The essayist and novelist Nicholson Baker has written a long piece for New York magazine that argues that it's possible — and even likely — that COVID-19 emerged accidentally from virus research, with China's virus lab in Wuhan being the most likely vector.
As Baker freely admits, he has no evidence this is what happened. Most public-health officials, he notes, disagree: Their most common hypothesis is that COVID-19 emerged naturally. Baker isn't convinced, and focuses on the growth in recent decades of the virus-research world, where scientists work to actively engineer new viruses — and put existing, naturally-occurring ones through pressure-cooker environments to hasten their evolution — with a prophylactic goal: If we can create 'em ourselves, they reason, we'll be forewarned about what horrible things might emerge.
Baker has a very dim view of this branch of science, arguing that — human error being human error — this world of human-tweaked and -evolved viruses could have accidentally leaked COVID-19 into the world; plenty of accidents have happened in the past. Since China hasn't published any internal investigations of its Wuhan lab, there's a big hole of uncertainty at the core of Baker's argument here, as he notes. In essence, his argument is less about COVID-19 itself than a critique of an entire branch of scientific endeavor, which he thinks is a pretty terrible idea.
Whether or not one buys Baker's thesis about the origins of COVID-19, the piece is interesting for his exploration of the growth of the virus-research world. Being a bit of polemic, his piece is likely rather one-sided; I'd like to read a response from the cohort of scientists he's taking aim at here.
I think it's worth offering some historical context for our yearlong medical nightmare. 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.
Over the past few decades, scientists have developed ingenious methods of evolutionary acceleration and recombination, and they've learned how to trick viruses, coronaviruses in particular, those spiky hairballs of protein we now know so well, into moving quickly from one species of animal to another or from one type of cell culture to another. They've made machines that mix and mingle the viral code for bat diseases with the code for human diseases — diseases like SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, for example, which arose in China in 2003, and MERS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, which broke out a decade later and has to do with bats and camels. Some of the experiments — "gain of function" experiments — aimed to create new, more virulent, or more infectious strains of diseases in an effort to predict and therefore defend against threats that might conceivably arise in nature. The term gain of function is itself a euphemism; the Obama White House more accurately described this work as "experiments that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route." The virologists who carried out these experiments have accomplished amazing feats of genetic transmutation, no question, and there have been very few publicized accidents over the years. But there have been some.
And we were warned, repeatedly. The intentional creation of new microbes that combine virulence with heightened transmissibility "poses extraordinary risks to the public," wrote infectious-disease experts Marc Lipsitch and Thomas Inglesby in 2014. "A rigorous and transparent risk-assessment process for this work has not yet been established." That's still true today. In 2012, in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Lynn Klotz warned that there was an 80 percent chance, given how many laboratories were then handling virulent viro-varietals, that a leak of a potential pandemic pathogen would occur sometime in the next 12 years.
A lab accident — a dropped flask, a needle prick, a mouse bite, an illegibly labeled bottle — is apolitical. Proposing that something unfortunate happened during a scientific experiment in Wuhan — where COVID-19 was first diagnosed and where there are three high-security virology labs, one of which held in its freezers the most comprehensive inventory of sampled bat viruses in the world — isn't a conspiracy theory. It's just a theory. It merits attention, I believe, alongside other reasoned attempts to explain the source of our current catastrophe.