“SARS-2 was not designed as a biological weapon. But it was, I think, designed” – author Nicholson Baker. Report by Jonathan Matthews
TAKE ACTION: Please sign the Open Letter to the WHO COVID-19 International Investigation Team, which contains 50 important questions for the WHO team visiting Wuhan in January to seek answers to – none of these questions has been answered to date. The world needs a full and transparent investigation.
The Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis goes mainstream is the headline of an article about New York magazine’s latest cover story, a deep dive into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 by the respected American novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker.
Baker's The lab-leak hypothesis makes for a long but compelling read that is well worth staying with right to the end. The award-winning science writer Rowan Jacobsen, whose own impressive piece covered similar territory for the Boston Review, calls Baker’s article game-changing and “essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why lab-leak has become the leading hypothesis – and why labs are such a biosecurity concern”.
Nicholson Baker details the global history of gain-of-function research with coronaviruses, which may have led to the current pandemic. He notes how we were warned repeatedly about the recklessness of intentionally creating “new microbes that combine virulence with heightened transmissibility” and points to Lynn Klotz’s warning in 2012 that there was an 80% chance of a lab leak of a potential pandemic pathogen in the next twelve years. Klotz also warned that it was SARS that “now presents the greatest risk” and that the worry was less the recurrence of a natural SARS outbreak than “yet another escape from a lab” where they were researching SARS coronaviruses in the hope of protecting us against a natural outbreak.
There are starring roles in the article for key coronavirus researchers, like Ralph Baric and Shi Zhengli (Wuhan’s “Bat Woman”), as well as Peter Daszak, who, as well as funding the risky coronavirus work in Wuhan, played a leading role in orchestrating the campaign to brand any suggestions SARS-COV-2 might have emerged from a lab “conspiracy theories”. He has also called such theories “preposterous”, “baseless”, “crackpot” and “pure baloney”. Worryingly, Daszak is now a key player in both the main investigations into the origins of the virus, even though he is regarded by many as one of the most conflicted, biased and unreliable voices on this issue.
Knowing just how controversial the issue is, New York magazine sensibly published a separate piece explaining the care that had gone into producing their cover story. Nicholson Baker, they reported, “became curious about the origins of the pandemic last year and began doing research and conducting interviews, before putting it aside because it was ‘too fraught, too politically charged, too complicated’.” But after the magazine encouraged him to write an article about it, he then spent about three months working on the story, drawing on interviews with 25 different experts, and surveying the entire history of gain-of-function research. The magazine’s fact-checking team then spent a month vetting the story, on top of which, “Baker and the magazine shared drafts of the essay with multiple scientists, including two molecular biologists who believe that SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonotic virus, who all provided critical feedback to help ensure the accuracy of the work.”
The scientists Nicholson interviewed include some that have long been outspoken, like Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, who, as Nicholson Baker notes, has been concerned for years about the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the “work there to create ‘chimeric’ SARS-related bat coronaviruses ‘with enhanced human infectivity.’” “In this context,” says Ebright, “the news of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan ***screamed*** lab release.”
Interestingly though, Nicholson Baker heard something very similar from another notably knowledgeable scientist in the field who previously had not spoken publicly about the issue. Jonathan A. King, a molecular biologist from MIT, told Baker he “absolutely” thought of a lab accident when he first heard about the novel coronavirus. And King said that other scientists he knew were also concerned about that possibility as well. But there are “very intense, very subtle pressures” on scientists not to speak out about the issues of laboratory biohazards, even though King believes the collecting of new bat viruses and the gain-of-function research being done on them is generating “new threats and desperately needs to be reined in”.
But this hasn’t been enough to entice the majority of scientists to speak out. The writer on genetics Razib Khan in a blog about Baker’s article says that “scientists are on the whole institutionalists who aren’t going to take [political and professional] risks (with a few exceptions)”. This is particularly the case, he says, with high profile scientists because you typically get to be high profile “by not rocking the boat outside of your narrow field”.
Khan said this led to a situation where Spanish television “reached out to me for comment because so many scientists who off the record would credit the idea of lab escape wouldn’t go on the record. The journalist told me he was quite depressed by the difference in how scientists would talk off-camera and what they were willing to say on the record. It basically made him not trust science at all.” The well-known British journalist Ian Birrell tweeted that Khan’s damning comment “underscores what I have seen and heard investigating these issues over recent months: scientists reluctant to voice fears of a lab leak on the record for fear of criticism from fellow scientists or upsetting China”.
What has made the possibility of a lab origin even more taboo, according to Nicholson Baker, is the Trump factor. Trump and his secretary of state Mike Pompeo waded into the issue claiming to have seen evidence the virus came out of a Chinese lab, but then failed to produce any. This, in the words of science journalist Mara Hvistendahl, “made the notion politically toxic, even among scientists who say it could have happened”. Whatever Trump and Pompeo were saying had to be wrong, Nicholson Baker writes, so admitting that the virus could have come from a lab became politically impermissible.
Although Baker doesn’t say so, Trump’s election defeat has clearly reduced some of the wariness about adding fuel to his “China virus” narrative, and has almost certainly contributed to the spate of post-election articles that have looked at the whole origins narrative more critically. But those who have driven the campaign to suppress any suggestion SARS-COV-2 might have emerged from a lab are still trying to extract the maximum benefit from the anti-Trump factor.
Thus Nicholson Baker’s article was immediately condemned in partisan terms. “I'm sure Mike Pompeo is jumping for joy over this @NYMag article, speculating that SARSCoV2 is a Chinese lab accident,” tweeted Laurie Garrett, author of the book The Coming Plague and a staunch defender of Peter Daszak and the work of his EcoHealth Alliance – to the extent of recommending them as the primary sources on the origins of COVID19.
Garrett also complained that the article “doesn't mention Steve Bannon financing one of the Chinese scientists who claims ‘proof’ that China ‘made’ the virus”. Garrett failed to point out that neither the scientist nor her ideas are cited anywhere in Baker’s article. The only logic to Garrett’s criticism is a desire to re-toxify the issue. Baker’s article, incidentally, emphasises that the responsibility for what has gone wrong is international – it was the US, after all, that funded much of the questionable research, rather than it just being China’s fault.
Nicholson Baker also points out that a lab accident is apolitical. Proposing that something unfortunate like “a dropped flask, a needle prick, a mouse bite, an illegibly labeled bottle”, for instance, happened during a scientific experiment in Wuhan “isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s just a theory. It merits attention.” But politicising it is a very effective way of keeping it under-examined.
Those who have embraced the taboo on the lab-leak hypothesis seem particularly affronted by Baker’s article making the cover of a mainstream publication. In their efforts to dismiss it, they seized in particular on a Baker quote that the magazine highlighted in promoting its cover story: “This patchwork pathogen, which allegedly has evolved without human meddling, first came to notice in the only city in the world with a laboratory that was paid for years by the US government to perform experiments on certain obscure and heretofore unpublicized strains of bat viruses — which bat viruses then turned out to be, out of all the organisms on the planet, the ones that are most closely related to the disease. What are the odds?”
The science journalist Maggie Kearth scornfully tweeted, “Cannot stop thinking about how researchers put a zoonotic disease laboratory in a place where a lot of zoonotic disease crossovers were happening and now conspiracists are like ‘what are the chances a zoonotic disease could have come from a place right near this lab??’” She added, “This is like looking at a car crash and deciding it was caused by the traffic camera that was installed at a high risk intersection.”
A couple of thousand people liked those tweets and she received multiple congratulatory comments in response. But what Kearth’s scathing comments exposed was that she and her many admirers hadn’t bothered to read the article she was mocking. In it, Nicholson Baker pointed out that the strains of bat virus in question were in Yunnan province in southern China, about 1,000 miles away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology – “as far away as Orlando, Florida, is from New York City”. This led Richard Ebright to tell Kearth it was “dismaying that a putative science journalist cannot read a map”.
And it is because Wuhan is so very far from this potential zoonosis spillover hotspot that the WIV’s Shi Zhengli herself has said how astonished she was to hear the outbreak was happening there: “I had never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan, in central China.”
It was this startling development, Shi Zhengli said, that made her wonder whether the virus could have come from her own laboratory, leading Nicholson Baker to comment, “If one of the first thoughts that goes through the head of a lab director at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is that the new coronavirus could have come from her lab, then we are obliged to entertain the scientific possibility that it could indeed have come from her lab. Right then, there should have been a comprehensive, pockets-inside-out, fully public investigation of the Virology Institute, along with the other important virus labs in Wuhan, including the one close by the seafood market, headquarters of the Wuhan CDC. There should have been interviews with scientists, interviews with biosafety teams, close parsings of laboratory notebooks, freezer and plumbing and decontamination systems checks — everything. It didn’t happen. The Wuhan Institute of Virology closed down its databases of viral genomes, and the Chinese Ministry of Education sent out a directive: ‘Any paper that traces the origin of the virus must be strictly and tightly managed.’”
And judging by some of the ferocious ad hominem attacks on Baker and some of the experts he drew on in his article, there are plenty who share the Chinese Communist Party’s thirst for strict management. The most vitriolic onslaught came from another would-be Daszak chum, Angela Rasmussen, an associate research scientist at Columbia University where her boss is one of the top proponents of the “natural origin” of the virus.
Rasmussen’s ugly tweets accused Baker, amongst much else, of “sinophobic jeering” and amplifying “conspiracy theories”. She also called an influential article by Yuri Deigin about the possible lab origins of the virus, which Baker had cited, a “Turner Diary-esque manifesto”.
For anyone not up on white supremacist literature, The Turner Diaries is a book by a leading neo-Nazi that has been described as “lurid, violent, apocalyptic, misogynistic, racist and anti-Semitic”. It’s also thought to have inspired far-right extremists like Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the Oklahoma bombing that killed 168 people. A more absurd description of Deigin’s long and technical article, which led on to a notable co-authored paper in a peer-reviewed journal, is difficult to imagine. An understandably outraged Deigin has complained to Columbia about Rasmussen’s defamatory attack.
Rasmussen also complained that Baker “heavily criticizes” Peter Daszak’s “long-disclosed COI [conflicts of interest]”.
Long disclosed? This is the same Peter Daszak who signed and edited a letter to the Lancet, dismissing lab origin hypotheses as “conspiracy theories”, in which he declared “no competing interests”. That was in January 2020. Three months later, talking about the same issue, Daszak told the Washington Post, “I have no conflicts of interest”, prompting Richard Ebright to tweet, “It would be hard to imagine a more brazen lie.”
But amidst all her ludicrous claims, Rasmussen’s biggest gripe about Baker’s article seemed to be that “Mr. Baker has no background in science, he has a BA in English”. Other hostile scientists and science journalists also mocked Baker for being a novelist and having an English degree, and it was even suggested he should have had scientists as co-authors.
Yet the article makes no claims to being a scientific paper – there are four such peer-reviewed papers about possible lab origins already published in established journals, if that’s what people are looking for, and Nicholson Baker talked to several of their authors in the course of his research. But that’s hardly what people go to New York magazine to read.
More importantly, you don’t have to have a science degree to communicate effectively about scientific issues. Bill Bryson, for instance, has carried off numerous awards for science communication despite having a politics degree and being best known for travel books. The Guardian’s former science editor Tim Radford didn’t have a degree of any kind and was the paper’s arts editor and then its literary editor before winning several awards for his science writing. And the popular science writer Carl Zimmer, like Baker, has an English major.
Coming from outside the fold may even be an advantage when reporting certain issues, if it reduces the tendency to groupthink and the deference to authority that leads to some science correspondents being regarded as “lapdog journalists”. Intelligent interest, a probing mind and investigative flair seem far more important qualifications than being an insider with a BSc. And Baker certainly has those qualifications in spades. He says he’s always been interested in the history of science, with a particular interest in scientific research that poses hazards. His most recent non-fiction book is Baseless, in which he documents and reflects on the US government's secret biological and chemical warfare programmes, including insane and dangerous experiments on its own citizens, as revealed in material he obtained over many years via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
His latest book should be read by anyone who is concerned by the current pandemic, as a lesson in the extent to which governments and scientists do not always act in our best interests. In this context, it’s also worth noting that some of those who have been most vociferous in their condemnation of the lab leak theory have been the recipients of generous grants from military sources.
Nicholson Baker says that he himself has come to believe that “SARS-2 was not designed as a biological weapon. But it was, I think, designed”. Even so he makes clear at the start of his New York article that, “there is no direct evidence for an experimental mishap — no written confession, no incriminating notebook, no official accident report”, just as there is no direct evidence that the virus crossed over into humans completely naturally.
There is though enough concerning circumstantial evidence for him to say: “We need to hear from the people who for years have contended that certain types of virus experimentation might lead to a disastrous pandemic like this one. And we need to stop hunting for new exotic diseases in the wild, shipping them back to laboratories, and hot-wiring their genomes to prove how dangerous to human life they might become.”
There are clearly powerful forces determined to keep such viewpoints outside the mainstream but New York magazine’s just-published cover story has made their job a lot more difficult.