The Volokh Conspiracy

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"The Possibility of a [Wuhan] Laboratory Accident or Leak" "Must Be Investigated"


So wrote the Washington Post editorial board Friday:

Many scientists have speculated that the virus leaped from animals, such as bats, to humans, perhaps with an intermediate stop in another animal. This kind of zoonotic spillover has occurred before, such as in the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014.

But there is another pathway, also plausible, that must be investigated. That is the possibility of a laboratory accident or leak. It could have involved a virus that was improperly disposed of or perhaps infected a laboratory worker who then passed it to others. Wuhan, with a population of 11 million, is a major transportation hub and a center of virus studies in China, with at least six facilities with BSL-3 laboratories for handling infectious agents. Published papers show that some of these institutions have been very active in coronavirus research. The most active is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where Shi Zhengli leads a research team that has extensively studied and experimented on bat coronaviruses that are very similar to the one that ignited the global pandemic.

Dr. Shi said that when news of the outbreak first became known, she checked her laboratory records to see whether there had been any mishandling of experimental materials. She also asserted that the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus did not match viruses that her team had sampled from bat caves in China. "That really took a load off my mind," she told Scientific American. "I had not slept a wink for days."

But that must not be the end of the story. China actively covered up the early stages of the pandemic, concealed the transmissibility of the virus from its own people and the world, and punished Wuhan doctors who expressed worry about it in late December 2019….

Bruce Carroll (PJ Media) notes that, a year ago, the Post mocked Sen. Tom Cotton making a similar argument, in a news story titled "Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked":

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) repeated a fringe theory suggesting that the ongoing spread of a coronavirus is connected to research in the disease-ravaged epicenter of Wuhan, China.

Cotton referenced a laboratory in the city, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, in an interview on Fox News's "Sunday Morning Futures." He said the lab was near a market some scientists initially thought was a starting point for the virus's spread.

Yet Cotton acknowledged there is no evidence that the disease originated at the lab. Instead, he suggested it's necessary to ask Chinese authorities about the possibility, fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has been repeatedly debunked by experts.

"Now, we don't have evidence that this disease originated there, but because of China's duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says," Cotton said. "And China right now is not giving any evidence on that question at all."

To be sure, this is a different lab, and it's possible that a theory could be rightly criticized as unfounded last year but then viewed as more plausible given more recent developments. Still, it would have been good for the more recent editorial to acknowledge that maybe Sen. Cotton's "fringe theory" wasn't quite "bunk" after all; and it's a reminder that it's hard to tell such things within the first months of a developing story like the coronavirus.