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The 'Lab Leak Theory' Debate and Why It Matters

Visualization of US “black budget” as leaked by Edward Snowden (source:

By Thomas Neuburger

I’d like to turn to something most people consider old news — the debate about the origin of the Covid epidemic. At this point most people are convinced that the source was the Wuhan Lab in China, and by now, almost three years after the global infections, that point seems uncontroversial.

But the fact and nature of the debate as it occurred at the time is consequential, and for a reason not likely to be said out loud.

(A note before we begin: This could have been a term paper in length. In the interest of serving readers, however, I’m going to hit the highlights before making the main point. So take heart, you with little time. I hear your concern.)

Nate Silver weighs in

Last month, after most of the dust had cleared, Nate Silver — no Trumpist, I preemptively hasten to add — decided to weigh into the debate around the debate.

I’m not usually one for scandals. My eyes glaze over at Congressional hearings. I’ve never read the Mueller Report. There are usually too many threads to unwind, and too many competing claims to evaluate. But I’m going to make an exception here, because we have a scandal where the facts are relatively simple and clear — but which was nevertheless extremely consequential.
Here’s the scandal. In March 2020, a group of scientists — in particular, Kristian G. Andersen the of The Scripps Research Institute, Andrew Rambaut of The University of Edinburgh, Edward C. Holmes of the University of Sydney, and Robert F. Garry of Tulane University — published a paper in Nature Medicine that seemingly contradicted their true beliefs about COVID’s origins and which they knew to be misleading. The paper, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2”, has been cited more than 5,900 times and was enormously influential in shaping the debate about the origins of COVID-19. [emphasis mine]

If you’ve seen references to the “Proximal Origin controversy,” this is it. It takes its name from the name of the research paper.

At the time of its publication — March 2020 saw the start of full public panic — the paper was hugely influential. The scandal that Silver identifies is that at the time the paper’s authors held opinion opposite to what they published in Nature.

The messages show that the authors were highly uncertain about COVID’s origins — and if anything, they leaned more toward a lab leak than a spillover from an animal source. But none of that was expressed in the “Proximal Origin” paper, which instead said that “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. [author’s emphasis]

So that’s the scandal. A group of respected scientists lied about their beliefs in the Covid epidemic’s origin, and did so in one of the most respected scientific journals in the country.

Note before we go further: The fact of these lies is uncontrovertible; they admitted in private communication they knew they were wrong.

We know this because of a series of leaked and FOIAed emails and Slack messages that have been reported on by Public, Racket News, The Intercept and The Nation along with other small, independent media outlets. You can find a detailed summary of the claims and a copy of the emails and messages here at Public. There’s also good context around the messages here (very detailed) or here and here (more high-level).
The messages show that the authors were highly uncertain about COVID’s origins — and if anything, they leaned more toward a lab leak than a spillover from an animal source. But none of that was expressed in the “Proximal Origin” paper, which instead said that “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. [author’s emphasis]

So why did these scientist lie, and why did their lie appear in a scientific publication?

Why did the authors lie? Silver’s answer.

Silver gives three reasons for these lies:

What were the authors’ motivations to mislead the public? I think that’s also pretty straightforward. In fact, you can find prominent virologists quoted on record as to why the lab leak theory was so problematic — even if it wasn’t necessarily wrong. The problems fall into three buckets:
1. Evidence of a lab leak could cause a political backlash — understandably, given that COVID has killed almost 7 million people — resulting in a reduction in funding for gain-of-function research and other virological research. That’s potentially important to the authors or the authors’ bosses — and the authors were very aware of the career implications for how the story would play out;
2. Evidence of a lab leak could upset China and undermine research collaborations;
3. Evidence of a lab leak could provide validation to Trump and Republicans who touted the theory — remember, all of this was taking place during an election year, and medical, epidemiological and public health experts had few reservations about weighing in on political matters.

So to be clear, his reasons are:

  • The authors were protecting funding for gain-of-function research for themselves and their employers.

  • They were protecting US-China relations.

  • They denied the lab leak theory because Republicans were for it.

Odd behavior for the “trust the science” community (of which I’m a part, by the way). I could be wrong, of course, but doesn’t being fact-based mean looking at the facts?

Why is gain-of-function research so well defended?

While all of the above may be, and I believe, is true about the likely motives of the authors of the Proximal Origins paper, there’s a further question that must be asked. Why is the government so devoted to gain-of-function research, to the extent that it and those who engage in it would nakedly lie to protect it?

After all, it’s highly risky behavior — scary-novel behavior really. After all, its goal is to enhance “transmissibility, virus replication, virulence, host range, immune evasion or drug and vaccine resistance”. Yes, it defines that goal as noble in purpose: “to get insights into the viral mechanisms, to create and analyze animal models, to accelerate drug and vaccine development and to improve pandemic preparedness.”

But has it done that? In particular, has it “improved pandemic preparedness” or the opposite — cause the pandemic it seeks to prevent?

And why is no one in government or the research community asking if it should continue?

Is gain-of-function also a military objective?

Which brings us to that which won’t be said out loud.

1. Consider this, from the New York Times, printed before 9/11/2001:

Over the past several years, the United States has embarked on a program of secret research on biological weapons that, some officials say, tests the limits of the global treaty banning such weapons.
The 1972 treaty forbids nations from developing or acquiring weapons that spread disease, but it allows work on vaccines and other protective measures. Government officials said the secret research, which mimicked the major steps a state or terrorist would take to create a biological arsenal, was aimed at better understanding the threat.
The projects, which have not been previously disclosed, were begun under President Clinton and have been embraced by the Bush administration, which intends to expand them.
Earlier this year, administration officials said, the Pentagon drew up plans to engineer genetically a potentially more potent variant of the bacterium that causes anthrax, a deadly disease ideal for germ warfare.

Do you think, in the years since Bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center, that the Pentagon has relaxed its “readiness”?

2. Now consider that much of the US military budget is outside the Defense Department.

For example, the Department of Energy engages in nuclear research (see “atomic energy defense activities” in the linked PDF), and the State Department contributes arms sales support and “military-related development assistance.”

The State Department also hosts the GEC, an operation to lead “U.S. interagency efforts in proactively addressing foreign adversaries’ attempts to undermine U.S. interests using disinformation and propaganda.” Sounds military to my psyops sensitive ears.

Here’s how the mainstream site Wikipedia describes our non-DoD military spending:

This [spending] does not include many military-related items that are outside of the Defense Department budget, such as nuclear weapons research, maintenance, cleanup, and production, which are in the Atomic Energy Defense Activities section, Veterans Affairs, the Treasury Department's payments in pensions to military retirees and widows and their families, interest on debt incurred in past wars, or State Department financing of foreign arms sales and militarily-related development assistance. Neither does it include defense spending that is domestic rather than international in nature, such as the Department of Homeland Security, counter-terrorism spending by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and intelligence-gathering spending by NSA, although these programs contain certain weapons, military and security components. [emphasis added]

Isn’t it at least reasonable to ask if part of the reason the government doesn’t want the lab leak theory to be true is that it spotlights a military (and frankly, war crimes) reason for engaging in gain-of-function research?

If the question offends you, ask if you really want your military to be secretly creating viruses that could murder millions? Wouldn’t you like to know for sure they weren’t? I sure would.

Now look at it from the Pentagon point of view. If you were the military and had already “embarked on a program of secret research on biological weapons” (NY Times), why would you not work to influence, finance, and hide your connection to the development of deadly viruses?

Frankly, it would be Pentagon malpractice if they didn’t. We pay them to at least try.

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