So this is going to feel like a bit of a homework assignment, but I would highly advise carving out 90 minutes to read this story by Nicholson Baker in New York Magazine. In it, he presents a thorough, nuanced, and compelling hypothesis that COVID-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan. It is the type of print journalism that you might see only once or twice a year, with its combination of exhaustiveness and clarity. Yes, it is very long and it offers a lot of complicated information. So perhaps turn on a jazz album in your headphones or, better yet, on a speaker to help ease the tension of getting through it.
Baker has authority on the subject because he is the author of a book called Baseless, which documents the Pentagon program Project Baseless. Begun in 1951, Project Baseless sought to rapidly develop chemical and biological warfare for the United States to be deployed if need be against Cold War Communist enemies.
In his NY Mag piece, Baker posits that the COVID-19 virus was not the result of biological warfare by China, but rather a human error coming from decades of pursuing vaccines for viruses that have either been largely contained or not yet manifested. What makes Baker’s story here credible, in my opinion, is that he actually acknowledges he might be wrong and that the virus could indeed have come from nature.
The story goes step-by-step, weaving through the background of not just the Cold War era lab work previously mentioned, but also the post-9/11 boom in coronavirus and vaccine studies. It points out that human error is not unprecedented in causing deaths from lab work mishaps, but that it hasn’t grown to a catastrophic level like this before.
Wuhan is the site of China’s only BSL-4 lab, which the story notes “is a maximum-security biosafety-level-four facility, used to house research on the most dangerous known pathogens.” There are 11 of these facilities located in the United States. The lab in Wuhan faced delays in getting off the ground due to safety protocols. From the story:
In January 2015, the brand-new BSL-4 lab in Wuhan, built by a French contractor, celebrated its opening, but full safety certification came slowly. According to State Department cables from 2018 leaked to the Washington Post, the new BSL-4 lab had some start-up problems, including “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” The staff had gotten some training at a BSL-4 lab in Galveston, Texas, but they were doing potentially dangerous work with SARS-like viruses, the memo said, and they needed more help from the U.S.
If you had to boil down the whole story into one paragraph, here it is:
For more than 15 years, coronavirologists strove to prove that the threat of SARS was ever present and must be defended against, and they proved it by showing how they could doctor the viruses they stored in order to force them to jump species and go directly from bats to humans. More and more bat viruses came in from the field teams, and they were sequenced and synthesized and “rewired,” to use a term that Baric likes. In this international potluck supper of genetic cookery, hundreds of new variant diseases were invented and stored. And then one day, perhaps, somebody messed up. It’s at least a reasonable, “parsimonious” explanation of what might have happened.
If you take away anything from the article, it’s that perhaps the most important thing for the whole world would be to study every nook and cranny of how this virus originated. We already know that China has gone to extraordinary lengths to cover everything up. They had a systematic, widespread domestic and international propaganda campaign to amplify compliments about how they handled the outbreak and to silence any questioning. The WHO investigation was stonewalled by China.
I will conclude by, again, urging you to read the whole New York Magazine story, because a summary cannot do it justice. Spreading this story far and wide may also incentivize more work like it.