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The story behind the Wuhan lab-leak theory

As Australia grapples with new outbreaks of Covid-19, questions about the origins of the virus have been re-emerging.

As Australia grapples with new outbreaks of Covid-19, questions about the origins of the virus have been re-emerging.

US President Joe Biden recently urged intelligence agencies to investigate where the virus came from, and who was responsible.

And at the G7 summit, world leaders formally discussed the controversial Wuhan lab-leak theory: the idea that the virus didn’t emerge naturally, but came out of a laboratory. 

So why is a previously discredited theory gaining traction right now? And should we take that theory seriously? 

Today, former China correspondent and contributor to The Saturday Paper Linda Jaivin on what we know about the origins of Covid-19 and why conspiracies are flourishing.


Guest: Writer for The Saturday Paper Linda Jaivin.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

 

As Australia grapples with new outbreaks of Covid-19, questions about the origins of the virus have been re-emerging.

 

US President Joe Biden recently urged intelligence agencies to investigate where the virus came from, and who was responsible.

 

And at the G7 summit, world leaders formally discussed the controversial Wuhan lab theory - the idea that the virus didn’t emerge naturally, but came out of a laboratory. 

 

So why is a previously discredited theory gaining traction right now? And should we take that theory seriously? 

 

Today, former China correspondent and contributor to The Saturday Paper Linda Jaivin; on what we know about the origins of Covid-19, and why conspiracies are flourishing.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:

Linda, what theories are out there about how Covid-19 emerged?

 

LINDA:

There's two basic hypotheses.

 

So let's look at the first one: zoonotic transmission. This is the theory that, like so many other viruses, it naturally evolved from contact between different wildlife species. Horseshoe bats are often implicated with coronaviruses. Now, in the past 50 years, some of the major, most devastating viruses that we've seen, including Ebola, for example, as well as SARS and MERS, came through this natural transmission. One of the reasons people think this is quite plausible is because the initial outbreak, one third of the people affected by the initial outbreak, had a direct connection to the Wuhan Huanan wet markets.

 

Now, the second theory centres on the fact that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, because of the way SARS erupted in China in 2002 and was so devastating, they have devoted a lot of time to the study of bats, and coronaviruses. So they conduct all kinds of experimentation using materials from bats. 

 

So, you have these two possibilities. One is that it arose naturally. Another is that in that same city where we first saw it, the laboratory that has been working on bat related coronaviruses could have accidentally leaked it. 

 

We do have a huge history around the world of lab leaks from virology labs. The last known person to die of smallpox, I believe that was in 1978, died after smallpox leaked from a lab in the U.K. I read that in 2019, there were 219 instances of viruses or toxins escaping labs in the United States. This is according to official United States records on this, government records. 

 

Now, where you go into Wuhan lab theory, that is more of a conspiracy theory than a hypothesis.

 

RUBY:

Can you tell me about the Wuhan lab theory then - what is it exactly?

 

LINDA: 

So Wuhan lab theory contends that there is something malicious in this, or deeply problematic or deeply culpable on the part of the Chinese authorities running the lab. And the Wuhan lab theory goes from culpable poor biosecurity standards leading to a leak all the way up to the creation of bio weapons and a purposeful release, although that does beg the question, why do it on your own people? 

 

And secondly, as a bioweapon, Covid-19 is not much chop. It kills about 2% of the people it infects, mostly elderly people with comorbidities, and it can take weeks. Whereas if you look at something like Sarin, that just kills anybody instantly. So if you're looking at bio weapons, it doesn't make much sense. 

 

So despite the fact that Wuhan lab theory is the conspiratorial end of this, the idea that it might have leaked from a lab is still plausible and is still taken seriously by scientists as a possibility, therefore, is still a hypothesis that they are studying.

 

RUBY:

Ok so the hypothesis that Covid-19 could have leaked from a lab in Wuhan is a real possibility, but then there’s also the Wuhan lab theory which is much more conspiratorial. So how did this happen? How did a reasonable hypothesis turn into a conspiracy?

 

LINDA: 

Now the first person to really launch this theory is Donald Trump. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1: 

“Are you insinuating they intentionally let it spread?”

 

Archival Tape -- Donald Trump: 

“Well they could've done it. And, and I'm just saying, well, one of two things happened. They either didn't do it and, you know, they couldn't do it from a competence standpoint or they let it spread.”

 

LINDA:

He had seen information, secret intelligence. He never revealed the source of it.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1: 

“And what gives you a high degree of confidence that this originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology?”

 

Archival Tape -- Donald Trump: 

“I can't tell you that. I'm not allowed to tell you that.”

 

LINDA:

So what happened was when he said this, two things happened. His supporters, both people right around him, like Steve Bannon and so on, as well as his boosters in the press, and Fox Media and and and publications like that...

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2: 

“In fact, the outbreak may have begun not in a public meat market, but in a poorly run Chinese laboratory.”

 

LINDA:

The world was in pain. The pandemic was spreading. The United States was in pain. There needed to be some kind of scapegoat. And China is a great scapegoat for the right. So everybody latched onto this.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3: 

“There are now calls to sue China, for giving the world this coronavirus that has killed 70,000 people so far and absolutely paralysed the world economy.”

 

LINDA:

And because the atmosphere around the debate became so polarised at this point, any scientist or person in mainstream media who wanted to say ‘this is actually still plausible’ without banging that China bashing drum, they found themselves in a position of being attacked. Scientists were receiving death threats, people were being accused of being racist and so on.

 

RUBY:

OK, so because Donald Trump and then other right wing actors jumped on this theory, and used it as a way to attack China, it essentially became discredited because people in the media as well as scientists, they didn't want to be associated with it. And the Trump presidency, it’s ended now though so things have moved on, have things also moved on within the scientific community? 

 

LINDA:

Yes, but it's ongoing.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #4: 

“Well the issue of where the pandemic began, and how it began has never really gone away but it’s back center stage…” 

 

LINDA:

There was a letter published in Science relatively recently, by a whole bunch of different scientists. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #4: 

“Now the scientific community is saying there should be more investigation into the origins of Covid-19. Ravi Gupta was one of those who signed a letter calling for just that…”

 

LINDA:

And they basically said what we need is to have a dispassionate scientific examination of this issue. 

 

Archival Tape -- Ravi Gupta:

“It’s become very difficult, even for scientists, to voice any doubts they may have for fear of being seen as conspiracy theorists but the signatories on the letter you mentioned, all of us are well respected scientists and we want to know the answer as scientists, not as citizens of any particular country…”  

 

LINDA:

Joe Biden has ordered a 90 day review of available intelligence. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #5: 

“You know, China wasn't transparent enough. We have been saying for a very long time that China needed to provide more access to the lab, cooperate more fully with the scientific investigators. And we don't think that they have met that standard,”

 

LINDA:

The G-7 called on the World Health Organisation to conduct a fact based, evidence based enquiry.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #6: 

“G7 leaders want a renewed and transparent investigation into the origin of Covid-19, calling for a resumption of a WHO-lead study in China.” 

 

LINDA:

The problem is that it's become so politicised that the science is getting lost, or it's getting drowned out by voices that have other agendas. You know, and this is the important thing. We really need to just calm down, and see what the science comes up with.

 

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

 

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RUBY:

Linda, what are the questions scientists are currently grappling with in terms of the real origins of COVID-19,and the likelihood that it did emerge from a lab in Wuhan? 

 

LINDA:

Here's some of the questions that we still need answered. At some point in 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology took off line a whole set of data that might or might not be relevant. They say it was to protect it from hackers, but we don't know. But it also has to be said that any kind of virology lab, anywhere, comes with very strict protocols. The United States has very strict protocols over classified information related to virology research. China does, too. So this is not necessarily suspicious in itself.

 

There's a question that was raised by US Intelligence. They claim that three staff members from the Wuhan Institute of Virology became ill before the first reported cases of Covid. Dr. Shi Zhengli, who runs that lab, has said, ‘tell me their names, I would like to know.’ She said once this thing happened, we did tests on all of our staff and we found none with antibodies suggesting that no one had been infected. 

 

There also seem to have been, interestingly enough, several cases, and this has been discovered by a retrospective examination of lab samples and so on; of people who became ill with what seems to be Sars-Cov-2 in the United States and France, before the epidemic broke out seriously in China. The Chinese have their share of conspiracy theories as well. One of them is that the virus actually leaked from a bioweapons lab in Maryland in the United States, or that it arrived in China on the packaging of imported frozen goods. So I've gone from circumstantial evidence into conspiracy theories, but I can return to circumstantial evidence if you like. 

 

RUBY:

That's exactly what's happened, though, isn't it?

 

LINDA:

It's a bit of an easy slide. Yes.

  

RUBY:

So do you think that we will ever find out exactly where the virus came from?

 

LINDA:

I don't know. But the second question is, why do we want to know? Now if the reason we want to know is because we are looking for a scapegoat, because we want to start a fight with China and so on, that's one thing. 

 

If we want to know, and this is the real reason we need to know, or we should want to know. We want to prevent future pandemics like this from breaking out. But the good news is that we don't need to find out to prevent another pandemic because we've got two very valid hypotheses. The first one, the zoonotic transmission one, suggests that we need to really take seriously how to manage wildlife, human interaction. We need to strongly manage the hunting and sale and consumption of wild animals, including for their fur. We need to manage the environment better because the climate crisis is the key factor moving environmental degradation; the shrinking of natural habitats and so on, that is bringing wildlife into closer contact and more frequent contact with humans. So if we look at those questions, questions of regulation, questions of addressing the climate crisis, this is one way to address the pandemic. 

 

At the same time, we want to take seriously the fact that biosecurity in virology labs is a problem. And so regulation and oversight and transparency really needs to be a focus for both global and national efforts.

 

RUBY:

That all makes a lot of sense Linda, so why do you think it is then, that these conspiracy theories have become so popular, and swept up so many people?

 

LINDA:

People respond to conspiracy theories because the world is confusing. There are no clear answers. And with the virus, we don't have clear answers. The whole world has been suffering so much as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic that people want to understand it. They want an easy answer. They don't want all this confusing information about this hypothesis and that hypothesis and genetic make up, you know, genetic sequences of viruses. This is all way too hard. It's very comforting to think that not only is there a clear explanation, but there's a villain that we can all hate. This is both the appeal and the danger of conspiracy theories more generally.

 

RUBY:

Hmm. Linda, thank you so much for your time.

 

LINDA:

Thank you.

 

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[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today…

New South Wales recorded 30 new cases of Covid-19 on Sunday. Several of the new cases weren’t isolating while infectious, and the state government has warned numbers are likely to keep rising.

Meanwhile Queensland has reported two new cases of community transmission, though that cluster is not linked to the outbreak in New South Wales.

New Zealand has suspended the trans-Tasman travel bubble for at least the next three days, citing the multiple outbreaks in Australia.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

 

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