Don’t Fall for These Lab-Leak Traps

Recent coverage of the pandemic’s origins has ensnared readers in semantic quibbles, side points, and distractions.

An illustration of a chemical beaker under a box trap
Getty; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

About the author: Daniel Engber is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

After months of getting very little coverage, the lab-leak theory for the origins of COVID-19—which holds that the virus emerged from a research setting—is now a source of endless chatter. Vanity Fair has a new, 12,000-word investigative feature on the subject, while lab-leak op-eds continue their exponential spread across the pages of The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

A careful look at all the ways that the pandemic might have started matters for the future: It should help us figure out the safest regulations, and the most important goals, for research on emerging pathogens. But the sudden rush of coverage hasn’t always made the lab-leak theory or its implications any easier to grasp. Much has done the opposite, in fact, ensnaring readers in semantic quibbles, side points, and distractions.

To focus better on what really matters, watch out for these traps:

The No-Evidence Trap

It would be confusing—merely confusing—if no one could agree on the strength of the evidence for a laboratory accident. But certain pundits have suggested that we’re still completely in the dark. Is there really any evidence at all, they ask, of anything?

“What’s missing from all this reexamination and soul-searching is a fundamental fact,” wrote Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times last week. “There is no evidence—not a smidgen—for the claim that COVID-19 originated in a laboratory.” The Columbia University microbiologist Vincent Racaniello said the same on his podcast, This Week in Virology: “It’s just crazy, because there’s no evidence for a lab leak; there’s plenty of evidence for the natural origin.” Others claim the exact opposite. There is “still zero evidence to support the theory that the virus emerged from nature,” Marc Thiessen announced in The Washington Post, and “mounting signs that it did not.”

This stance isn’t just confusing; it’s absurd: The “absence of evidence” here is not actually absence of evidence. Although more careful commentators have pointed to a lack of “direct evidence” in favor of either COVID-origins scenario, or of “hard,” “credible,” or “slam dunk” evidence, thick dossiers of indirect, soft, bank-shot evidence do exist on both sides, and merit close consideration.

Even circumstantial facts have value, after all. How many of us worried that the COVID-19 vaccine trials delivered “not a smidgen” of evidence, just because their conclusions—inferred from the fact that fewer people who received the shots got very sick—were indirect? Not to be a legal pedant, but even the “smoking gun” often said to be missing from the lab-leak debates would, if taken literally, count as circumstantial evidence.

A somewhat less tendentious claim, also a dime a dozen these past few weeks, holds that nothing more, or nothing new, has emerged about COVID-19’s origins since the start of the pandemic (and so any recent shift in attitude is probably unfounded). “The evidence hasn’t changed since spring of 2020,” Adam Rogers wrote in Wired. “Scientists don’t want to ignore the ‘lab leak’ theory, despite no new evidence,” read a headline in The New York Times. I made this point myself in The Atlantic, noting that “the lab-leak hypothesis is gaining currency even as the facts remain the same.” But this is false, and I was wrong—just another victim of the trap.

The evidence for a laboratory origin, like the evidence for a natural origin, may be circumstantial, and it may be weak in each specific. But it’s growing. The science journalist Rowan Jacobsen lays out the timeline in a recent piece for Newsweek. Last May, a resolute group of internet randos turned up new details about the mine in Mojiang where researchers from Wuhan had found the closest-known relative of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. In June, they showed that this virus had been looked at in recent years; in August, they found that more than half a dozen other viral relatives had been sampled from the same mine (but their details were never published); and last month, they showed that the Wuhan lab’s prior descriptions of what went down at that mine were misleading. We also saw new claims, earlier this year, that three workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been hospitalized for respiratory ailments in November 2019; then, just last week, Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban added that these workers had, in fact, been running experiments on coronavirus samples. Could all of this be bullshit? Sure—but at the very least, it’s bullshit freshly dropped into the pasture.

Keep in mind that circumstantial evidence for a natural origin has been growing too. A paper published just this week provided evidence that live wild mammals—and potential viral hosts—were sold by the thousands across Wuhan’s wet markets in the months leading up to the pandemic.

The mere existence of evidence for the lab-leak hypothesis, or of new evidence since last spring, is not up for debate. When the experts tell you otherwise, take it as hyperbole: This evidence is so lame, it might as well not exist. Then try to understand why they think it’s lame.

The Mad-Scientist Trap

The lab-leak theory isn’t singular; rather, it’s a catchall for a continuum of possible scenarios, ranging from the mundane to the diabolical. At one end, a researcher from the Wuhan Institute of Virology might have gone out to sample bat guano, become infected with a novel pathogen while in the field, and then seeded it back home in a crowded city. Or maybe researchers brought a specimen of a wild-bat virus back into the lab without becoming infected, only to set it free via someone’s clothes or through a leaky sewage pipe.

The microbiologists Michael Imperiale and David Relman, both former members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, told me several weeks ago that lab-leak scenarios of this rather more innocent variety—involving the collection and accidental release of a naturally occuring pathogen—were the most probable of all the non-natural possibilities. Yet the most prominent opinionating on this topic has clustered at the other end of the continuum, at first around the dark-side theory of a bioweapon gone awry, and then around the idea that a harmless virus had been deliberately transformed into SARS-CoV-2 (and released by accident) after a reckless series of tabletop experiments.

That’s another pitfall in this debate: a tendency to focus only on the most disturbing and improbable versions of the lab-leak hypothesis, and to downplay the rest. The mad-scientist trap sprays a mist across the facts by presuming scientific motivations; it posits that researchers could have caused the pandemic only if they’d been trying to create infectious pathogens.

Efforts to enhance a virus in a lab, usually described as “gain of function” studies, have engendered hyperbolic speculation. On May 11, Senator Rand Paul pressed Anthony Fauci on the creation of “man-made super-virus[es]” in Wuhan; the Fox News host Tucker Carlson has spent recent weeks harping on Fauci’s alleged support for “the grotesque and dangerous experiments that appear to have made COVID possible”; and The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin has dubbed the Italian American scientist and administrator the “godfather of gain-of-function research.”

The implied threat of this research hangs over all the most serious reporting too. Last week’s feature in Vanity Fair alleged, ominously, that the three Wuhan Institute of Virology staffers who are said to have fallen ill in November 2019 were “connected with gain-of-function research” in particular. The article also describes, at length, how some within the Trump administration came to believe last year that efforts to investigate the pandemic’s origins were being stymied by federal experts who “had either received or approved funding for gain-of-function research.” As one former State Department official told the magazine, “There is a huge gain-of-function bureaucracy” operating inside the government.

The problem is, depending on how one chooses to define gain-of-function research, it could well include most virological research, some forms of vaccine development, and a healthy portion of biology writ large. Anytime a scientist tries to probe or tweak the function of a gene, she could be working in this vein. In that sense, yes, the National Institutes of Health is a “huge gain-of-function bureaucracy.” So what?

One might assume that the single-minded fear of gain-of-function research is peculiar to conservatives—sitting, as it does, at the shadowy convergence of Big Government and Critical Frankenstein Studies. But the urge to blame scientific hubris for scientific problems, as opposed to farcical incompetence, seems to have long-standing, bipartisan support.

This trap was last sprung seven years ago. In March 2014, a CDC lab accidentally shipped the highly virulent H5N1 bird flu to a poultry lab at the Department of Agriculture. Then in June, another CDC lab sent off samples of the bacteria that cause anthrax without properly inactivating them—and 75 government employees were potentially exposed. A few weeks after that, scientists at NIH stumbled across six vials of smallpox in a forgotten cardboard box. Regulators had every reason to believe that accidental laboratory leaks of naturally occurring pathogens were more common (and more likely) than genetic-engineering studies gone awry. But when confronted with all this evidence that scientists were slipping on banana peels, the government looked at other risks instead: It announced a pause on gain-of-function research.

We’re in the process of defaulting to the same idea—that better biosafety might be achieved, and the next pandemic headed off, if we prevent or slow the development of genetically engineered bananas. That might only help ensure that no one thinks too hard about the odds of slapstick-fueled catastrophe. We may yet find, with more investigation, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and other places like it around the world, is positively strewn with banana peels. If that’s the case, our first and most important goal should be to clean them up. In the meantime, don’t be fooled by false antonyms. The opposite of nature isn’t hubris, and if SARS-CoV-2 turns out not to have a “natural” origin, that doesn’t have to mean someone made it in a lab.

The Culture-War Trap

Another befogging tendency shifts attention from the source of the pandemic, and how to prevent future outbreaks, to what we have or haven’t said about this topic in the past. “I don’t care, and I’ve never cared” whether the lab-leak hypothesis is true, Jonathan Chait wrote on May 26. Rather, he’s concerned about “the vulnerabilities in the mainstream- and liberal-media ecosystem” that were revealed by its dismissal. The physician Vinay Prasad made a similar argument about the standards for discourse within the research community. “Liberalism in science—the ability to hold and discuss a broad range of views—is a newborn bird,” he wrote last week on MedPage Today. “Lab leak is just a salient reminder of how vulnerable that bird is—and that’s the real lesson we need to learn.”

Watch out for this distracting shift in tense, from the questions that remain unanswered to the questions that were never asked. The latter has become another proxy for the solipsistic fight over “cancel culture,” with its fearful and familiar symmetry of grievances. In this toxic framing, everyone can be a brave purveyor of dangerous truths. The virologist and lab-leak skeptic Angela Rasmussen has been threatened with violence and sexual assault; the former CDC director and lab-leak believer Robert Redfield has received death threats from fellow scientists. Robert Garry says that he and other virus experts who believe in a natural origin for COVID-19 are like “that one man in 12 Angry Men”; David Relman says that scientists like him, who are worried about biosafety, need “a safe space” to express themselves.

We can stipulate that some or many scientists made knee-jerk assumptions about the pandemic’s origins, and that some or many journalists did the same. We can also stipulate that plausible theories were written off last year as claptrap. But recent reporting on the disease-origin investigations within the Trump administration shows that this reflex might have been adaptive. According to Eban’s article in Vanity Fair, a “small group” within the State Department who initially suspected a laboratory origin were warned off by other bureaucrats, and told not to open a “Pandora’s Box.” They continued anyway, operating on a quasi-freelance basis, again sifting through old intelligence reports. Anyone with a decent memory will hear echoes of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was also pursued by a small group within the government, outside normal channels.

Eban reports that on January 7, this team set up a three-hour meeting to present the strongest-possible case for the lab-leak theory, and then to probe it for holes. Among the experts they brought in that day was Steven Quay, a doctor and an entrepreneur who had self-published a book called Stay Safe: A Physician’s Guide to Survive Coronavirus. Among the recommendations given in that book: Brush your teeth regularly and wear a “salt-enhanced” mask. Quay wasn’t there to talk about oral hygiene or protective condiments, but to present the results of his Bayesian analysis of the pandemic’s origins, which landed on a 99.8 percent probability that the outbreak had begun in a laboratory. The problem was, Quay had never done this kind of analysis before. (There’s “a first time for everything,” he told the group.)

On Sunday, he doubled down with an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, which made no mention of the foregoing study but did assert, on highly suspect grounds, that the evidence for a lab leak is “firmly based in science,” and more compelling than the alternative. Other lab-leak experts are far more credible, and the State Department’s investigation may well have been onto something. But ample circumstantial evidence—already present in 2020, and no less pertinent today—suggests that the Trump administration was full of it, and the scientific-journalistic establishment was reasonable to doubt it.

Regardless, any vow of silence from the mainstream press or public figures, justified or not, has since been lifted. Liberal discourse around the lab-leak hypothesis has been restored, at least for now, so let’s stay focused on the task ahead, of putting off the next pandemic for as long as we can.