Those who suppressed the lab-leak COVID theory need to be investigated

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Every day, it seems, the evidence suggesting COVID-19 leaked from a Chinese lab grows. Except much of this evidence was apparent almost from the pandemic’s beginning. It’s outrageous that all discussion of it was successfully suppressed for more than a year — by those who stood to benefit from misleading the public.

There was plenty of circumstantial evidence to at least consider the lab-leak theory by February 2020. The disease first appeared in Wuhan, where a virology lab focused on studying coronaviruses. Beijing tightened its rules for biolab security in the early days of China’s epidemic, and disappeared doctors and others who sent warning signals, denying there was evidence (which it had) of human-to-human transmission. And from the start, it has refused to release records or allow independent investigations in Wuhan.

“But the most compelling reason to favor the lab-leak hypothesis is firmly based in science,” physician Steven Quay and physicist Richard Muller wrote in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend. COVID “has a genetic footprint that has never been observed in a natural coronavirus” — but has been used repeatedly by “gain of function” researchers supercharging viruses. That it was immediately contagious, without the usual evolutionary steps, “is unprecedented” — and also suggests it was man-made.

The authors remark that within weeks after the release of COVID’s genome in February 2020, a team of French and Canadian scientists noted in a paper that it “may provide a gain-of-function” capability “for efficient spreading” to humans.

But many virology insiders didn’t want “gain of function” work to get the blame, including Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance, which had actually used a US government grant to fund coronavirus work at the Wuhan lab.

Crucially, Daszak worked to suppress any lab-leak talk. He quietly organized a February 2020 statement in The Lancet, which he signed with 26 others, that declared, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”

Only when 18 prominent researchers wrote a letter to Science magazine last month criticizing the World Health Organization’s whitewashing trip to China — on which Daszak was the only American — and calling for the lab-leak hypothesis to be taken “seriously” with a “proper investigation” did the tide turn. President Joe Biden, who’d previously dismissed the theory, ordered intelligence agencies to do a 90-day investigation.

He wasn’t the only one: As the Financial Times reports, many feared talk of the theory would help then-President Donald Trump “vilify China to deflect blame for his handling of the pandemic” and were “wary” of “angering influential scientists who had dismissed the theory.”

A pandemic should never have been politicized. In addition to pushing China to allow a real investigation, the world needs answers from those in science and government who stood in the way of even asking the right questions.

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