A tale of two theories. After the pandemic first broke out in December 2019, Chinese authorities reported that many cases had occurred in the wet market — a place selling wild animals for meat — in Wuhan. This reminded experts of the SARS1 epidemic of 2002, in which a bat virus had spread first to civets, an animal sold in wet markets, and from civets to people. A similar bat virus caused a second epidemic, known as MERS, in 2012. This time the intermediary host animal was camels.
Contrary to the letter writers’ assertion, the idea that the virus might have escaped from a lab invoked accident, not conspiracy. It surely needed to be explored, not rejected out of hand. A defining mark of good scientists is that they go to great pains to distinguish between what they know and what they don’t know. By this criterion, the signatories of the Lancet letter were behaving as poor scientists: They were assuring the public of facts they could not know for sure were true.
One of the very few establishment scientists to have questioned the virologists’ absolute rejection of lab escape is Richard Ebright, who has long warned against the dangers of gain-of-function research. Another is David A. Relman of Stanford University. “Even though strong opinions abound, none of these scenarios can be confidently ruled in or ruled out with currently available facts,” he wrote. Kudos too to Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told CNN on March 26, 2021 that the “most likely” cause of the epidemic was “from a laboratory,” because he doubted that a bat virus could become an extreme human pathogen overnight, without taking time to evolve, as seemed to be the case with SARS2.
Author(s): Nicholas Wade
Publication Date: 5 May 2021
Publication Site: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists