Evidence waning for the Wuhan lab-leak theory for the origin of the pandemic

August 28, 2021 • 12:45 pm

In the past month, two papers have appeared, one in Science and one in Cell, addressing the issue of whether the Covid-19 infection began in a wet markets in Wuhan as a zoonotic infection, or, alternatively, as an escaped virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).  While we’ll never know for sure where the virus came from, the wet-market origin is looking increasingly likely.

Why is this important? Well, as the article below in the LA Times notes (click on screenshot, and if you hit a paywall, it’s republished for free on yahoo! finance), the precautions we’d take depend on the pandemic’s origin. If it came from a wet market, we’d want to take a close look at these markets, and possibly close them. (I think they should be closed anyway, for, as I’ve seen, the animals for sale are kept under horrible conditions.) If it escaped from the WIV, on the other hand, we’d want to institute more stringent regulations in lab.

Click below or on the link above.

Now the column is written by Michale Hiltzik, a business writer for the Times, so you might want to take that into account. Still, he reprises the evidence in the two papers (both in top-tier journals) that makes a lab origin look pretty unlikely.  In fact, he claims there’s no good evidence for the lab-leak theory, which is a lesson emphasized in those two papers. A quote from the LA Times article:

It would be inaccurate to say that evidence for the lab leak theory is fading. That’s because there never was any evidence for the theory, just conjecture.

Virtually from the outset, the lab leak theory was driven by ideology, not science. It employed the vocabulary of science, but that’s a familiar technique for bamboozling a susceptible public.

“The only evidence for a lab leak, period, is just that the virus emerged in Wuhan, where the Wuhan Institute of Virology is,” Rasmussen told me. “That’s it. Since day one, that has been the only piece of evidence.”

The assertions supporting the lab leak theory are not only conjectures, but in many cases provably wrong conjectures. They’re often based on misinformation, scientific ignorance, or even bad translations from Chinese documents.

Proponents have made much of the fact that the Virology Institute is only about 300 yards from the animal market that appeared to be the source of the first infections, for instance.

But that’s wrong. The facility 300 yards away is the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, which doesn’t conduct research on raw viruses; the Virology Institute is about 7.5 miles from the market and on the far side of the Yangtze River.

Attributing the disease outbreak to the lab would be akin to stating that a disease outbreak in Santa Monica had to have originated in a lab at UCLA about seven miles away.

The WIV-origin theory was also supported by a mistranslation: when Texas congressional representative Michael McCaul claimed that the WIV put out a $606 million contract for a new air-conditioning system—something reported by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (the amounts now appear to have been corrected)—it turned out that the amount was actually $606,000, which is about what it would take to put in a new A/C system in my lab.

Other evidence supposedly favoring the WIV origin, like the so-called “engineered adaptation” of the virus to humans, has fallen apart, since the virus infects many mammals. The famous “furin cleaveage site” supposedly put into the virus’s code for the spike protein to make it more infectious—a site said to be too novel to have been a natural occurrence—has now been seen in other coronavirus spike proteins.

Finally, Christopher Ford, a former Assistant Secretary of State, has recounted in an open letter how the State Department itself pushed the WIV-origin theory without scientific evidence, motivated mainly by the intelligence division, which saw sinister motives more strongly than evidence.

As I said, we’ll never know for sure where the pandemic came from, but to me the epidemiological evidence is telling, and it points strongly to a wet-market rather than to a WIV origin. They also found viral material in the wet market.

This article concludes with some common sense:

Research supporting the theory that the pandemic originated in a natural jump from animals to humans has moved ahead, with more evidence accumulating drawn from the virus’ genetic footprint. Evidence for the lab leak, however, has stagnated. Nothing has been posited about the possibility of a laboratory leak this year that wasn’t posited in 2020, when the theory was widely dismissed.

No reputable scientist would assert that a laboratory origin of the SARS2 virus is impossible or inconceivable. But it’s looking more and more like a dead end. That means pursuing it, especially to the exclusion of natural explanations, may not be merely foolhardy, but dangerous for the health of humankind.

Here’s the wet market, closed, photographed on January 21, 2020. (AP Photo by Dake Kang)

The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus, sits closed in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Heightened precautions were being taken in China and elsewhere Tuesday as governments strove to control the outbreak of the coronavirus, which threatens to grow during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)


h/t: Woody

32 thoughts on “Evidence waning for the Wuhan lab-leak theory for the origin of the pandemic

  1. The lab leak theory is popular among right wing pundits on Fox and politicians like Rand Paul. They want to be able to attack Dr. Fauci for providing funding to the Wuhan lab, which they claim led to the creation of the virus.

    1. me? I think sars-covid-2 happened due to climate change, and the cutting of trees and forests where animals usally get their minerals and nutrients. then when all the food providing forests are gone the animals venture into other areas to be able to survive leaving open the areas of genetic mutation of a microbe or bacteria in this case is what the virus is, its a canophage infecting canobacteria where the setting was a reemergance of a virus from 25,000 years ago and moisture and heat. its a marine and fresh water virus. it could had became frozen then reemerged after 25,000 years ago when the temps were hot and moisture was greater.

  2. We have seen here in recent posts how strangely some people become completely fixated on this or that rumored detail that is spun in support of the lab leak hypothesis. So besides the supposedly exorbitant price tag for an HVAC system, there is the bit about missing sequence data, or satellite photos showing that the parking lots around the lab were suspiciously empty for a time. For the latter, even if that were true, someone should check to see if it coincided with a holiday. Around here, research facility parking lots do get pretty empty in late December for some reason.
    Maybe some of the conspiracy wallopers will appear here once again.

  3. It has been reported that several workers at the Wuhan lab reported sick just before COVID was discovered. Another report stated that the workers said that one of the symptoms was loss of smell.

    Another report says that one US intelligence agency favors the lab-leak origin while the other favors the natural route.

    Just saying.

      1. I agree. I just mentioned them for the conspiracy- or research-minded. As I have maintained in comments on the many posts on this subject, we’ll never know the real answer without someone associated with the lab telling us that they created COVID and supplying details. Doesn’t stop the speculation. AFAIK, there’s really no decision that really hinges on the answer other than perhaps blaming China. We already know that labs shouldn’t create pandemics.

        1. It’s not about blaming China and never was: it’s about blaming the international scientific community for supporting gain of function research. The “bigotry against Asians” was and is a gaslighting because a lot of research funding and professional reputations are at stake By saying “labs shouldn’t create pandemics” I take that to mean you agree with honest scientists who admitted that lab leaks have happened causing various disease outbreaks. I think it is a huge leap of faith see the covid outbreak and the presence of the lab at Wuhan as a mere “coincidence.”

          1. I have no idea of the history of lab leaks but I’ll assume that they happen. And, because they happen, certain kinds of “gain of function” research seem unwise, though perhaps there are ways to do this that reduce the risk to virtually zero. On the other hand, perhaps what we need to learn by doing such research can be gained some other way. It’s not my field.

            Still, it is very clear that a lot of people are motivated by the desire to blame China for the virus. It might be unfair but it’s a fact. It won’t go away by ignoring it. I don’t think it’s much motivated by anti-Asian bias. The US is in economic and political competition with China. And China doesn’t help its case by covering things up.

  4. “If it came from a wet market, we’d want to take a close look at these markets, and possibly close them. (I think they should be closed anyway, for, as I’ve seen, the animals for sale are kept under horrible conditions.)”… horrid conditions evolve horrids… probably under something like horrid conditions debilitate resistance which creates a niche of weakness or somesuch…

  5. I’ve posted some thoughts on this here previously. I’m a reasonably well-trained molecular evolutionary biologist, not a conservative wing nut or conspiracy crank. I have come around to slightly favor the natural origins hypothesis, mainly because of Jerry’s explanations and because I respect the phylogeneticists who coauthored that Cell paper.

    But the evidence for a natural origin is only slightly less weak than the evidence for a lab leak. Several reasons why it’s not crazy to keep an open mind about the lab leak hypothesis:

    1. a secondary host that might have acquired SARS-CoV-2 from bats and then transmitted it to humans has still not been found in the wet market, or around Wuhan, or elsewhere in the wild or in captivity in China;
    2. SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the sewers at the wet market but it is not known what mammal host was the source (humans were the most abundant mammal species at the wet market, and humans seems to be the host to which SARS-CoV-2 is most well adapted to infecting);
    3. a primary bat host has still not been found among horseshoe bats around Wuhan, in spite of a lot effort to find that local bat source and in spite of the common occurrence of horseshoe bats in that area;
    4. instead, the wild bat coronavirus most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 was collected 1500 km away in Yunnan years ago by WIV researchers and brought to Wuhan, and this is still the only documented plausible route by which those bat viruses from western China moved east to Wuhan;
    5. novel beta coronaviruses in a new zoonosis have not previously been found to be readily transmissible from human to human (SARS-CoV-2 is unique in this trait), and in other beta coronaviruses that transmission has instead required adaptive evolution through multiple zoonotic events to gradually acquire traits for better human-to-human transmission; and
    6. Peter Daszak and his collaborators at WIV said in their grant proposals and in public statements in December 2019 that they were going to do and had successfully done lab experiments to identify plausible ways that bat coronaviruses might evolve to become more infectious in human lung cells.

    If the secondary host can be found in nature (and if it can be shown that this secondary host caught the virus from bats and not from humans a la mink etc.) then I’ll be convinced of the natural origins hypothesis.

    Until then, it doesn’t seem crazy or paranoid to think that Daszak and WIV might have succeeded in what they said they would try to do (and in BSL 2 labs at that) and that the CCP might have covered it up when the shit hit the fan.

        1. Yes, he can certainly tell a joke even though it didn’t move the lab-leak needle for me. Still, not every town can claim to both be the home of a virus lab and the location of the first outbreak of a virus.

    1. A good candidate intermediate host is the palm civet, which was sold at the market, and it has a very similar virus. See Jerrys earlier post: https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2021/08/17/the-origin-of-the-coronavirus/ There are other candidate animal hosts also found in the market (racoon dogs, badgers). Also…
      > Back then, I was perusing the papers that were cited and found an interesting passage in one saying that it was common for people in the region to carry antibodies to related coronaviruses found in bats. So transmission from bats –> something (?) –> humans was not unusual. I wish I could find the passage again for a quote, but that was the gist of it.
      > The absence of a definitive intermediate host does not seem surprising to me. At least its been my impression from various readings that studies of how viruses jump from species to species to species often wind up with gaps in them. The genetic landscape is incredibly large and complex and rapidly changing. Viruses do that.
      It is not fair to require definitive proof of the host that spread it to humans, since it is not surprising that is not yet found. Also, it can be noted that the various conspiratorial/cover-up innuendos have no proof. None. Just suspicions and inferential leaps.

      1. Thanks Mark. Yes agreed those are good plausible intermediates. I would not be surprised if SARS-CoV-2 was eventually found in civets or one of the others. But it hasn’t been found yet.

        The novel virus *was* found relatively easily in both the SARS and MERS zoonoses. The absence of the intermediate *is* surprising at this stage in the COVID-19 pandemic relative to other zoonoses, and relative to the efforts to find SARS-CoV-2 in an intermediate in tens of thousands of samples.

        But agreed the absence of the intermediate host doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Sorry I’ve overcommented now so will stop.

  6. When I first saw the article, my instinct was to look at the ownership of the LA Times. Companies owned by Disney, as an example, are not necessarily pro-CCP, but they have pretty robust business relationships over there, and would not want to deliberately antagonize them.
    That the LA Times is owned by a Chinese-American (via SA) pharma billionaire might either add to their credibility on the issue or warn of entanglements. Or it might be irrelevant.

    Anyhow, the argument seems to be about likelihoods, as no definitive proof of either source has been found.
    I don’t have anywhere near the expertise to comment on whether the idea of Covid as a modified virus has any merit.
    Hiltzik wrote that “For a laboratory leak to have occurred secretly or inadvertently, would require “a massive conspiracy and cover-up involving a lot of people, including some very accomplished scientists, not telling the truth about what they were working on or what they had”

    That statement seems presumptuous to me. It would not require a lot of plotting, it only needs one person to unknowingly be infected, then leave the lab and interact with others. Just a little slip in the safety culture. After that, it becomes an exercise in ass covering. China’s record on how incompetent or corrupt officials are treated provides a pretty good incentive to not be the one responsible.
    Additionally, people seem to be picturing a person in a BSL-4 lab, casually spilling the contents of a vial marked “deadly pathogens!”. The live bats, especially those not known to be sick, may well have been held in more relaxed conditions.
    I assume the hypothetical market bat was also not visibly sick.

    There are (or were) nearly 40,000 wet markets in China. The odds that the infected animal would end up at a wet market in a city with two labs that study bat viruses seems unlikely. A perusal of news stories before the pandemic emerged make mention of scientists and techs at the labs collecting samples from bats as well as “live bats for further testing back at the lab”.
    On the other hand, at least according to the WSJ, no evidence has been uncovered that show either bats or pangolins being sold that the Wuhan market.
    Additionally, the bats that have the most potential as the source are not found near Wuhan.

    Scientists are often unprepared for how deliberate deception can influence their analysis. The Amazing Randi had quite a few observations on that subject.

    1. To the later point about having a wet market + a large bat population + a large research facility all near each other. This is not at all suspicious. The well known reason for the research facility location is b/c of the market and the large bat population. The facility was placed there to be close at hand to monitor the area where zoonotic transmission was an ongoing concern.

      1. “+ a large bat population”
        That was one of the initial arguments for the market theory, that of course they put the lab near the source.
        But the bats in question were sampled in far southern China, almost to the border with Laos. Nearly an 18 hour drive. Not only a long distance, but a very different climate. The nearest airport to the cave locations is over 6,000 feet higher than the one at Wuhan.
        Wuhan is just north of the limits of the pangolin habitat as well.

          1. I don’t have a problem with the lab location itself, just the argument that it was located near the diseased bat populations it studied, and thus a local bat was the likely disease vector.
            If the disease came from a bat, unless someone finds Wuhan-area bats carrying the bug, then the bat almost was brought a great distance to Wuhan from the far south of the country. What I am reading is that Rhinolophus affinis is the most likely bat suspect. It is a mountain bat, and lives at altitudes higher than 2000 feet. They are not native to Hubei province.
            Perhaps the bat was captured and brought to the market to be sold as food or medicine. In “Bats in the Anthropocene”(Mildenstein, 2015) , there is a pretty exhaustive list of bat species used in various places for food or medicine. Rhinolophus affinis is not mentioned.
            In “Bats as Bushmeat” (Mickleburgh, 2009), Bats in markets or on restaurant menus have occasionally been observed in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.
            Additionally, a survey of animals sold at the wuhan market from 2017 to 2019 lists no bats. There were civets, however.

            Lacking an identified host, all we can do is compare probabilities. If the virus did come from Rhinolophus affinis, then we have to look at places in Wuhan where those bats were known to be immediately prior to the epidemic. That means WIV or Wuhan CDC lab. Personnel from those labs filmed themselves collecting those particular bats.

            Sure, if we find an intermediate animal host, it would be time to reevaluate all of this. But for now, that intermediate host is theoretical, while caged Rhinolophus affinis in those labs are reliably documented.

    2. When I first saw the article, my instinct was to look at the ownership of the LA Times.

      I think one’s first instinct should be to examine the data, rather than to indulge the so-called genetic fallacy.

      1. That is a valid point. It is important to evaluate claims on reliable data, if available. But sources matter as well. The article in question has not been vetted by peer review or published in a venerable science publication, it is a LA Times business article by a columnist who has previously been suspended for deceptive practices.
        The article states “But that’s wrong. The facility 300 yards away is the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, which doesn’t conduct research on raw viruses; the Virology Institute is about 7.5 miles from the market and on the far side of the Yangtze River.”

        “Does not conduct research on raw viruses” is an interesting phrase. That is not a denial that they keep live animals, even infected ones, on site. They filmed themselves collecting bats from the jungles in the south. They host “animals in laboratories for research purposes, including bats”.
        They are a BSL-2 certified facility
        Before the pandemic, Danish scientist Peter Karim Ben Embarek, who worked for the WHO on zoonoses, was quoted on a conference call as remarking that The Wuhan branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention was handling coronaviruses “without potentially having the same level of expertise or safety or who knows”.
        His official report included the phrase “extremely unlikely” that the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan”, but he has claimed that he was pressured to include that phrase and does not stand by it.

        This is not an issue like determining the mass of some particle, where nobody really has a stake in the outcome, and the accuracy of the finding can be checked by anyone with the right equipment. In this case, the CCP has gone to quite a bit of effort to obstruct what might otherwise have been a transparent international investigation into a threat to all people.

  7. “In 1913, Srinivasa Ramanujan began correspondence by mail with the English mathematician GH Hardy at the University of Cambridge in England. Considering Ramanujan’s work extraordinary, Hardy arranged for him to travel to Cambridge. , including those that have “conquered me completely; I’ve never seen anything like them before “and some recently proven, but highly advanced results.”

    Well, I think that scientific beings (ie people of science, I don’t know where I got the word “Beings” from) when they have the appropriate formal knowledge will always be able to communicate.
    Even if they are not intellectually equal.

    Of course, if ignorant and foolish people do not disturb them.

  8. Far more concerning than virus origin is virus spreaders. When someone uses a gun to kill someone do you worry about who made the bullet or do you worry about who fired the gun? RepubliQans are doing everything they can to blame everyone but themselves for the spread.

  9. I get a creationist vibe from statements that is NO evidence for the lab leak hypothesis.

    According to creation scientists (LOL) there is NO evidence for evolution. Not a jot. Ever. Final.

    I can understand saying, “We are not convinced by the evidence presented.” but saying that there is no evidence is, strange… What do they mean by no evidence? What is evidence? Has nobody even attempted to provide any evidence? Do you believe that?

    They have done two kinds of research at the WIV.

    1) Swapping spike proteins from various SARS like coronaviruses into a WIV1 coronavirus backbone to create live viruses in order to see if the chimeric viruses can infect cells expressing the human ACE2 receptor.

    Look for “Rescue of bat SARSr-CoVs and virus infectivity experiments” in this paper and read the paragraph: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5708621/

    The paper references this paper that covers the techniques used: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4936131/

    Search in the 2nd paper for the text, “All experiments using live virus was conducted under biosafety level 2 (BSL2) conditions.” That paper is dated 2016. Hopefully they stopped being so cavalier about lab safety some time after that date.

    You might be wondering why are they making chimeras? The answer is given in the BSL2 paper: “However, despite the fact that a large number of genetically diverse SL-CoV sequences have been detected in bats, only two strains (named WIV1 and WIV16) have been successfully cultured in vitro.”

    They make chimeras because they can’t culture the other viruses.

    2) The second type of research was using genetic engineering to make chimeric spike proteins.

    They used HIV based pseudoviruses to see how well their chimeric spike proteins could infect, human or animal cells. They were NOT using intact, live. coronaviruses.

    This work is described here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2258702/

    It describes how they used genetic engineering techniques to add an EcoRI restriction enzyme site to the start of the RBM of a spike protein.

    Search for this text in the paper, “To facilitate the construction of S chimeras, a point mutation (A to G) at nucleotide 1825 (the A residue of the ATG codon was designated nucleotide 1) was introduced to generate a unique EcoRI site in the S open reading frame.”

    They go on to say, “The chimera CS424-494 was confirmed by full-length sequencing to ensure that no unexpected mutation was introduced during the PCR processes. For other chimeras constructed using CS424-494 as a donor plasmid, only the newly inserted sequences between the BamHI (at the 5′ end) and EcoRI (at nucleotide 1825) sites were confirmed by direct sequencing.”

    So they are using the two different restriction enzyme sites to let them swap in different RBMs in order to investigate their effects. EcoRI and BamHI

    The interesting thing is that the SARS-CoV2 virus also has two unique restriction enzyme sites at either end of the RBM. These could have been used in similar RBM swap studies as those described in the paper above. Then someone at the WIV could have used such a chimeric spike protein and added it to a new coronavirus backbone in, perhaps, BSL2 conditions (like wot they did before) and then had a bit of a lab leak.

    The SARS-CoV2 virus has EcoRI at the 5′ end and BstEII at the 3′ end.

    If you want to see the enzymes for yourself then download the free viewer at snapgene.com and the coronavirus resources from the resources link at the top of the home page. You will find the link to a zip file in the resource page footer.

    If anyone wants more detailed instructions then please ask and I will post them here.

    1. Sorry you get a creationist vibe, because none of us are creationists. In fact, that is an insulting accusation.

      At any rate, your comments are already too long and you won’t be allowed to post “more detailed instructions.” You can point to other websites if you want to give further evidence but I won’t have this matter argued in long comments one way or the other.

      The most convincing evidence for the wet market hypothesis is the epidemiology. The evidence you give only shows that the lab was working on coronaviruses, not that it was the source of SARS-CoV2.

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