Viewpoint: How right wingers are pumping up the Wuhan lab leak theory — and why it’s still an unlikely explanation for COVID

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Credit: Sky News
Credit: Sky News

Even as far back as February 2020, I noted that antivaxxer James Lyons-Weiler was falsely claiming that he had “broken the coronavirus code” and found nucleotide sequences in its genome indicating that it had come from a laboratory working on coronavirus vaccines, while Nobel Laureate turned crackpot Luc Montagnier also endorsed the “engineered virus” idea. For someone who is supposedly an expert in bioinformatics, Lyons-Weiler’s analysis—carried out in January 2020!—was risibly bad. Then came the “plandemic” conspiracy theory, in which antivaxxer and disgraced scientist Judy Mikovits claimed that SARS-CoV-2 was not only engineered but intentionally released.

Basically, there are now two primary versions of the “lab leak” hypothesis, although they frequently seem to overlap, as advocates of version #2 can’t seem to resist using some of the downright silly arguments favored by advocates of version #1. Here are the two versions, stated briefly:

  1. An engineered SARS coronavirus created at the Wuhan Institute of Virology through “gain of function” experiments somehow escaped and caused the pandemic.
  2. A natural SARS coronavirus stored and studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology somehow escaped and caused the pandemic.

I can say with a high degree of confidence based on existing evidence that the first version is so implausible as to have been firmly in conspiracy theory territory for well over a year. The second is the version that “reasonable” people consider plausible. Unfortunately, here is no good evidence for either version, and even the second version is fast joining the first version in becoming a conspiracy theory, particularly given the increasing claims that “they” don’t want you to know about it and that there’s been a massive conspiracy to “cover up” the lab leak origin of SARS-CoV-2.

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Perhaps the most basic refutation to the “engineered” virus narrative is a simple one. As good as virologists are, they don’t know a priori the features that make a virus more likely to infect and harm humans. As Ethan Siegel at Forbes put it:

The science of what can be done in virology, with modern techniques, is quite impressive. But what the conspiracy attests must have happened reaches far beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced research teams in the world.

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