to clean me than clean the equipment, and more accurate to calibrate where a device is used than to move it.

      The human element is always a wild card. People fall behind on work. Lab spills happen. Often, multiple shifts work in a lab around the clock. Family emergencies happen. There have been a lot of reported accidents in Wuhan lab. But THAT may be because they are extra-careful to report everything. This is the kind of stuff WHO wanted to see and was not allowed to see.

  5. Steve Ross

    I’ve done two calibration jobs in a level2 lab, years ago. Easier to clean me than clean the equipment, and more accurate to calibrate where a device is used than to move it. Never been trained for more dangerous lab levels.

    The human element is always a wild card. People fall behind on work. Lab spills happen. Often, multiple shifts work in a lab around the clock. Family emergencies happen. There have been a lot of reported accidents in Wuhan lab. But THAT may be because they are extra-careful to report everything. This is the kind of stuff WHO wanted to see and was not allowed to see.

    I realize that by the standards of Boston College this is anti-China propaganda.

    1. Steve Ross

      Me too on typos. I have a “smart” keyboard program for the phone but it can’t be on when i use an external little keyboard, so I’m on the Samsung standard awful screen keyboard right now.

      BTW, the use of pundits in this area is indeed worthy of no better than pond scum status. Engineers who work outside their area of expertise can lose their licenses. But journalists and pundits are protected. Thus we saw the technical world blow a collective gasket over deflategate fake study while mainstream media still jokes about it.

      Doctors are tasked with keeping their patients healthy. Epidemiologists are tasked with keeping society healthy. Political creatures try to keep their images healthy. Business creatures want to keep “the economy” or their own companies healthy.

      Very few doctors have even one statistics course in their studies, but some have an MD plus a PhD in statistics. MPH folks have just a few stats courses. But they and epidemiologists (who have strong stats backgrounds) also get educated on historic case studies, as they often need to take action without all the facts.

      This leaves them open to second-guessing by bloviating pundits. We’re seeing it now with discussion on new Alzheimers drug (the mainstream media focus has been on cost, the medical experts focus on the likelihood the drug doesn’t work).

      I repeat: without exception, since the start of the COVID era, I have not heard or read a single pundit or opinion writer in mainstream media worth warm spit. Some mainstream reporters, many specialized journalists… but no pundits. It used to be that mainstream media reporters would seek out the expertise and opinion of b2b journalists with specific knowledge. Not any more.

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