The obvious problem with laboratory leak theory, however, is that there is no concrete evidence to support it. Chan has no precise idea of exactly how an accident could have happened – whether a student got sick in a bat cave, for example, or secret research into infecting mice with a novel virus failed. After reading Chan’s posts, I noticed that many of her claims don’t even relate to direct evidence; more often they revolve around his absence. She tends to point out things that Chinese researchers didn’t do or say, key facts they didn’t quickly reveal, the infected market animal that they never found, or a database that is no longer online. She clearly suggests that there is a cover-up – and therefore a conspiracy to hide the truth.
When leading scientists gathered to analyze the virus genome last February, they finally published two letters. One, in The lancet, directly dismissed the possibility of a laboratory accident as a “conspiracy theory” (the authors included a scientist who funded research in the Wuhan laboratory). The other was the “Proximal origins“Letter in Nature Medicine, co-authored by Kristian Andersen, an evolutionary biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Andersen and his co-authors examined the genome of the virus and provided arguments as to why it was very likely to be a natural occurrence – supported by evidence that it was similar to others found in nature.
The 30,000 genetic letters in this genome are still the most widely studied clues to the origin of the virus. Coronaviruses often swap parts – a phenomenon known as recombination. Andersen found that all of the constituents of the virus had previously been seen in samples collected from animals over the years. Evolution could have brought it about, he believed. The Wuhan Institute had genetically engineered bat viruses for scientific experiments, but the SARS-CoV-2 genome did not match any of the preferred “chassis” viruses used in these experiments, and it did not contain any other obvious signs of engineering.
According to Clarivate, an analytics firm, the Nature Medicine letter was the 55th most cited article of 2020, with over 1,300 citations in the journals covered. Email records later indicated that as of January 2020, the letter was the subject of urgent, high-level messages and conference calls between the authors of the letters, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases; Top virologists; and the head of the Wellcome Trust, a major pharmaceutical research funding organization in the UK. The authors worried early on that the virus looked suspicious before they quickly teamed up on a scientific analysis that supported a natural cause. Originally, one of their goals was to quell rumors that the virus was a bio-weapon or a result of failed engineering, but they went ahead and wrote, “We don’t think any kind of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
Working from her Massachusetts home, Chan soon found a way to revive the laboratory accident theory by looking for its differences from SARS, a similar virus that broke out in 2002 but caused only about 8,000 diseases. With Shing Zhan, a bioinformatician at the University of British Columbia, Chan examined the early cases of Covid in humans and found that the new virus did not mutate as quickly as SARS. If it were an animal virus from a market, she thought, its genome would show signs of adapting more quickly to its brand new human host. She produced an analysis in which she argued that the virus was “pre-matched” to humans and offered some theories about it. Perhaps it had spread undetected to people elsewhere in China. Or maybe, she thought, it was growing in a laboratory somewhere, maybe it was reproducing in human cells or in transgenic mice that had human genes spliced into.
The possibility that an untampered virus “might have adapted to humans while being examined in a laboratory,” she wrote, “should be considered, regardless of how likely or unlikely.”
In May 2020, Chan published a preprint paper, written together with Deverman and Zhan, on the bioRxiv website, an online platform for the rapid communication of results that have not yet been verified by other scientists. “Our observations suggest that SARS-CoV-2 was first discovered in late 2019, it was already adapted for human transmission,” they wrote. The Broad Institute’s communications department also gave Chan examples of how to compose a “tweetorial,” a daisy chain of posts with images that present a compact scientific argument to the wider public. She posted it first tweetorial On the next day.
For journalists suspicious of China’s handling of the virus, the thread – and those that followed – was dynamite. Here was a real scientist from America’s largest gene center explaining why the official story might be wrong. “Coronavirus did NOT come from animals in the Wuhan market,” shouted a Daily Mail headline in what became Chan’s first outbreak in public entertainment.
Though her report was a media hit, what the Daily Mail called Chan’s “guide paper” has never been officially accepted by any academic journal. Chan says this is due to the censorship because it addresses the possibility of laboratory origin. UC Davis’ iron, however, believes Chan’s expectations of how the Covid-19 virus should have behaved remain guesswork. He doesn’t think we’ve tracked enough outbreaks with enough molecular detail to really know what’s normal. And he notes that Covid-19 has continued to change and adapt.
“My colleagues said: This is a conspiracy – don’t bother. I said: No, I’ll treat it like any other paper, “says Eisen, who took the time to study the manuscript. “I think what she tried is interesting, but I am not convinced by the conclusion and I think the conclusions were wrong. I commend her for posting. Many of the people advancing the laboratory origin theory do not make claims based on logic, but it did present its evidence. I don’t agree, but that’s science. “
Wrong or right, however, the word Chan used – “pre-matched” – made people like the author Nicholson Baker shudder. “We faced a disease that was exceptionally good at chewing up human airways from the start,” said Baker, who reached out to Chan to find out more. A few months later, in January of that year, Baker published a detailed report in New York magazine He said he was convinced that a laboratory accident was to blame. He cited a variety of sources, including Chan.
Chan didn’t finish pounding holes in the natural origins narrative. She next took on four papers that were quickly released in early 2020, two of them in Nature describing viruses in pangolins – critically endangered, scaly-covered mammals sometimes eaten as a delicacy in China – which have similarities to SARS -CoV-2. If researchers could find all of the components of the pandemic virus, especially in wildlife that is illegally traded as food, they could make the case for an encroachment from nature given the way coronaviruses swap parts. The psoriasis papers, which appeared in quick succession at the beginning of 2020, were a promising start. To the authors of Proximal Origins, these similar viruses provided “strong” and “frugal” evidence of natural origin.
Chan and Zhan found that the same batch of animals was described in all of the papers – even if some did not acknowledge the overlap. One even renamed the data, which made it appear new. For Chan, it wasn’t just sloppy work or scientific misconduct. There may have been, she believed, some “coordination” between the overlapping authors of all of these articles, some of which had previously published together. She created the hashtag #pangolinpapers – in memory of the Panama Papers, documents that exposed secret offshore financial deals.
Perhaps, she thought, researchers would now wash data to make it appear that nature is swimming with similar viruses.
Chan began emailing authors and magazines to get the raw data she needed for a more complete analysis of her activities. The provision of such data is usually a condition of publication, but it can still be difficult to obtain. After what she calls months of stone walls, Chan finally lost her temper and fired an accusation from her browser. “I need the scientists + editors who directly or indirectly cover up serious research integrity issues related to some of the top SARS-2-like viruses to pause and think for a while,” she wrote on Twitter. “If your actions obscure the origins of SARS2, you are contributing to the deaths of millions of people.”
Eddie Holmes, a prominent Australian virologist and co-author of one of these papers (as well as “Proximal Origins”) called the tweet “one of the most despicable things I have read about origins.” He felt accused, but wondered what he was being accused of since his paper had correctly considered his pangolin data sources. Holmes then circulated an intricate timeline that Chan had created using the release dates and previous connections between the authors. The dense web of arrows and connections on the map bore an unmistakable resemblance to a possessed man’s cork board, covered with red string and thumbtacks.