In August 2012 an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “The unacceptable risks of a man-made pandemic”, assessed the probability of a dangerous virus escaping from a laboratory as being around 80 per cent over a period of 12. 8 years. In May 2021 an article in the same journal, “The origin of Covid: did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?”, suggested that the virus could have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after being altered by “gain-of-function” experiments that increased its virulence and transmissibility. In that event, a virologist working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris was quoted as saying, “Nobody could predict the trajectory.”
The Bulletin was founded in 1945 by scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and were concerned with existential threats to humanity posed by the atomic weapons they had created. In more recent times the widely respected journal has addressed other such risks, and there can be little doubt that if the Covid pandemic originated in a lab leak it is a man-made calamity larger than any other in history. A comparison with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster gives a sense of the scale of what is unfolding.
There is no agreed assessment of the human cost of Chernobyl, with estimates ranging from a few dozen deaths during or soon after the meltdown to more than a million lives being shortened or damaged by the longer-term effects of radiation since then and in coming years. In contrast, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported in late May of this year that Covid had already killed as many as 3.5 million people. Millions more will die from unrelated medical conditions that have gone untreated. Billions have endured damage to livelihood, disruption of schooling and harm to mental health. Uncountable human lives will be harder and shorter.
If this mounting cataclysm can be shown to be a consequence of lax bio-security around dangerous experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the impact will be profound. Suspicion of China will increase and geopolitical tensions worsen. Global markets could go into a tailspin. Public trust in science – our best hope of dealing with the pandemic through the creation of vaccines and other measures – could be undermined. The world will face another historic turning point, as far-reaching as that it confronted when the pandemic first surfaced in the early months of last year.
The belief that the pandemic may have been caused by the accidental release of a humanly engineered virus is now widely accepted as credible. According to some reports, Anthony Fauci – the chief medical adviser to President Biden – was alerted to the possibility of a leak in early 2020. Until recently he had described the theory as highly unlikely, but now professes to have an open mind. Facebook, which had censored any reference to the possibility of a lab leak as fake news, now treats the subject as open to discussion. Even the WHO, having found a lab leak “extremely unlikely” after conducting an inquiry that was reportedly heavily supervised by the Chinese authorities, seems to be having doubts.
Things were quite different only a few months ago. Despite many signs of a cover-up – including the apparent removal from the internet of relevant papers by Chinese scientists, and the disappearance of citizen journalists – anyone who questioned the official Chinese narrative could expect to be branded a racist crank or a conspiracist.
There was also resistance in the West, with prominent medical journals denouncing theories suggesting that Covid-19 might not have had a natural origin. Partly this may have been because some of the funding for the Wuhan Institute came from an American non-profit organisation that distributed research grants from branches of the federal government. If there was a lab leak, the West was implicated.
The dominant theory was that the pandemic was zoonotic in origin – in other words, it occurred as a result of animal-to-human transmission of the virus and then spread among humans. Since there is a scientific consensus linking an increasing risk of pandemic with the destruction of animal habitats, the theory was reasonable. I have invoked it myself in this magazine.
But is this pandemic zoonotic? The bat caves where the closest related viruses to Sars-CoV-2 have been found are more than a thousand kilometres away from the Wuhan wet market where the virus was supposedly passed on to humans. The Wuhan Institute, on the other hand, is known to contain large collections of bat viruses and to have been the site of gain-of-function experiments. (It is worth stressing that these experiments can be undertaken for a variety of reasons, including improving our ability to deal with zoonotic pandemics. No evidence has been produced showing they were part of a bio-warfare programme.)
By themselves, of course, these facts prove nothing. It may be coincidence that the outbreak emerged in a city containing the country’s leading coronavirus research centre. Reports that workers at the Wuhan Institute needed hospital care in late 2019 may reflect nothing more sinister than seasonal illness. The virus may have been imported into the country in frozen food or by visiting sports teams, as some Chinese sources have claimed, or emerged in some other, as yet unknown way. But if there are many potential explanations of the pandemic, why have the Chinese authorities resisted a transparent inquiry? Why was the possibility of a laboratory accident brushed aside in the West?
To begin with, a lab leak shatters the official narrative in which China’s handling of the pandemic demonstrated the superiority of its mode of governance. The US and the UK, New Zealand and Taiwan have handled the pandemic as well as or better than China – and without resorting to measures such as welding up the doors of apartment blocks, as appeared to be shown in clips on Chinese social media from Wuhan in early 2020. On the limited data we possess, Western vaccines appear to be more effective than those developed in China. If, in addition, it becomes clear that the pandemic originated in failures of the Chinese state, the damage to its model of government will be irreparable.
Lockdown: a guard stands outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a WHO team visit, February 2021. Credit: Thomas Peter / reuters
At the same time, the West would be faced with the uncomfortable fact that Xi Jinping’s China is a totalitarian regime. Secrecy and cover-ups are normal in such systems. Only in 1990 did the Soviet state formally accept responsibility for the Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in 1940, carried out by operatives from its security services, under orders from Stalin issued in March of that year. By the time of the admission, the Soviet regime was on the brink of collapse.
The opposite is the case in China, where Xi continues to extend the state’s powers of surveillance and control from a position of strength. The systematic destruction of freedom in Hong Kong, along with a near-genocidal assault on the Uighurs and other minority peoples, has jolted Western perceptions of what was seen as a state gradually evolving towards liberal norms. Yet that it has mutated into a new kind of totalitarianism has not been fully accepted, and the implications for the West have been evaded.
Here an important contrast needs to be noted. Despite loose talk about another cold war, China’s challenge to the West is much different from that posed by the former Soviet Union, and arguably much greater. The USSR had very little involvement in Western economies. China, on the other hand, is integral to their continued functioning. Any major disruption in the country would produce an upheaval in Western capitalism. Some argue that the West should decouple economically from China. Certainly, Chinese involvement in sensitive areas such as nuclear power should be terminated.
But there are big risks in breaking off economic relations, assuming it is any longer possible. Xi’s tilt to Han nationalism would likely be exacerbated. If Taiwan was forcibly absorbed, the West would struggle with acute shortages of the semiconductors on which it depends. The global market would be broken.
These are frightening prospects, and for all the calls for a thorough investigation into the origins of Covid it may well be that Western governments would prefer that no direct responsibility for the pandemic be assigned to the Chinese state. Xi also seems concerned to avoid escalating conflict, instructing senior Communist Party officials in early June to project an image of a “credible, lovable and respectable” China, according to the state-run news agency Xinhua.
But it may not be such decisions that shape the next stage of the political upheaval surrounding the pandemic. As some scientists have pointed out, a natural pathogen would normally be expected to become more infectious but less lethal as it mutated and evolved. If variants emerge that are more transmissible and more life-threatening, the capacity of people and governments to think and act rationally will be tested.
The success in dealing with the virus that has been achieved so far has come from science. Without effective vaccines, the human cost of the pandemic would be vastly greater. “The science” has not always been reliable. Expert guidance at the start of the pandemic was that the virus was not airborne and masks were unnecessary. In many countries border controls were condemned as useless. Experience has shown these were mistakes, and the advice has been changed. That doesn’t mean science can’t be trusted. What it shows is that science – unlike most human institutions – has the capacity to correct its mistakes.
There is also a risk to science if a lab leak is accepted as the likeliest explanation of the pandemic. Anti-vax movements could morph into anti-science movements. It would be a pity if the only area of human practice that has demonstrated consistent progress was damaged by a slip in security procedures.
There are dangers in our reliance on science, however. The illusion persists that it offers a settled picture of the world. But science is not a world-view. It is a method, which regularly changes our picture of the world as theories are tested and falsified. This is the central insight of Karl Popper’s philosophy, and many have invoked his brand of rationalism as the right approach to dealing with the pandemic.
The trouble is that not all theories are falsifiable. At a practical level, the lab-leak theory cannot be tested if physical evidence has been destroyed and witnesses killed. More fundamentally, there are always many possible theories yet to be formulated or falsified. Even when all available hypotheses have been tested, an ineradicable uncertainty remains. Popper’s belief that his theory of falsifiability dissolved the problem of induction – the ancient question of how we get from past observations to knowledge of the future – was groundless. There are limits to our knowledge that science cannot overcome.
A later generation of rationalists insists we can enhance the quality of our thinking if we avoid identifying ourselves with the theories we hold at any one time. Being reasonable involves cultivating a degree of detachment from our beliefs. This may be wise advice, but the human mind is not good at tolerating uncertainty. Almost always, it shrinks from confronting problems for which there is no ready solution.
Take the idea that the remedy for catastrophic lab leaks is to impose stricter controls on gain-of-function experiments. It is a sensible proposal – except it assumes a workable system of international cooperation. A semi-anarchic system containing Xi’s China, Kim Jong-un’s North Korea and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not one in which regulations on high-risk scientific experiments can be reliably enforced. If, as now seems a feasible view, Covid-19 began as a by-product of such research, we must accept and deal with the reality that the planet is an extremely unsafe place.
When the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945, the central problem was how to live with the dangerous fruits of human knowledge. Many believed we could not manage the task, and expected imminent catastrophe. They were wrong. We kept our nerve, and civilisation survived. The world has changed irrevocably since the virus appeared, but we will muddle through again.
This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?