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Opinion: Why Are So Few People Investigating Covid’s Origins?

China may be blocking access to ground zero, but there is evidence to uncover elsewhere — if only more people would try.

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The origin of Covid-19 remains a subject of intense public interest, and it hinges on two main hypotheses: One holds that the virus developed naturally among wild animals and spilled over into people, most likely through a wildlife market in Wuhan, China. The other posits that the virus came by way of an accidental exposure during fieldwork or a leak from a virology lab in the same city, known for conducting extensive and, many say, risky experiments on novel coronaviruses from wild animals.

Figuring out which hypothesis is true is of utmost importance, given the pandemic’s toll. The U.S. alone has suffered more than a million Covid-19 deaths and hundreds of millions of infections, leaving many struggling with long Covid and pandemic-related mental health problems. Experts have estimated that Covid-19 will cost the U.S. $16 trillion — nearly half of its national debt for context. In light of all this, one would expect an army of investigative journalists to be digging for the truth, and a bipartisan commission with subpoena powers to be in full force to find the origin of Covid-19.

To date, neither have really happened. The New York Times reported last year that the White House privately opposed forming such a commission despite appeals by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. And this year, the Director of National Intelligence failed to release classified intelligence potentially linking the Wuhan Institute of Virology to the origin of Covid-19 — in spite of a bill passed unanimously in both the Senate and House and signed into law by President Biden. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington and the House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair, called this “a slap in the face of Americans who deserve full transparency about what information the government possesses regarding the origins of COVID-19.”

China’s refusal to allow access to the Wuhan laboratory and other key pieces of information has made a full investigation nearly impossible. However, the coronavirus research in Wuhan was part of a U.S.-China collaboration, suggesting that there are tranches of evidence to be explored here at home. And yet, as journalist Katherine Eban recently wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, most news outlets have avoided truly digging into this evidence.

“The story is toxic to most news outlets due to (false) claims that it’s somehow right-wing/anti-science to investigate how upwards of 10-million people died,” wrote Eban, who is among the few journalists who have given the lab leak hypothesis a serious look. “Only a small band of journos continues to actually report.”

Most notably, in 2021, a group of amateur online sleuths known at the time as Drastic obtained a research proposal written by U.S. and Wuhan scientists and submitted to a Department of Defense agency in 2018. The proposal detailed plans to grow or synthesize novel SARS-like coronaviruses from bats, and to test these on human airway cells and humanized mice — models for human SARS infection. The proposal shows that the scientists specifically wanted to bring novel SARS-like coronaviruses collected in nature back to the lab and insert a feature called a furin cleavage site, which could alter — and even enhance — a virus’ ability to transmit across species and cause disease.

The Defense Department ultimately rejected that proposal, but the SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan in late 2019 possessed just such a furin cleavage site —  a feature so far not observed in other SARS-like viruses found in nature. To a skeptical observer, it was as if these scientists proposed to put horns on horses and not two years later a unicorn showed up in their city.

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A natural question is whether the Wuhan scientists undertook any of this work on their own despite the funding rejection from the U.S. Defense Department, and if so, whether their U.S. counterparts worried, or even knew, that this was the case. Despite all this, the leak of the 2018 proposal — a significant development — was largely ignored by most major news outlets. And we have yet to see any formal government investigation compel these U.S. scientists to hand over all communications and documents exchanged with Wuhan scientists.

Instead, a small band of determined sleuths, scientists, and journalists have been left to chip away at one of the biggest stories — and scientific mysteries — of the modern era. Most recently, an organization known as U.S. Right to Know released earlier drafts of the failed 2018 proposal, which they obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. These documents seemed to reveal that U.S. investigators were, indeed, planning to delegate some virus engineering experiments to the Wuhan lab — a detail that does not seem to have been included in the final Defense Department proposal.

Margin comments on an early draft of a 2018 grant proposal that was being prepared for submission to the U.S. Department of Defense. The application was denied.

The U.S. researchers have since responded to the release of these new draft documents, calling the interpretations misleading. And some critics have dismissed USRTK as being driven by an anti-science agenda. But even if that were true, the public should have long ago been afforded an opportunity to review such crucial documents for themselves, raising the question of why, as we enter the fifth year of the Covid-19 era, no other organizations — not The New York Times, not CNN, no Congressional investigator or empaneled commission — managed to dig up these documents sooner.

Instead, it has been outlets like the Intercept, Eban writing at Vanity Fair, and the activists at USRTK, who have turned up a steady drip of revelations about risky experiments and uncanny coincidences. Have they proven that the virus came from a lab? No. But imagine if the lab leak theory had not been so quickly dismissed by influential scientists in 2020, and subsequently given short shrift by many in the media — including, early on, this one. Leading journalists and formal investigators might have rapidly unearthed everything that we know today, and likely much more.

As it stands, the stunning lack of curiosity among mainstream journalists and scientists, as well as many government officials, stands in stark contrast to public opinion. Polls this year found that a significant number of people around the world — and a majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. — believe the pandemic virus likely originated from a laboratory in China. This view is also supported by assessments from two U.S. intelligence agencies, staffed with some of the nation’s the top scientists.

But it is shocking that we still do not have access, among other things, to communications and documents that would help put the matter to rest — including those exchanged between the Wuhan scientists and their U.S. collaborators before and during the Covid-19 pandemic. China may have blocked meaningful access to ground zero, but critical sources of evidence are conceivably within the reach of U.S. investigators and journalists — if only they would try.


Alina Chan is co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, scientific adviser at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and a member of the Pathogens Project task force organized by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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