On the lab-leak hypothesis

One problem with the debate over the novel coronavirus’s “lab leak” origin hypothesis is a problem I’m starting to see in quite a few other areas of pandemic-related analysis and discussion. It’s that no one will say why others are wrong, even as they insist others are, and go on about why they are right.

Shortly after I read Nicholas Wade’s 10,000-word article on Medium, I pitched a summary to a medical researcher, whose first, and for a long time only, response was one word: “rubbish”. Much later, he told me about how the virus could have evolved and spread naturally. Even if I couldn’t be sure if he was right, having no way to verify the information except to bounce it off a bunch of other experts, I was sure he thought he was right. But how was Wade wrong? I suspect for many people the communication failures surrounding this (or a similar) question may be a sticking point.

(‘Wade’, after the first mention, is shorthand for an author of a detailed, non-trivial article that considers the lab-leak hypothesis, irrespective of what conclusion it reaches. I’m cursorily aware of Wade’s support for ‘scientific racism’, and by using his name, I don’t condone any of his views on these and other matters. Other articles to read on the lab-leak topic include Nicholson Baker’s in Intelligencer and Katherine Eban’s in Vanity Fair.)

We don’t know how the novel coronavirus originated, nor are we able to find out easily. There are apparently two possibilities: zoonotic spillover and lab-leak (both hypotheses even though the qualification has been more prominently attached to the latter).

Quoting two researchers writing in The Conversation:

In March 2020, another article published in Nature Medicine provided a series of scientific arguments in favour of a natural origin. The authors argued: The natural hypothesis is plausible, as it is the usual mechanism of emergence of coronaviruses; the sequence of SARS-CoV-2 is too distantly related from other known coronaviruses to envisage the manufacture of a new virus from available sequences; and its sequence does not show evidence of genetic manipulation in the laboratory.

Proponents of the lab-leak hypothesis (minus the outright-conspiratorial) – rather more broadly the opponents of the ‘zoonotic-spillover’-evangelism – have argued that lab leaks are more common than we think, the novel coronavirus has some features that suggest the presence of a human hand, and a glut of extra-scientific events that point towards suspicious research and communication by members of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

However, too many counterarguments to Wade’s and others’ articles along similar lines have been to brush the allegations aside, as if they were so easily dismissed – like my interlocutor’s “rubbish”. And it’s an infuriating response. To me at least (as someone who’s been at the receiving end of many such replies), it smacks of an attitude that seems to say (a) “you’re foolish to take this stuff seriously,” (b) “you’re being a bad journalist,” (c) “I doubt you’ll understand the answer,” and (d) “I think you should just trust me”.

I try not to generalise (c) and (d) to maintain my editorial equipoise, so to speak – but it’s been hard. There’s too much of too many scientists going around insisting we should simply listen to them, while making no efforts to ensure non-experts can understand what they’re saying, much less admitting the possibility that they’re kidding themselves (although I do think “science is self-correcting” is a false adage). In fact, proponents of the zoonotic-spillover hypothesis and others like to claim that their idea is more likely, but this is often a crude display of scientism: “it’s more scientific, therefore it must be true”. The arguments in favour of this hypothesis are also being increasingly underrepresented outside the scientific literature, which isn’t a trivial consideration because the disparity could exacerbate the patronising tone of (c) and (d), and render scientists less trustworthy.

Science communication and/or journalism are conspicuous by absence here, but I also think the problem with the scientists’ attitude is broader than that. Short of engaging directly in the activities of groups like DRASTIC, journalists take a hit when scientists behave like pedagogic communication is a waste of time. More scientists should make more of an effort to articulate themselves better. It isn’t wise to dismiss something that so many take seriously – although this is also a slippery slope: apply it as a general rule, and soon you may find yourself having to debunk in great detail a dozen ridiculous claims a day. Perhaps we can make an exception for the zoonotic-spillover v. lab-leak hypotheses contest? Or is there a better heuristic? I certainly think there should be one instead of having none at all.

Proving the absence is harder than proving the presence of something, and that’s why everyone might be talking about why they’re right. However, in the process, many of these people seem to forget that what they haven’t denied is still firmly in the realm of the possible. Actually, they don’t just forget it but entirely shut down the idea. This is why I agree with Dr Vinay Prasad’s words in MedPage Today:

If it escaped due to a wet market, I would strongly suggest we clean up wet markets and improve safety in BSL laboratories because a future virus could come from either. And, if it was a lab leak, I would strongly suggest we clean up wet markets and improve safety in BSL 3 and 4 … you get the idea. Both vulnerabilities must be fixed, no matter which was the culprit in this case, because either could be the culprit next time.

His words provide an important counterweight of sorts to a tendency from the zoonotic-spillover quarter to treat articles about the lab-leak possibility as a monolithic allegation instead of as a collection of independent allegations that aren’t equally unlikely. For example, the Vanity Fair, Newsweek and Wade’s articles have all also called into question safety levels at BSL 3 and 4 labs, whether their pathogen-handling protocols sufficiently justify the sort of research we think is okay to conduct, and allegations that various parties have sought to suppress information about the activities at such facilities housed in the Wuhan Institute.

I don’t buy the lab-leak hypothesis and I don’t buy the zoonotic-spillover hypothesis; in fact, I don’t personally care for the answer because I have other things to worry about, but I do buy that the “scientific illiberalism” that Dr Prasad talks about is real. And it’s tied to other issues doing the rounds now as well. For example, Newsweek‘s profile of DRASTIC’s work has been a hit in India thanks to the work of ‘The Seeker’, the pseudonym for a person in their 20s living in “Eastern India”, who uncovered some key documents that cast suspicion on Wuhan Institute’s Shi Zhengli’s claims vis-à-vis SARS-CoV-2. And two common responses to the profile (on Twitter) have been:

  1. “In 2020, when people told me about the lab-leak hypothesis, I dismissed them and argued that they shouldn’t take WhatsApp forwards seriously.”
  2. “Journalism is redundant.”

(1) is said as if it’s no longer true – but it is. The difference between the WhatsApp forwards of February-April 2020 and the articles and papers of 2021 is the body of evidence each set of claims was based on. Luc Montagnier was wrong when he spoke against the zoonotic-spillover hypothesis last year simply because his reasoning was wrong. The reasons and the evidence matter; otherwise, you’re no better than a broken clock. Facile WhatsApp forwards and right-wingers’ ramblings continue to deserve to be treated with extreme scepticism.

Just because a conspiracy theory is later proven to have merit doesn’t make it not a conspiracy theory; their defining trait is belief in the absence of evidence. The most useful response, here, is not to get sucked into the right-wing fever swamps, but to isolate legitimate questions, and try and report out the answers.

Columbia Journalism Review, April 15, 2020

The second point is obviously harder to fight back, considering it doesn’t stake a new position as much as reinforces one that certain groups of people have harboured for many years now. It’s one star aligning out of many, so its falling out of place won’t change believers’ minds, and because the believers’ minds will be unchanged, it will promptly fall back in place. This said, apart from the numerous other considerations, I’ll say investigations aren’t the preserve of journalists, and one story that was investigated to a greater extent by non-journalists – especially towards a conclusion that you probably wish to be true – has little necessarily to do with journalism.

In addition, the picture is complicated by the fact that when people find that they’re wrong, they almost never admit it – especially if other valuable things, like their academic or political careers, are tied up with their reputation. On occasion, some turn to increasingly more technical arguments, or close ranks and advertise a false ‘scientific consensus’ (insofar as such consensus can exist as the result of any exercise less laborious than the one vis-à-vis anthropogenic global warming), or both. ‘Isolating the legitimate questions’ here apart – from both sides, mind you – needs painstaking work that only journalists can and will do.

Featured image credit: Ethan Medrano/Pexels.