July 18, 2023
At the request of those who think the Covid origin lab leak theory is “settled,” here’s the response you asked for.
All studies/articles mentioned are linked. If this topic matters to you, read the links, don’t just rely on my overview.
Animal-to-human spillover would be the expected route for a disease like Covid. It’s how we got SARS, MERS, and all other zoonotics. With Covid, we had an initial case cluster at the Wuhan “wet market”—long tagged by the scientific community as a dangerous potential source of the next SARS. Plus, virus-positive environmental samples were found in animal detritus inside market stalls.
It seemed case closed, but it wasn’t; scientists were unsuccessful in identifying an intermediary animal.
By April 2020 a theory emerged that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a lab that conducts research into SARS-like viruses.
The lab was “just a few blocks away” from the market. That’s the “proximity” argument, and it’s bullshit. The lab is thirty minutes away and across the Yangtze (the lab is the same distance from the market as the Beverly Hills Hotel is from LAX. If you know L.A., you know that ain’t close).
The leakers did have a non-coincidence-based argument: Several scientists suggested that the virus displayed “furin cleavage” manipulation. The most detailed piece about this at the time was a Medium essay by Yuri Deigin of Youthereum Genetics. But even he was forced to admit that furin cleavage is no smoking gun; the “suspicious” hallmarks could’ve come from nature (one year later, Deigin took part in a massive international study of Covid’s origin that concluded that “natural origin is still possible” but lab creation should not be ruled out).
When Nobel laureate scientist David Baltimore declared furin cleavage the Covid origin “smoking gun,” he had to walk it back: “I believe that the question of whether the [cleavage] sequence was put in naturally or by molecular manipulation is very hard to determine but I wouldn’t rule out either origin.”
Furin cleavage is important but no “case closed.”
From 2020 through 2021 I penned six columns in which I focused on the right’s obsession with the lab leak theory:
4/7/20: Tucker Carlson had presented a bogus online Chinese “academic paper” claiming that Covid could not have had a natural origin as there are no bats in Wuhan. I explained that the zoonotic spillover theory isn’t bat-to-man but bat-to-intermediary-to-man. It’s the intermediary that would’ve been in Wuhan, not the bat. Tucker’s phony report also claimed that Covid came about after a WIV scientist was “splashed with bat blood and urine while collecting samples.” I pointed out that said incident occurred in 2017 and the scientist was fine.
National Review cited its own “bombshell report” that inflated the number of “blood and urine-splashed WIV researchers” from one to “many,” claiming they all died and that the event happened in 2019. Again I explained that the “splash” incident was in 2017, one guy got splashed, and he didn’t become ill.
Those two “bombshells” I debunked are no longer used by lab leak proponents.
4/28/20: Steve Bannon claimed that the CCP was pushing the wet market theory, and I corrected him, pointing out that the CCP rejected the theory in favor of “It didn’t start in China.” Tucker claimed that no mammals were sold at the Wuhan wet market. Again, I debunked that, and again, leakers no longer make that claim.
5/12/20: Tucker declared that he “knows” the leak theory is true because people he “cannot name” told him so. I predicted he’d never name them, and I was right. I also noted that anonymous whispers are not evidence. Then-president Trump also said, “I know it’s a lab leak because I have a secret file.” Australian intelligence exposed Trump’s “secret file” as a collection of news clippings.
5/18/21: I interviewed Nicholas Wade, the former NY Times science editor who was the darling of the leakers, and he admitted to me that he never knew about the wet market environmental samples until I told him. The most important forensic evidence we had, and he didn’t even know about it. To me, that demonstrated the leakers’ lack of interest in pursuing evidence that doesn’t advance their theory.
The best response Wade could muster regarding the samples was “Well, animal waste isn’t the same as a live animal.”
Yeah, but where else does animal waste come from?
And now we saw the emergence of what would eventually displace furin cleavage and “proximity” in the leaker arsenal: the “three WIV scientists fell ill in fall 2019” claim. Wade cited that incident, but his evidence? A Trump State Department fact sheet that made it clear the three ill workers might’ve simply had “common seasonal illnesses.”
The Hudson Institute’s David Asher claimed it’s “hard to believe” that three people in the same office can catch flu.
I didn’t bother to debunk that because it’s too retarded.
5/25/21: I tackled the House GOP report on Covid origin, which strongly pushed the lab leak theory. The GOP’s “smoking gun”? A “probability study” by cancer specialist Dr. Steven Quay concluding “beyond a reasonable doubt that SARS-CoV-2 is not a natural zoonosis but instead is laboratory derived.” Except Quay’s a quack. He brags in his study that he’s already dismissed zoonotic spillover as a “red herring” and he’s “removed” it as a possible origin. Why? Because “the Chinese CDC have ruled it out.”
“The Chinese said it didn’t happen so it didn’t happen.”
Here we see how the leakers did a 180 in the space of a year. In spring 2020, Bannon et al. were like, “The Chinese say it was the wet market, and that’s how we know it wasn’t.” By spring 2021, the House GOP was like, “The Chinese say it wasn’t the wet market, and that’s how we know it wasn’t.”
Quay does mention the environmental samples, but he misstates them (he claims they came from “drains and sewage” when in fact the important samples came from mammal stalls), and, based on his own misunderstanding of the samples, he explicitly states that they “will not be used” in his “probability study.”
6/7/21: I closed with words that bear repeating here: “Lab theorists might be entirely right. Should solid evidence emerge for the lab leak, I’ll gladly accept it.”
So that’s the recap. Lengthy, but necessary in order to understand the new stuff.
The New Stuff
2022 was not kind to the leakers; the wet marketers scored key points via two new studies. The first involved the lineages of SARS-CoV-2 that were found inside the market, and the second was a geospatial analysis of the market as the epicenter of early case clusters, and a geospatial analysis of the animal samples regarding their location inside the market. Turns out, to quote the study’s author, they were “right in the very stall we said they would be.” Covid-positive samples came from stalls with mammals like raccoon dogs—likely intermediaries.
Then, in March of this year, the authors of the geospatial study released an actual bombshell: Several of the market samples were “chock-full of animal genetic material—much of which was a match for the common raccoon dog.”
Leakers needed a comeback. Enter the two “bombshells” that people (especially one irate Israeli professor) want me to comment on: the June 10 Sunday Times piece and the June 13 Michael Shellenberger/Matt Taibbi/Alex Gutentag Substack piece.
The Times piece covers a lot of familiar ground. “Gain of function” is bad. Given. The WIV had safety issues. Given. But where’s the new stuff? Well, authors Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott claim that a “study” shows that “the centre of the initial outbreak of Covid-19 was close to the [WIV)] institute’s laboratory, rather than at the city’s ‘wet’ wildlife market as had been thought.”
Wait, the initial case cluster wasn’t centered on the market? Instead it was centered “close to the lab”?
If true, it’s certainly ironic. Leakers who’ve spent the past three years arguing that it must be the lab because the market is close to the lab now argue that it can’t be the market because it’s too far from the lab.
As I said, “if true.” Calvert and Arbuthnott’s piece is 5,739 words (you think this column is running long!). Buried waaaaaay down at word 5,182 is the explanation of this “study”:
A later study by academics at Wuhan University located the hotspots in Wuhan where people were reporting on social media that they needed treatment for Covid. At the time, the authorities were eager to play down the suggestion that the city’s Huanan seafood market was the source of the outbreak; the study was used to show that the initial hotspots in December and January were several miles away.
The “study” was a calculated attempt by the CCP to deflect suspicion from the market by moving the cluster…closer to the lab! The CCP sought to reposition the cluster farther from the market and closer to the WIV.
Does that sound like a government trying to cover up the WIV’s involvement?
In any event, that politically motivated Chinese study was superseded by the 2022 geospatial analysis.
Calvert and Arbuthnott dodged every request for comment.
The rest of their piece is filled with anonymous whispers. The only “investigator” they name? Quay!
Now, to the bombshellenberger.
On June 15, Michael Shellenberger triumphantly announced in the NY Post, “It is no longer a question that the COVID-19 virus leaked from China’s notorious Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory.”
Does the Shellenberger/Taibbi/Gutentag piece merit that kind of bravado?
Of course not.
Citing only anonymous sources, the authors claim to have identified the three lab workers who got sick in fall 2019.
So, it’s just a retread of the “three sick lab workers who might’ve had flu” we’ve all known about since 2021, this time with names. The WSJ confirmed the names but added that it’s still impossible to know whether it was Covid or flu.
Fear not, Shellenberger proclaimed! The ODNI will be releasing its Covid origin report, and we’ll learn it was Covid!
And then the next week the ODNI report came out and it said the same thing the Trump administration State Department said in January 2021: We have no idea if the lab workers had Covid or flu.
Taibbi and Gutentag ducked me entirely. I wanted to know what they made of the environmental samples, as they’d ignored them in their piece. Eventually, Shellenberger sent me a one-sentence reply regarding the market samples: “Yes, it was a superspreader event but no evidence the virus came from there and they found infected in many other parts of the city.”
So, he’s relying on the fraudulent CCP cluster map while ignoring the fact that the animal detritus samples were, in the words of NYT global health correspondent Donald McNeil (a lab leak proponent), almost certainly “not [from] coughing humans” but “blood of a butchered animal being sloshed around as the market was hosed out.”
Infected animal, not human-to-human.
When I prodded Reason’s Robby Soave, a vocal champion of the bombshellenberger, he replied, “Too much was made of the animal samples argument,” and he cited the work of virologist Jesse Bloom, who’d published a response to the raccoon dog study. Bloom compared “the amount of genetic material from the virus” with “the amount of genetic material from susceptible animal species in the samples,” and, in his opinion, he didn’t find a strong enough correlation. Other researchers, however, pointed to flaws in Bloom’s test, and Bloom himself freely admits that “it’s an open question of whether that is an informative thing to calculate at all.”
“There are certainly a lot of confounders” (that could have skewed the results), he told The Atlantic, adding that his goal was to show that “the samples are not sufficient to answer whether or not there were infected animals.” But, he stressed, to conclude that his test proves animals “weren’t infected” is “not an accurate summary.”
Bloom is also skeptical of the lab leak, telling Scientific American, “There’s definitely no direct evidence that any of the labs were studying a virus identical to SARS-CoV-2.”
I asked Dr. Bloom if the Shellenberger/Taibbi/Gutentag piece moved the needle for him regarding the origin story.
His reply: “Unfortunately I’m not able to offer an informed assessment of these recent news reports until more confirmed details of any intelligence are made public.”
Ah, see? Someone else doesn’t think anonymous whispers count as evidence.
So there we are, folks. No case closed, for either theory.
Now, may I go back about my business, leakers?
Call me when you actually have something.