COVID Lab Leak Theory: Everyone Has an Opinion.
If you only paid attention to the news, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the consensus is shifting on whether SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. The discussion of “laboratory leak theory”, as it is called, is everywhere: it is on the letters page from the prestigious scientific journal Science. It’s in long pieces of former New York Times reporters on smaller electrical outlets, but it is also apparently all Major paper. It’s slate. It’s even on President Biden’s agenda– Wednesday, he called on the intelligence community to investigate whether this could be true.
But we’re not talking about the lab leak theory now, because there is direct evidence for it, or even a lot of evidence for it. We are talking about it because there is an ongoing scientific investigation into how the pandemic started, and because a number of journalists are following these investigative leads or seeing them as a corrective to past prejudices. Simply: there is a very small possibility that the virus came from a lab, a possibility that some scientists (and now a lot of other people) want to explore further. A recent New York Times headline might sum it up best: “Scientists don’t want to ignore ‘lab leak’ theory, despite no new evidence. Or, like Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said friday: “Over the past few days we have seen more and more talk in the media, with woefully little news, evidence or new material, and it is worrying.” Or as Washington Post foreign affairs correspondent Emily Rauhala tweeted:
What is the cover wave possesses fact is to expand the sphere of people weighing. Political analyst Nate Silver suggested that many smart people believe the lab leak theory have at least 50% chance, and asked people to respond with their own guesses. Because we are talking about two possibilities, and much attention has recently been paid to one of them, it may be tempting to suspect that they are equally likely, or at least the escape option of laboratory is gaining some kind of significant ground. in terms of evidence. But it’s not. Florian Krammer, virologist at Mount Sinai, replied to Silver, the laboratory leak is “not impossible, but less than 1%”, adding that he put the odds “below that for an artificial virus”. The Dear Pandemic Facebook page, run by a team of experts, offers a simple explanation as to why this probability is so low – basically viruses pass from animals to humans all the time, and therefore the idea that it leaked from a lab is an “extraordinary” claim, which, although possible, requires “extraordinary evidence” to judge probable.
However, this extraordinary peculiarity does not mean that the possibility should not be considered. (Which it is!) But it’s worth noting that even scientists drawing attention to the lab leak theory – which suggest the odds here might be a bit higher – say it’s only ‘a possibility. “I want to be very clear that I still think wildlife trade is a plausible scenario,” Alina Chen, one of the theory’s main proponents, told What Next in April. For a time, Chen was an early proponent of the theory, but earlier this month, 18 scientists published a letter in Science claiming that it needed to be looked at further: “We need to take them seriously. hypotheses on natural and laboratory fallout. until we have enough data, ” they wrote. As David Relman, a microbiologist who signed the letter, told Amy Maxmen in Nature, “I’m not saying I believe the virus came from a lab.” Another author of the letter, virologist Jesse Bloom, told the Times: “In the case of the origins of SARS-CoV-2, I’m still not sure what happened.” He added that he was concerned that if he didn’t say anything, the consensus would come closer to the virus from animals, although there is also no more definitive evidence on how this happened. .
In the absence of new information, the public must be vigilant as to what the various arguments regarding the laboratory leak hypothesis are attempting to achieve. Are they pushing for a specific investigation? Do they claim that before not devoting more time and energy to this external possibility was irresponsible? (It’s frankly hard to see how, in a climate where the president referred to the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu”, caution was in order. A year ago, who were against the idea that the virus come from a lab? It feels, to some extent, that we are all, at best, sitting in wonder that a leak might be possible and, at worst, screaming and saying that someone ‘one should have done more about this earlier, but was unsuccessful.
The simple fact is, the facts haven’t really changed. What has changed is that there was a WHO investigation, which some scientists believe is insufficient. What has also changed is that we are in a slightly safer environment to ask questions about what remains of the random explanation for the origin of the virus. And – as the pandemic slows in the United States – scientists are better placed think about the implications of one or the other explanation, even if we never find out what really happened. That is, the laboratory leak hypothesis did not suddenly become more likely. But it’s in vogue.
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