The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid a muddled quest for covid’s source, a crucial message

Security personnel stand guard near the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, in February after a World Health Organization team arrived for a field visit. The WHO team was investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Pandemics might seem to strike out of the blue, but they don’t come from nowhere. New infectious diseases in humans tend to arise from other animals through “spillover events,” but outbreaks can also occur when pathogens escape the laboratories where they are being studied. For this reason, the nagging fact that the earliest known coronavirus cases occurred in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which happens to be home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has seemed a striking coincidence at best and suspicious at worst.

The unknown origins of the pandemic are the subject of Alina Chan and Matt Ridley’s book, “Viral.” The topic is of extraordinary importance and deserves a thorough, careful investigation, aided by government transparency and explanation of the science involved. Unfortunately, when it comes to cooperation with independent investigators, the Chinese authorities have been about as transparent as a lead window, leaving facts thin on the ground. Chan and Ridley make up for this by stretching some of the facts that we do have beyond what they should bear. This diminishes the impact of a book that closes with an important message.

The authors start with the viruses that are the closest known relatives of the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2. These originate from an investigation of a 2012 outbreak in a mine many miles from Wuhan, of an illness much more severe than most covid-19 cases, from which a coronavirus was isolated and its genome sequenced. Years later, that sequence turned out be 96 percent identical to that of the virus that erupted in late 2019 around a market in Wuhan. To the casual observer, this seems highly suggestive. Chan and Ridley certainly present it as such, as the 96 percent figure is repeated again and again, standing for itself as a vital piece of evidence without scientific context to imply a link between the outbreak, the lab and the pandemic.

The problem is that for someone who knows about evolution, 96 percent identical is not very closely related. In fact, it’s really quite different. It means the genomes are different in more than 1,000 places, whereas if these other viruses really were tightly linked to SARS-CoV-2, we’d expect a handful. For comparison, they’re about as closely related as you are to a chimpanzee. Viruses accumulate changes more quickly than we do, but even so, the pandemic and this outbreak are clearly separated by years or decades of independent evolution outside a lab. The book does not mention this inconvenient fact, among many others.

One of the things a good professional scientist does is take his or her cherished hypothesis and try to break it every which way, by conducting experiments or hunting for data that does not agree with it. This is a way to avoid confirmation bias, the natural human tendency to hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest. A key property of scientific theories is that they can be proved wrong. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine such evidence that would convince strong partisans of either laboratory or natural origins. And too much of “Viral” is made up of confirmation bias. Nobody should mistake this book for an evenhanded scientific document.

Much of the case for a laboratory origin is built around the famously evasive, secretive and authoritarian Chinese government behaving in a secretive, evasive and authoritarian fashion. Nobody can dispute this. But it doesn’t move the needle much because such behavior is expected, whatever happened in Wuhan. However, the obstructive behavior of the Chinese authorities, extending to some truly absurd claims that “Viral” smoothly debunks, has produced an environment of suspicion.

The book directs such suspicion at allegedly evasive behavior on the part of some scientists involved in coronavirus research, and reports the results of investigations by indefatigable online researchers, invariably referred to as “sleuths.” Much of this ends up tracking inconsistencies in database entries, taking quotations out of context or “discovering” master’s theses online — although it is not clear that they were concealed by any more dastardly means than being written in Mandarin. The overall effect is clearly intended to be revelatory but is ultimately deflating. Instead of definitive evidence we are offered innuendo, and the partial accounting of what evidence does exist does not inspire confidence. The fact that positive environmental samples were retrieved from the corner of the Wuhan market where animals were housed is stated but passes without comment, while the renaming of a sequence in a database is the subject of pages of discussion.

A further problem for the authors is that the many details do not lend themselves to scintillating prose. Pages are littered with abbreviations and technical language. Part of the art of popular science writing is to boil complicated ideas down to digestible nuggets that leave the reader informed. In contrast, much of “Viral” will leave most readers exhausted. In places the effect is rather like being seated at a wedding next to a distant relative breathlessly explaining the details of their “Game of Thrones” fan fiction.

However — and it is a big however — “Viral” is emphatically correct that laboratory accidents can happen, and that even if some suggestions of laboratory origins are conspiracy theories, it does not follow that all are conspiracy theories. Nor is it unhinged to insist that experiments should be carefully regulated or to seek oversight of the activities of groups that study how viruses cross species barriers. Recent reporting has shown the importance of this. It turns out that the EcoHealth Alliance, which is a major player in the pages of “Viral,” was tardy in filing a report about experiments conducted in 2018-19, because it had inadvertently produced a potentially more dangerous virus. The virus in question was not the source of the pandemic (again, it is too distantly related), but the very fact that the results of such experiments have come to light only now is frankly more shocking than any of the master’s theses reported in “Viral.” This merits further investigation: Sunlight is indeed the best disinfectant for what goes on in the shadows (even if we’ve not yet found a way of using it to treat covid).

Indeed, some scientists have been arguing for years that “gain of function” experiments, which study how viruses become adapted to humans, need more regulation. Accidents can happen. Chan and Ridley amply document the history of outbreaks resulting from breakdowns in precautions at labs all over the world. Effectively handling these issues is a delicate balance, because the effect of more regulation in one place may be to drive the research into less well-regulated places. Nevertheless these are risks that need to be taken seriously.

Whatever the true origins, we know for certain that pandemics can arise from spillover infections from animal populations and that laboratories working with viruses pose at least a theoretical risk of helping that along. After all, one of the many ways human beings can encounter animals carrying potential pandemic viruses is handling them while looking for those viruses. And something like SARS-CoV-2 does not cause severe enough disease to immediately stick out — we see the danger only after large numbers are infected.

When it comes to stopping pandemics, we need to study spillover events to understand them better, and labs working on viruses need to do so in a safe way. As Chan and Ridley state toward the end of the book, “Unfortunately, there are no enforceable international biosafety and biosecurity standards.” Preach. This is an extremely important message that should not be lost amid the political firestorm over origins. We need such standards, but unfortunately “Viral” is more likely to contribute to the firestorm than to make them a reality.

Viral

The Search
for the Origin of Covid-19

By Matt Ridley and Alina Chan

Harper.
404 pp. $29.99

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