On Aug. 19, Michael Lauer, an official at the National Institutes of Health, wrote to Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, regarding an NIH grant to the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance. In it, Lauer explained that part of the grant in question had been terminated for “failure to meet terms and conditions requiring provision of records to NIH upon request.” The Committee’s Twitter account declared the NIH’s action “inadequate,” since it left the rest of the delinquent NGO’s funding intact.
This will sound to most like an obscure bureaucratic feud; perhaps for that reason, it received virtually no media coverage. Yet media apathy about the rescinding of this grant is astonishing, given the location and subject of the research in question. The title of the terminated grant was “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” and the EcoHealth partner that had failed to provide requested records was the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In other words, two and a half years after SARS-Cov-2—a virus that almost certainly originated among bats—made its mysterious first appearance in Wuhan, a research institute there where bat coronaviruses were being studied and stored for many years was still receiving US taxpayer funds until very recently, despite a persistent refusal to furnish documents to the NIH. The fact that this news passed under the radar is just the latest manifestation of a bizarre collective amnesia about a lingering mystery: the origin of a virus that has transformed the world.
The Wuhan institute’s projects have included gain-of-function research, which involves genetically modifying viruses to enhance their ability to infect humans. (Institute scientists have admitted to modifying a coronavirus to become more infectious in mice, although they claim this was unintentional.) Early in 2020, many virologists were alarmed by the proximity of the first recorded cases in Wuhan to the site of the institute, even if most would soon embrace the official line that direct spillover from animals to humans was the more likely scenario.
But regardless of how plausible one finds the lab-leak hypothesis, the fact that the prime suspects have spent years turning down an opportunity to clear themselves should be a scandal. Equally disturbing is the fact that the zoologist Peter Daszak, EcoHealth’s president, spearheaded the initial campaign to smear anyone pursuing the lab origin hypothesis as a conspiracy theorist by writing and gathering signatures for a letter to this effect in the medical journal Lancet. More than a year later, Lancet acknowledged Daszak’s failure to disclose his conflicting interests in this matter.
If we assume the scientists at the Wuhan institute didn’t engineer and inadvertently leak the virus, they simply found themselves doing the wrong kind of research in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it’s no conspiracy theory to assert that the relevant parties have made a concerted effort to stymie inquiries into bat-coronavirus research in Wuhan. In the best-case scenario for the Wuhan institute, the episode demonstrates that researchers entrusted with protecting us from infectious diseases are as self-interested as any other party, and will lie and obfuscate if their revenue stream is threatened by bad p.r. This is hardly more encouraging than the leak scenario itself.
Making matters worse, much of the establishment media has played along with the lies and obfuscation, as is now evident in the blackout of coverage of the NIH grant’s termination. The proximate cause of this neglect was probably the endorsement of the lab-leak hypothesis by then-President Donald Trump and his allies, which instantly placed it in the category of “disinformation” and dampened all curiosity on the part of the “resistance”-aligned media outlets. After Trump’s departure, there was a slight opening up of discussion on the subject, beginning with Nicholson Baker’s long essay in New York magazine, followed by the Biden administration’s inconclusive report of a year ago, which made clear that a lab leak hasn’t been ruled out.
But lately, lab origin is no longer flatly denied, because it doesn’t need to be: The whole question of Covid’s origins has been sidelined and treated as irrelevant. Even those who publicly insist on animal origin seem largely incurious about what other species the virus passed through on its way to humans, and likewise unconcerned about the continued animal trafficking that, according to their own preferred theory, enabled the virus to reach Wuhan in the first place. Blithe unconcern about the virus’s origin reigns.
There are deeper reasons for the ongoing amnesia about this unsolved mystery. When archaic societies faced disasters like plagues, they often sought not a natural cause, but a human moral agent who could be scapegoated for the crisis. The individuals blamed were declared witches or sorcerers; their execution or expulsion couldn’t end the crisis but might mitigate and redirect its socially corrosive effects. During this contemporary plague, many of us have behaved similarly, more eager to elaborate monocausal explanations that villainize political enemies than to pursue the truth.
Unfortunately, this has been especially true of many so-called Covid “experts” and their media and political allies, who found convenient scapegoats not only in Trump and red-state governors, but in the unmasked and unvaccinated. At the same time, their predilection for the animal-origin theory is of a piece with a general determination to treat all impacts of Covid as natural consequences of the virus itself, rather than political consequences of their own questionable choices about how to address it.
Since the virus must be seen as an arbitrary interloper from nature that has forced our hands at every turn, the notion that it emerged out of artificial human manipulation is unacceptable—as is the implication that their scientific colleagues bear any responsibility.
Hence, we remain ignorant of the answer to a question that is vital for avoiding a rerun of the disasters of recent years, regardless of how we assess the damage done by the virus itself versus that wrought by draconian policies justified on the basis of it. Even worse, we don’t know whether a project aimed at forestalling a major viral outbreak—this, after all, was the stated aim of the research on bat coronaviruses in Wuhan—was, in fact, what caused one.
Regardless of whether we ever find proof of what happened in Wuhan, we know that lab leaks can and do happen, and that gain-of-function research continues apace. A moratorium imposed by the Obama administration in 2014, back when concern about such research was found on both sides of the aisle, was lifted in 2017. Despite Trump’s promotion of the lab-leak theory, his administration didn’t reimpose the Obama-era moratorium.
Those in Congress who have successfully demanded transparency from the NIH should also demand reinstatement of the moratorium, in the former president’s phrase, until our democratic representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.