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Vanity Fair: "The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19's Origins"

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

A nearly 12,000-word article by award-winning journalist Katherine Eban; it's much worth reading, I think, though naturally it doesn't come to any conclusions on the bottom line question of whether COVID-19 indeed stemmed from a lab leak. An excerpt:

On February 19, 2020, The Lancet, among the most respected and influential medical journals in the world, published a statement that roundly rejected the lab-leak hypothesis, effectively casting it as a xenophobic cousin to climate change denialism and anti-vaxxism. Signed by 27 scientists, the statement expressed "solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China" and asserted: "We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin."

The Lancet statement effectively ended the debate over COVID-19's origins before it began….

A months long Vanity Fair investigation, interviews with more than 40 people, and a review of hundreds of pages of U.S. government documents, including internal memos, meeting minutes, and email correspondence, found that conflicts of interest, stemming in part from large government grants supporting controversial virology research, hampered the U.S. investigation into COVID-19's origin at every step. In one State Department meeting, officials seeking to demand transparency from the Chinese government say they were explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology's gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. government funding of it.

In an internal memo obtained by Vanity Fair, Thomas DiNanno, former acting assistant secretary of the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, wrote that staff from two bureaus, his own and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, "warned" leaders within his bureau "not to pursue an investigation into the origin of COVID-19" because it would "'open a can of worms' if it continued."

There are reasons to doubt the lab-leak hypothesis. There is a long, well-documented history of natural spillovers leading to outbreaks, even when the initial and intermediate host animals have remained a mystery for months and years, and some expert virologists say the supposed oddities of the SARS-CoV-2 sequence have been found in nature.

But for most of the past year, the lab-leak scenario was treated not simply as unlikely or even inaccurate but as morally out-of-bounds. In late March, former Centers for Disease Control director Robert Redfield received death threats from fellow scientists after telling CNN that he believed COVID-19 had originated in a lab. "I was threatened and ostracized because I proposed another hypothesis," Redfield told Vanity Fair. "I expected it from politicians. I didn't expect it from science."

With President Trump out of office, it should be possible to reject his xenophobic agenda and still ask why, in all places in the world, did the outbreak begin in the city with a laboratory housing one of the world's most extensive collection of bat viruses, doing some of the most aggressive research? …

The story should remind us, I think, of the dangers of allowing perceived "scientific consensus" to justify suppressing criticism, investigation, and speculation (which is often the first step in criticism and investigation) about scientific questions. That is true in general, but it's especially true of new, emerging stories that scientists had only had a few months to investigate.

UPDATE: See also Newsweek (Rowan Jacobsen):

For most of last year, the idea that the coronavirus pandemic could have been triggered by a laboratory accident in Wuhan, China, was largely dismissed as a racist conspiracy theory of the alt-right. The Washington Post in early 2020 accused Senator Tom Cotton of "fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has been repeatedly debunked by experts." CNN jumped in with "How to debunk coronavirus conspiracy theories and misinformation from friends and family." Most other mainstream outlets, from The New York Times ("fringe theory") to NPR ("Scientists debunk lab accident theory"), were equally dismissive. (Newsweek was an exception, reporting in April 2020 that the WIV was involved in gain-of-function research and might have been the site of a lab leak; Mother Jones, Business Insider, the NY Post and FOX News were also exceptions.) But in the last week or so, the story has burst into the public discourse. President Joe Biden has demanded an investigation by U.S. intelligence. And the mainstream media, in an astonishing about-face, is treating the possibility with deadly seriousness.

The reason for the sudden shift in attitudes is clear: over the weeks and months of the pandemic, the pileup of circumstantial evidence pointing to the Wuhan lab kept growing—until it became too substantial to ignore.

The people responsible for uncovering this evidence are not journalists or spies or scientists. They are a group of amateur sleuths, with few resources except curiosity and a willingness to spend days combing the internet for clues. Throughout the pandemic, about two dozen or so correspondents, many anonymous, working independently from many different countries, have uncovered obscure documents, pieced together the information, and explained it all in long threads on Twitter—in a kind of open-source, collective brainstorming session that was part forensic science, part citizen journalism, and entirely new. They call themselves DRASTIC, for Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19….

The Vanity Fair article discusses and credits DRASTIC as well.