For more than three hours yesterday, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic burned two virologists about participating in the “cover-up” that started the epidemic. Republican lawmakers testified that the witnesses, Kristian Andersen and Robert Garry, and other researchers initially suspected that the coronavirus had spread from a Chinese lab. Andersen says: “Accidental escape is very possible—it’s not just a fantasy he wrote in a Slack message to a friend on February 2, 2020. When he explained the same thing to Anthony Fauci In late January, as some strains of the virus looked like they could be produced, Fauci told him to consider going to the FBI.
But after a few days, Andersen, Garry, and other scientists began to agree on another point: It seems that these things started to happen because of evolution. The scientists wrote the revised analysis in a well-known paper, published in the journal Natural Medicine in March 2020, titled “Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2.” The virus is apparently “not a laboratory-produced or intentionally exploited virus,” the paper said; instead, the experts “did not believe that any kind of laboratory activity is valid,” and that the epidemic began with a “zoonotic event” – that is, the spread of an animal virus in humans. . This analysis will be mentioned repeatedly by scientists and the press in the following months, supporting the idea that the lab-leak theory had been successfully refuted.
A quick and subsequent change of heart for researchers, such as disclosure emails, witness interviews, and Slack exchanges, is now a source of suspicion for Republicans. “All of a sudden, you did a 180,” Representative Nicole Malliotakis of New York said yesterday morning. “What happened?”
Based on what is available, the answer seems clear: Andersen, Garry, and the others looked at the data, and decided that their fears about the lab explosion were unwarranted; The appearance of the virus was not as surprising as it was initially thought. The political debate surrounding this episode is not limited to the brief, however. Heard yesterday there was no preoccupation with trifles, to persevere The possibility that the coronavirus actually came out of the lab is different from the idea of a conspiracy – a cover-up – which, according to Republicans, involves Fauci and others in the US government shaking Andersen and Garry to abandon their scientific judgment and accept it. “Pro-China talking points” instead. (Fauci he refused that he tried to disprove the lab-leak theory.)
Allegations of this type of rash have only added a chapter to the question of how the epidemic began. For all its confusion, the House investigation still has a useful purpose: It sheds light on how the debate over the lab-leak theory went. very, very wrong, and become an eternal, stumbling thing. In this way, the hearing, and the story that describes the “Proximal Origin” paper – is not about where COVID came from, but where it came from.
From the beginning, the problem has been that “lab output” can mean many things. The term may refer to the release of bioapon-made materials, or an accident related to scientific research; it could include a virus that has had its genes inserted on purpose, or that has evolved rapidly in a cage or dish, or even a virus from the wild, brought into a lab and accidentally released (in unmodified form) in a city like Wuhan. . However, both groups were lumped together in the early days of the epidemic. The confusion became clear when Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a staunch China crab, released the proto-lab-leak theory on February 16, 2020. interview and Fox News. “The problem did not start at the meat market in Wuhan,” he told the network. Later he continued, “just a few kilometers from the food market is China’s only biosafety-level-4 laboratory that tests human infectious diseases. Now, we have no evidence that the disease came from there, but because of China’s negligence and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to ask this question.”
Cotton did not specifically say that China’s “high-tech laboratory” used the virus, nor did he say that the lab accident would have actually involved a genetically engineered virus, as opposed to one created or taken from a bat cave. However, The New York Times and The Washington Post He said that the senate repeated the “unusual opinion” about the ongoing coronavirus circular to the right at that time, that it was made and the Chinese government as a weapons of war. It was difficult for the press to think that Cotton would have said anything but this: The idea that Chinese scientists could be collecting wild viruses, and researching them to understand them, was not understandable during the chaotic, early period of the epidemic. . “Leak lab” is only understood to mean “a bug is a living weapon.”
Scientists knew better. On the same day as Cotton’s interview, one of Andersen and Garry’s colleagues posted a “Proximal Origin” paper online as unpublished manuscript. (“It’s important to get this out,” Garry he wrote in an email sent to the group the following morning. Also included a link to Washington Post Cotton’s story described above.) In the book, the researchers were very precise about what, exactly, they wanted to argue: The authors said, in fact, that their analysis showed that the virus did not happen. genetics. It may have been created through cell culture experiments in the lab, he wrote, although this was “doubtful.” And some of the lab releases — that a Wuhan researcher got the virus while collecting samples from a cave, or that someone else brought in a sample and accidentally released it — the paper didn’t do anything about it. “We didn’t anticipate any of these situations,” Andersen explained in a statement written evidence at this week’s hearing. If a researcher had been infected in the field, he continued, then it wouldn’t count as a “lab leak” to begin with — because that would mean the virus jumped to people somewhere other than the lab.
However, rather than resolving the issue, this careful tilt only created more confusion. In the early days of the epidemic, and in Cotton’s dealings with his opponents, overcrowding was seen as a major problem. On February 20, Nature decided to reject the manuscript, mainly because of its location very soft in his removal. A month later, their paper appeared Natural Medicine. At this critical moment in the debate on the origin of the epidemic, the original statement of the researchers, that SARS-CoV-2 was not deliberately collected – was expanded to include a blanket statement that could be read to mean that the lab release theory was. wrong in all its ways.
Over time, these angry words can cause problems of their own. At first, his dismissal of several different events supported a familiar narrative: We know that the virus was not created; ergo, it must have started in the market. More recently, the same confusion has fueled the interests of lab-leak theorists. Think about it report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at the beginning of the epidemic, which was known last month. American law enforcement agencies have confirmed that SARS-CoV-2 was not designed as a bioweapon, it explains, and are close to saying that it was not genetically engineered. (This confirms what Andersen and his colleagues said in the first volume of their paper, back in February 2020.) “Many” organizations, the report says, also judge that the virus was not created through molecular culture testing. However, the fact that two of the nine organizations however the belief that a “laboratory event” of any kind is the cause of the first human disease has been taken as an indication that. everything the lab-leak scenario is still on the table. So the Republicans in Congress can rail against Facebook by deleting the posts of the “lab-leak theory,” ignores the fact that the rules of the platform only prohibit one and much derided theory, that SARS-CoV-2 was “made by people.” (In any case, the ban was lifted three months later.)
Where does this leave us? The committee’s work does not reveal the origin of the cover-up from COVID. At the same time, it shows that the authors of “Proximal Origin” knew how their work could create public issues. (In a Slack discussion, one of them referred to the “disgusting spectacle that would ensue if anyone suggested that the Chinese were accidentally liberated.”) At first they tried to make their findings as clear as possible, and to separate the powerful. evidence against the genetics of the virus—is what Garry called “bio equipment exhibition”—from the constant possibility that laboratory science might have been involved in some way. However, in the final words of their paper, they added language that was not entirely accurate. This may have helped end the conflict in early 2020, but the fog it left behind was ugly and long-lasting.