The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The case that the virus emerged from nature, not a lab, is falling apart

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony S. Fauci speaks during a White House briefing on Jan 21. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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This column has been updated.

Anthony S. Fauci told Congress last week that, despite growing support for the case that the pandemic emerged from the Wuhan lab, he still believes it came from nature. “I have always said that the high likelihood is that this is a natural occurrence,” Fauci said, “and I still maintain that.” Like so many things Fauci has told Americans about the pandemic, it looks increasingly like he could be proven wrong. Not only is there still zero evidence to support the theory that the virus emerged from nature, there are mounting signs that it did not.

In the 15 months since the pandemic began, despite an exhaustive search, no intermediate host — an animal that caught the virus from bats and then spread it to humans — has been found. Nicholas Wade — a science reporter for nearly 50 years at Science, Nature and the New York Times — points out in his exhaustive report for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that during the SARS1 epidemic, the intermediate host (civet cats bred for human consumption) was identified in just four months.

Is it possible the virus jumped from bats to humans without an intermediate host? Perhaps. But a bat coronavirus is known to have directly infected humans only on one known occasion — in April 2012, when six people cleaning bat guano from a mine in China’s Yunnan province fell ill. However, it’s implausible that bats infected people in Wuhan. The city is more than 900 miles from the bat caves of Yunnan, and the bats’ range is just 30 miles. Moreover, temperatures in Wuhan in the winter of 2019, when the pandemic hit, would have sent the bats into hibernation. But what if a person infected in Yunnan brought the virus to Wuhan? As Wade explains, that individual “must have traveled … without infecting anyone else. No one in his or her family got sick. If the person jumped on a train to Wuhan, no fellow passengers fell ill.” That scenario is also highly unlikely.

Furthermore, if SARS2 jumped directly from bats to people, then it should still be good at infecting bats. But it isn’t. Studies show that “tested bat species are poorly infected by SARS-CoV-2, and they are therefore unlikely to be the direct source for human infection.” In fact, Wade writes, there is no evidence the virus ever infected bats. No original bat population has been found. Indeed, he points out, researchers have found no evidence showing any creature — animal or human — had ever been exposed to the virus before the winter of 2019.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Then there is the structure of the virus itself. Pandemic viruses don’t become highly transmissible or deadly in a single jump. As Wade explains, “The coronavirus spike protein, adapted to attack bat cells, needs repeated jumps to another species, most of which fail, before it gains a lucky mutation.” In the case of SARS1, the virus mutated before it made the jump from bats to civets, then it made six further documented changes before it became a mild pathogen in humans, then made 14 more changes to become more adapted to people, and then four more before it was able to cause an epidemic.

But, Wade continues, “when you look for the fingerprints of a similar transition in SARS2, a strange surprise awaits. The virus has changed hardly at all, at least until recently. From its very first appearance, it was well adapted to human cells.” This would make perfect sense if it was engineered in a lab to become transmissible to humans — but not if it emerged from nature.

Not only is SARS2 missing these natural mutations, Wade writes, but it also includes a surprising addition: a “furin cleavage site” on its spike protein that allows it to invade human cells. Why is this surprising? Because SARS2 is the only known SARS-related coronavirus that has a furin site; the rest use a different mechanism to infect humans. It’s improbable that SARS2 picked up its furin site naturally, but Wade cites an academic paper that points out “at least 11 gain-of-function experiments, adding a furin site to make a virus more infective, are published in the open literature, including [by] Dr. Zhengli Shi, head of coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” That’s right, the “bat lady” of the Wuhan lab — the one who received funding via a U.S. contractor from Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — experimented with furin sites to make coronaviruses more infectious for humans.

Bottom line? As former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently explained, evidence for a lab leak is mounting, while the evidence for natural origin “has contracted.” At this point, he says, the burden should be on Beijing to “provide evidence that would be exculpatory,” such as virus samples, blood samples from lab workers hospitalized with covid-like symptoms in November 2019, and unfettered access to the lab and its personnel. So long as the Chinese Communist Party fails to provide that exculpatory evidence, and obstructs an impartial international investigation, then the assumption should be that the Wuhan lab was the source of the pandemic — and that Beijing must be held to account.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Two possible theories of the pandemic’s origins remain viable. The world needs to know.

Marc A. Thiessen: The media’s big mistake on the covid-19 ‘lab leak’ theory

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Leana S. Wen: How to investigate the lab-leak theory without inflaming anti-Asian hate

Josh Rogin: Congress is finally investigating the lab accident covid-19 origin theory