By Jianli Yang and Austin Li
On Feb. 28, 2023, responding to the Energy Department’s new conclusion that an accidental laboratory leak in China is the most likely cause of the coronavirus pandemic, the Washington Post columnist Leana S. Wen published an op-ed, “We are asking the wrong question about the origins of covid.” She was right that we should do our best to reduce two sources of future pandemics: 1) zoonotic diseases, spread from animals to humans; and 2) lab biosafety. We further agree with her that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has actively obstructed the investigation of the origin of COVID. Not only that, the CCP has jailed brave Chinese journalists who reported on pandemic-related events in Wuhan and spread false rumors that COVID originated in Fort Detrick in America.
We do disagree strongly with Wen when she shifts the focus immediately away from the need for an in-depth investigation of the epidemic’s origin. We owe it to more than a million Americans who died from COVID, and millions more worldwide. It is certain that we can learn much more about the origin question even without the CCP’s cooperation. There is relevant information held by the National Institutes of Health, the EcoHealth Alliance and the Baric Lab (affiliated with the University of North Carolina and partners of the Wuhan researchers). The FBI now has “moderate confidence” that the source is a lab leak, a conclusion reached in part by looking at documents related to EcoHealth Alliance. Last week, the Department of Energy moved from “undecided” to leaning leak due to new intelligence. Therefore, a 9-11 style independent commission could go a long way by merging information from all these agencies.
Anyone who suggests that the origin doesn’t matter, or it’s too late to investigate, or we can’t investigate because China isn’t cooperating, or we may never know, is either dishonest or disingenuous. We wonder if the same sentiment and logic can be expressed when we face other major catastrophes, such as 9-11, plane crashes, or the recent train derailment in Ohio.
The former NIH directors, Drs. Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci, are rightfully a focus of investigation, since they had long advocated for and funded risky gain of function (GoF) research. They even published, along with Gary J. Nabel, an Op-Ed in the Washington Post titled “A flu virus risk worth taking” all the way back in 2011. Together with a small circle of virologists with deep conflicts of interest, without firm evidence they knowingly pushed the natural COVID-origin narrative in 2020, to shut down the very reasonable lab-leak inquiry.
While the origin of COVID is an apolitical question, like most things now it has been politicized by both sides. Some on the right proclaim Senator Tom Cotton and some of the Trump administration officials weres right about the lab-leak theory; but it certainly does not excuse the former President’s false claim of a stolen election and his role in the events of January 6th. Similarly, the left, and the majority of the media, have not apologized for their suppression of the lab-leak hypothesis for the past three years. Even now, some on the left still use Trump and racism as excuses for silencing the origin debate. The similarities between the election deniers and lab-leak deniers, albeit their difference intensity, are eerily similar in that ideology completely overrides facts. Replace Anthony Fauci with the name John Doe; if John Doe had funded and outsourced GoF research to Wuhan, planted false narratives in the media, conspired with a small group of GoF virologists, and dismissed lab-leak inquiries, the Democrats would likely be asking tough questions, since Saint Fauci wouldn’t be in the picture.
Journalists like Wen should reflect instead of continuing to pontificate. Why was the lab-leak hypothesis ever called a conspiracy theory, or even racist? Where was the call for sanity and logic when these toxic labels were thrown around? Why was the media so vulnerable to groupthink and self-censorship? Somehow Chinese eating bat soup as the likely origin is less racist?
Lastly, we must have a public discussion about risky GoF experiments. If viruses are made to be more infectious in labs and they then leak out, the entire world can be impacted, as we all have just experienced during the COVID pandemic. Citizens must have input over whether such a line of research should exist; this can NOT be decided by scientists only.
Let’s have an independent bipartisan investigation about COVID’s origin. We are a better country when we can admit our own mistakes.
Jianli Yang is Founder and President of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and author of Examining China’s Response to the Covid-19 Outbreak (September 2019-January 2020): The Catastrophe That Could Have Been Avoided
Austin Lin is a bio-scientist at the State University of New York and consultant to Citizen Power Initiatives for China.