This week: conversations with Nicholson Baker, Alina Chan, Antonio Regalado, and Richard Ebright about the COVID lab leak hypothesis. Hear it today at 2 pm or anytime at our site.
This past week, the COVID lab leak theory went mainstream, culminating in Biden’s call for an investigation into the pandemic’s origins. The theory—that the virus might have come out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)—has been around for a while, sometimes espoused by rigorous investigators, but sometimes by the other kind of investigator, and often dismissed early in the pandemic due to its associations with the latter.
On our latest show, we talk to four inquirers into this mystery: Alina Chan, Nicholson Baker, Antonio Regalado, and Richard Ebright, who take us beyond the bellicose framing and the conspiracy theories. The novelist Nicholson Baker wrote a major New York magazine article about the lab leak possibility a few months ago, and on our show this week, he points out that the coronavirus lab work in question at the WIV was not exclusively a Chinese project, but rather part of an international collaboration.
This is a worldwide problem, it was a worldwide collaboration of overambitious science that maybe gave us this thing, but it’s also got to be something in which we all set aside whatever squabbles we have, and sometimes, really reasonable objections we have to governments, and say, what can we do to get to a state where we’re all healthier.
Still, those other takes on the lab leak possibility — from xenophobic voices, for instance—persist. Antonio Regalado, a science journalist with the MIT Technology Review, says this hour about lab leak discussion on Twitter:
When I post about the lab leak theory, the people who respond to that and who like it or add comments, I mean, it’s not the best group of people, I would say. It’s a lot of nuts, so to judge these tweets by the company that they’re keeping, it’s not that positive. And so that does give me pause. I mean, who is amplifying the lab leak question online? Alina is a serious scientist, Nicholson Baker has written a very well-researched article for New York magazine, but it is still being amplified by a kind of trollish right-wing contingent who still have these other aims.
Alina Chan of the Broad Institute says that, while there is no proof that COVID originated in a lab, we also still have no proof that it originated naturally:
I just want to point out again here that the people who think that this must have been natural, they’re all also working with the fumes of circumstantial evidence. There’s no direct evidence that this came from an animal. There’s no evidence, no intermediate host found even after a year and a half of searching
Richard Ebright of Rutgers closes out the hour, and he elaborates on the gain-of-function side of the lab leak hypothesis. Gain-of-function experiments on viruses make them more infectious, more dangerous, so that potential dangers can be studied in a lab. Recent Open Source guest Marc Lipsitch is, like Ebright, one of many scientists who have long opposed such studies due to their risks, and in 2018 he proposed permanently banning gain-of-function work; Anthony Fauci has, in the past, supported GoF work.
To understand and confront possible pandemics, scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology carried out experiments on dangerous viruses, with funding from the U.S., that Ebright characterizes as gain-of-function but Anthony Fauci does not. Rand Paul claimed the Cambridge Working Group released a statement alleging the work was gain-of-function, but Lipsitch (who, like Ebright, is a founding member of this Cambridge group opposed to risky study of pathogens) points out that this is false: there was no such CWG statement. Either way: lab leaks of viruses could happen with or without gain-of-function experiments.
Questions about U.S. funding and gain-of-function experiment at the WIV have been elided in articles on the lab leak hypothesis; on the other hand, Fauci’s involvement with the lab’s work has also been exaggerated on the most watched news channel by, for instance, Tucker Carlson, who said things like, “This wouldn’t have happened if Tony Fauci didn’t allow it to happen, that is clear,” and claimed that Fauci “commissioned the work” in the Wuhan lab.
In fact, the U.S. contributed a fraction of the funding for the coronavirus lab research led by Dr. Shi Zhengli at the WIV, and Anthony Fauci did not assign WIV scientists their research agenda or methods. More simply, as our guests this week explain, infectious disease research is international, and work at the WIV with apparent safety issues had U.S. support. Says Ebright:
This is not simply a matter of China’s actions and China’s decisions. This also engages the international community’s actions and the international community’s decisions, decisions to construct the facility, to train the personnel, to fund the research, and not to carry out a risk benefit assessment for the facility or for the research, and not to specify a sufficient and adequate standard of biosafety and biosecurity for the institute and the research, and so it’s not just China and it’s not just one institution in China and it’s not just one laboratory and its staff.
Read: U and I
In this highly original and intelligent meditation, which the author suggests could be called “memory criticism, understood as a form of commentary that relies entirely on what has survived in a reader’s mind from a particular writer over at least ten years of spotty perusal,” the novelist Nicholson Baker (“The Mezzanine,” “Room Temperature”) becomes deeply disturbed by the death of Donald Barthelme and determines to embark on an essay about John Updike, while that writer is still alive and productive. The fruit of Mr. Baker’s labor is “U and I,” which he first adapted for The Atlantic and has now expanded into its present form. The book will delight other writers.
Early on, despite his obsession with Mr. Updike (“Hardly a day has passed over the last thirteen years in which Updike has not occupied at least a thought or two”), Mr. Baker reveals, surprisingly enough, that he has in fact read less than half of what Mr. Updike has written. Nevertheless, using remembered (sometimes erroneously) snippets from Mr. Updike’s books and quotations that he keeps on index cards, Mr. Baker sets out on a fascinating if unsteady journey of literary analysis and self-discovery, shuttling back and forth between soaring, manic moments of unabashed hero-worship and sober, even critical appraisals of the man who, he says, has haunted, inspired and influenced him beyond any other.
Watch: Cat People
A horror classic about myth, insanity, transformation, and the atmosphere of lonely places, Cat People (1942) captures what it’s like to live in an unsettled, haunted world, overburdened with meaning and history. It’s a movie about people, across centuries, turning into killer cats, but it lacks special effects, mostly. The fear is set up in conversation—with a psychiatrist, between newlyweds, among co-workers—then let loose when the conversations end.
This week’s ephemeral library
Donald McNeill on How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lab Leak Theory. How the Liberal Media Dismissed the Lab Leak. Jelani Cobb on racial hypocrisy. Megan Garber on sitcom fantasies of the ’90s. Bob Dylan is 80 Years Old Today; His Soul is Infinitely Older. Beyond Mr Tambourine Man: 80 Bob Dylan Songs Everyone Should Know.
That’s all for this week, folks. Hope you’re enjoying the long weekend.
Your OS Science Sleuths