Scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife”, they said, with a stirring rallying call for readers to stand with Chinese colleagues on the frontline of fighting the disease.
In a scathing criticism of the Lancet, Wade wrote further, “Contrary to the letter writers’ assertion, the idea that the virus might have escaped from a lab invoked accident, not conspiracy. It surely needed to be explored, not rejected out of hand. A defining mark of good scientists is that they go to great pains to distinguish between what they know and what they don’t know. By this criterion, the signatories of the Lancet letter were behaving as poor scientists: They were assuring the public of facts they could not know for sure were true.”
It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organised and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York.
Daszak’s organisation funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from the research he funded, Daszak would be potentially culpable, Wade wrote, adding that this acute conflict of interest was not declared to the Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests”.
Virologists like Daszak had much at stake in the assigning of blame for the pandemic, Wade wrote.
For 20 years, mostly beneath the public’s attention, they had been playing a dangerous game. In their laboratories they routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature. They argued they could do so safely, and that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent natural “spillovers”, the cross-over of viruses from an animal host to people, Wade said.
If SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China.
“It would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom,” MIT Technology Review editor, Antonio Regalado, had said in March 2020.
A second statement which had enormous influence in shaping public attitudes was a letter (in other words an opinion piece, not a scientific article) published on March 17, 2020 in the journal Nature Medicine.
Its authors were a group of virologists led by Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute.
“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the five virologists had declared in the second paragraph of their letter.
“Unfortunately, this was another case of poor science, in the sense defined above,” Wade wrote.
“True, some older methods of cutting and pasting viral genomes retain tell-tale signs of manipulation. But newer methods, called ‘no-see-um’ or ‘seamless’ approaches, leave no defining marks. Nor do other methods for manipulating viruses such as serial passage, the repeated transfer of viruses from one culture of cells to another,” he wrote.
“If a virus has been manipulated, whether with a seamless method or by serial passage, there is no way of knowing that this is the case. Dr. Andersen and his colleagues were assuring their readers of something they could not know,” Wade wrote in his piece.
The article went on to say: “Natural emergence was the media’s preferred theory until around February 2021 and the visit by a World Health Organization commission to China. The commission’s composition and access were heavily controlled by the Chinese authorities. Its members, who included the ubiquitous Dr. Daszak, kept asserting before, during and after their visit that lab escape was extremely unlikely. But this was not quite the propaganda victory the Chinese authorities may have been hoping for. What became clear was that the Chinese had no evidence to offer the commission in support of the natural emergence theory.”
This was surprising because both the SARS1 and MERS viruses had left copious traces in the environment, Wade wrote.
“The intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months. Yet some 15 months after the SARS2 pandemic began, and a presumably intensive search, Chinese researchers had failed to find either the original bat population, or the intermediate species to which SARS2 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019.
“Natural emergence remained a conjecture which, however plausible to begin with, had gained not a shred of supporting evidence in over a year. And as long as that remains the case, it’s logical to pay serious attention to the alternative conjecture, that SARS2 escaped from a lab,” Wade argued.
Though Wade’s works have featured in Nature, Science, the New York Times and other significant platforms, he self-published his article on the origin of SARS2 on the online publishing platform, Medium.
In the article, Wade has said that even as the case for SARS2 originating in a lab is substantial, the scientific community has reason not to talk about it.
“Government research funds are distributed on the advice of committees of scientific experts drawn from universities. Anyone who rocks the boat by raising awkward political issues runs the risk that their grant will not be renewed and their research career will be ended. Maybe good behavior is rewarded with the many perks that slosh around the distribution system,” he wrote.
The US government, Wade wrote, “shares a strange common interest with the Chinese authorities: Neither is keen on drawing attention to the fact that Dr. Shi’s coronavirus work was funded by the US National Institutes of Health”.