In November 2020, Metzl wrote to David Quammen, a foremost science journalist and author of the influential book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, sharing a scientific paper that posited a laboratory origin, based on some of the unusual features of the SARS-CoV-2 sequence.
Quammen wrote back to Metzl, “I want to understand why, in addition to evidence or the absence of evidence, these theories have such appeal. In connection with that, a question, and I don’t mean it to be coy, merely curious: Do you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed JFK? Or not?”
In an email to Vanity Fair, Quammen wrote that both scenarios—of multiple assassins shooting at Kennedy, and that of COVID-19 leaking from a lab—were fundamentally more dramatic than the alternatives. “I wondered genuinely whether there was any correlation between adherents to the respective scenarios,” he said.
While Metzl certainly didn’t appreciate Quammen’s implication, there is a growing chance that the Wuhan Institute of Virology could wind up being a 21st-century successor to the grassy knoll, the spot near the site of President Kennedy’s assassination where reports of gunfire led to the unproven theory that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. That’s because, with U.S. intelligence agencies divided and biological signals degrading, it is possible that we may never know where COVID-19 originated.
The summary report issued Friday made clear that the intelligence agencies have come up against the limit of what is knowable, “unless new information allows them to determine the specific pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to determine that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus before COVID-19 emerged.”
One of the main obstacles to a full accounting was and remains the unwillingness of China’s authoritarian government, which vociferously denies that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a Wuhan laboratory, to conduct or facilitate a transparent investigation.
Under international health regulations in effect since 2007, the 194 World Health Organization member states must notify it of all “events that may constitute a public health emergency of international concern.” Unexpected cases of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) would trigger that reporting requirement, according to the regulations.
But as far back as 2012, China failed to meet its obligation under that standard. In 2012, six miners were sent to clean an abandoned mine shaft in Yunnan province and fell gravely ill, after days of shoveling bat guano. Three of them died, the cases drawing keen interest from Chinese scientists. But the Chinese government never reported the incident to the WHO, a spokesperson there confirmed to Vanity Fair.
A bat sample from that mine shaft, sequenced by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was 96.2% similar to the SARS-CoV-2 sequence, and is its closest known progenitor. But those facts, among others, have only emerged due to the efforts of independent scientists, some of them doing research in a group they call DRASTIC, short for Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19. Their stated objective was to solve the riddle of COVID-19’s origin.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Chinese government has seemed to do everything in its power to suppress crucial facts. It denied early on that there was evidence that the virus was transmissible between humans, ordered laboratory samples destroyed, muzzled scientists, and claimed the right to review any scientific research about COVID-19 ahead of publication. As the pandemic spread across the world, the international science community failed to recognize that China seemed to be forcing its own scientists to play with a different set of rules.
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