me I must confess that when a ProPublica-Vanity Fair Collaboration detailing new revelations from a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation pointing toward the origin of a lab leak from the Covid-19 pandemic crossed my social media radar, I retweeted it after a brief peek.
After all, I already believed that many in the press had unfairly dismissed the lab leak theory in 2020. In fact, before Covid was on the radar, I already believed that lab leaks were an underrated threat to humanity. and that the style of research that seeks to discover dangerous new viruses in nature or engineer them in laboratories is risky and must be stopped. So he was excited enough about the new blockbuster revelations found in Toy Reid’s translations of previously unknown official Chinese documents that I didn’t kick the tires rigorously. which is very bad because as detailed by Max Tani in Semaforother Chinese speakers have raised serious questions about the veracity of the translations in the ProPublica story that is reportedly now being published. revised with the help of others Freelance Mandarin translators. That’s embarrassing to me and the whole thing is embarrassing to lab leak advocates in general.
And yet, my trigger finger was so itchy because I really think the trend two years ago to write off the concept of a lab leak as a conspiracy theory was a huge mistake. Laboratory leaks, fundamentally, are not that rare. Martin Furmanski, writing for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in 2014, recounted that “at least 80 cases and three deaths resulted from three separate escapes of smallpox virus from two different accredited smallpox laboratories” over a 15-year period during the global eradication campaign. Furmanski also documents leaks of foot-and-mouth disease, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, and H1N1 influenza. In the 1970s, a significant outbreak of anthrax was caused by Soviet laboratory leaks. I was not writing in the context of the Covid pandemic but of the near miss with Sars, noting that “there have been six separate ‘escapes’ from virology labs studying it: one in Singapore and Taiwan, and in four separate events in the same lab in Beijing.”
Fortunately, just as the natural occurrence of Sars didn’t turn into a major pandemic, neither did any of the lab leaks.
However, the point is that virus leaks in labs are a very real problem and when you have a new outbreak of a bat coronavirus in a city that contains two labs dedicated to studying bat coronaviruses, it’s entirely reasonable to be suspicious. And indeed the fact that Joe Biden ordered a review of the relevant intelligence and the intelligence community came back with the finding that lab leak was as believable as natural origins never got the attention it deserved.
Long story short, the notion of a lab leak is far from proven, but it’s not a Trumper conspiracy theory either.
The boring truth is that we will almost certainly never really know what happened because the Chinese government will not allow Western intelligence agencies to poke around in its virus labs. They wouldn’t allow it if they were covering up a lab leak, but they wouldn’t allow it if they weren’t covering up a lab leak either: the sharp deterioration in the relationship between the US would be a thorough cooperative investigation.
But at the end of the day, the search for evidence of lab leaks matters politically but not for politics.
Those of us interested in the topic are concerned because we believe that strong evidence of a laboratory origin will strengthen our position in the dual-use virus research debate. At this time many scientists believe that searching for new deadly viruses in dark corners of the world or even deliberately engineer such viruses in laboratories It has important public health benefits. And there is a kind of superficial plausibility in this. To develop cures and vaccines, it is necessary to study viruses. Finding and creating new viruses can help us better understand viruses and thus perhaps develop better cures and vaccines.
Except that it’s notable that in the face of the real Covid-19 emergency, none of this dual-use research helped anything.
The mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna weren’t based on anything that happened in dual-use labs. Instead, Chinese scientist Yong-Zhen Zhang published the genetic sequence of the SARS-Cov-2 virus on the Internet on January 11, 2020. Only two days later, Moderna scientists had designed their vaccine based on genetic data. The reason the vaccines weren’t licensed until 10 months later was that the protocol for conducting clinical trials is time-consuming. And the reason the vaccines weren’t widely available until months after they were licensed is that creating the infrastructure to manufacture the vaccines on a large scale took time.
Obviously, these delays were unavoidable to some degree (we couldn’t have spiked billions of people with an unproven vaccine), but they were also tragic. Indeed, they were and remain essentially the entire tragedy of the pandemic. The vaccine was designed before the virus went global and long before the dangerous Delta variant emerged. If we had managed to test, manufacture and distribute the vaccine sooner, countless lives could have been saved. But even if dual-use research had somehow sped up the vaccine development process (it didn’t), what possible advantage might there have been in designing an untested vaccine in one day instead of two?
And indeed, the Covid pandemic continues to demonstrate the futility of dual-use research.
The current cutting edge of research focuses on two issues. For one thing, scientists are working on vaccines that can be given as a nasal spray instead of an injection, thereby blocking transmission. On the other hand, scientists are trying to develop a pan-coronavirus vaccine that would target the generic properties of the entire coronavirus family, offering protection not only against all variants of Sars-Cov-2, but also against all coronaviruses. currently unknown lurking anywhere. caves around the world.
This research agenda deserves to be elevated and accelerated beyond where it currently stands. It is incredibly tragic that Operation Warp Speed has expired instead of being built as a template to enhance our global biodefense capabilities. There is simply so much we could be doing to develop whole-family vaccines for all virus families, species-agnostic antigen tests that could detect multiple viruses simultaneously, far ultraviolet lights that would destroy all viruses, and deploy sewage surveillance and sequencing genetics more generally. Science is, of course, inherently uncertain and there is no guarantee that any of this will work at scale. But everything is extremely promising and currently lacks resources.
Best of all, if these research programs fail, they would be a waste of time and money at best. The dual-use approach, by contrast, has failed to deliver anything of value while posing potentially catastrophic downside risks. Irrefutable evidence that Covid leaked from a lab would help make that case politically, but it almost certainly won’t materialize.