The Department of Energy in the United States, which is responsible for a network of national research laboratories, has changed its mind about the biggest scientific mystery of our time.
When it comes to the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic, it now says the most likely scenario is that it began in a Chinese laboratory — and not in a wet market in the city of Wuhan.
It has stopped short of divulging what new evidence this U-turn is based on, but in reporting its change of heart to the White House and Congress, the Department implies something significant has been uncovered. This follows similar findings by the FBI, reportedly issued with ‘moderate confidence’.
Certainly, those of us who have been arguing for years now that the lab-leak theory needs to be taken seriously can finally feel something of a sea-change.
When it comes to the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic, it now says the most likely scenario is that it began in a Chinese laboratory — and not in a wet market in the city of Wuhan
Incidentally, nobody seriously thinks a leak would have been deliberate. But what we do know is that the research being conducted in Wuhan was, whether it led to the pandemic or not, extremely risky. PICTURED: someone receiving their Covid-19 vaccine
Following the failure by Chinese officials to find any early evidence of infected animals in the wet market, and the failure of The Wuhan Institute of Virology to release the database of coronaviruses it was working on, alternative explanations are now impossible to ignore.
Incidentally, nobody seriously thinks a leak would have been deliberate. But what we do know is that the research being conducted in Wuhan was, whether it led to the pandemic or not, extremely risky.
The public, opinion polls show, are ahead of the official line and have for some time been largely persuaded it all began in the lab. The sheer coincidence of a bat coronavirus outbreak happening in the city where the largest bat coronavirus lab in the world was located, a long way from where the animals live naturally, is damning.
When asked privately, you’ll find that most scientists and politicians agree. And yet a small band of Western virologists has managed to create an awful lot of noise in mainstream media with the insistence that this is all little more than a ‘conspiracy theory’.
Such diversions began right at the start of the pandemic. Three years ago this week, a letter was published in The Lancet denouncing any speculation about a lab leak.
‘We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that [Covid-19] does not have a natural origin,’ wrote British scientist Dr Peter Daszak — who failed to divulge what appeared to be conflicts of interest as a close collaborator and funder of the Chinese lab.
Daszak secured 27 leading figures from the scientific establishment to sign his letter. Almost overnight, he shunted the lab-leak theory to the fringes of debate.
Pretty well every major organisation, from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to the BBC, the CIA and CNN, refused to take it seriously. Meanwhile, pro-Beijing spin doctors got to work on social media denouncing the lab-leak hypothesis — and remain active to this day.
That is what makes the announcement from Washington this week so momentous. If a U.S. government department has seen enough to change its mind, then the dam really is finally breaking.
In America, where Sino-sceptic Republicans captured control of the House of Representatives late last year, there is now increased demand for answers from Daszak and others. Democrat-run Congressional committees previously gave them the benefit of the doubt.
Pretty well every major organisation, from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to the BBC, the CIA and CNN, refused to take it seriously
Here in Britain, the Establishment appears to have worked hard to stifle any lab-leak chat.
Key figures such as Sir Patrick Vallance, still the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Sir Jeremy Farrar, who recently stepped down as Director of the Wellcome Trust to take on a plum role at the WHO, collaborated in a highly influential article published in Nature Medicine journal in March 2020, which prematurely ruled out a leak. Perhaps Vallance and Farrar might now be held to account.
Britain is supposed to be one of the leading biomedical research nations in the world, with strong capabilities in virology and epidemiology. Yet as far as I can tell, none of our great research universities has even tried to get a grant to investigate the possibility of a leak.
In November 2021, I pressed the Royal Society, the foremost collective of the UK’s leading scientific voices, to hold a debate on the origin of the virus. They told me they were ‘not convinced that, as things stand, the specifically scientific dimensions of this question are clear enough to warrant a Royal Society sponsored debate’.
I thought: surely the very purpose of science is to debate questions that are ‘not clear’.
When I pressed the Academy of Medical Sciences to hold a debate instead, I was told the topic was ‘too controversial’.
With a few exceptions, even those MPs who readily criticise China on issues such as the Uyghur genocide, Hong Kong and Taiwan rarely mention that the Chinese authorities have refused for three years to be transparent about what happened at the epicentre of a pandemic that has killed north of 15 million people worldwide.
So why won’t the British Establishment be more open-minded? I think there are several reasons.
Key figures such as Sir Patrick Vallance, still the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Sir Jeremy Farrar, who recently stepped down as Director of the Wellcome Trust to take on a plum role at the WHO, collaborated in a highly influential article published in Nature Medicine journal in March 2020, which prematurely ruled out a leak PICTURED: Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance
First, Chinese investment in and collaboration with British universities and big business have left those in power reluctant to rock the boat.
Every time the prospect of a new Chinese billionaire hovers into view at a university, professors pull their punches. The top scientific journals are no different. Heavily dependent on Chinese funding, they have largely ‘abdicated their responsibility to do in-depth investigative reporting’, as the highly experienced science journalist Michael Balter put it on Sunday after news of the U.S. Department of Energy’s report broke.
Second, many think admitting that scientists might have caused the pandemic would be bad for the reputation of science as a whole. To which I say: denying this possibility, and then being proved wrong, would be even worse.
Third, many in the ruling class don’t tend to bother with considering controversial arguments, and instead take their views from people they already know and trust.
Early in the pandemic, for example, I spoke with a brilliant molecular biologist who told me he had consulted a virologist friend who told him categorically a lab leak could be ruled out.
But now that even China has emerged from its interminable lockdowns, and scientists from Wuhan are finally free to travel abroad to scientific conferences, it is possible we may start to learn more about what really happened.
Some figures in Washington, for instance, say they have evidence the first three hospital cases of the virus were Wuhan lab workers. If so, let’s see this evidence.
At the end of the day, however — whether a Chinese laboratory experiment went wrong or not, and whether the Chinese authorities even knew it at the time, there is no doubt that Beijing’s insistence for several weeks in early 2020 that people could only catch the virus from animals, and not from each other, destroyed any chance of it being brought under control.
Since then, the ensuing clampdown on honest debate has been shameful.
We simply cannot pretend any longer that the Communist regime in China can be trusted on science, trade, geopolitics or anything else. Politely but firmly, we in the West must now say so — and make our plans accordingly.
Matt Ridley is a former Tory peer and co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19.