Back to the Beginning…Wet Market or Lab Leak?

Hort Blog#6 3-9-23 image

People who are tired of thinking about the novel coronavirus are even more tired of thinking about where the virus came from.  That would probably be the majority of people these days.  But that majority would not include the people who work in the U.S. Energy Department’s Z Division.  Since the 1960’s, the Z Division’s assignment has been to investigate nuclear, chemical, and biological weapon threats by America’s adversaries, including Russia and...China.[1]

In the past few weeks, the Z Division has reassigned as “low confidence” the theory that a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of the novel coronavirus outbreak and subsequent.[2]  This might seem like a nearly invisible blip on the screen of Things That Matter, but putting aside the political inflation of all things Covid, this shift is actually worth some consideration.

The biggest problem in determining the source of the coronavirus pandemic is that the Chinese government has circled its most restrictive wagons around Wuhan since the beginning of the outbreak.  And the second biggest problem is that there is a rather small and interconnected circle of scientists in the world who perform research on viruses, especially the “gain of function” research that tries to identify (or design) potentially dangerous viruses for the noble purpose of combatting them.  These scientists are a not happy about bad viral news that pertains to things like lab leaks, because scary lab news can seriously erode public opinion and jeopardize their livelihoods and careers.  And the third biggest problem is that every morsel of news pertaining to the source of the novel coronavirus is fodder for the political theatrics currently distort and disable our government and our media.

In the midst of all this whitewashing, mudslinging, ass-covering, and wild conjecture, it is no wonder that we are no closer to an answer about the origins of the Covid pandemic than we ever were.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone has stopped trying to identify them.  The Z Division of the U.S. Energy Department has clearly not stopped trying.  And neither have a variety of very smart individuals who are skilled at scientific detective work.

One of these individuals was Nicolas Wade, a former science reporter for the New York Times, who wrote a frankly inquisitive article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in which he presented a persuasive argument that the lab leak theory merited further investigation.[3]  Wade’s article was quickly denounced by many scientists, especially the virologists mentioned earlier.  But the recent re-evaluation by the Energy Department’s Z Division, an entity not known for unfounded speculation, lends considerably more weight to Wade’s hypothesis.

As many authors have said, our ability to firmly determine the origins of the novel coronavirus may now be lost, devoured by the competing forces of the Chinese government’s hunger to protect its reputations and the bottomless maw of Time when it comes to evidence.  But it’s hard to dismiss the ascerbic (albeit hilarious) framing that was given to this question by Jon Stewart, during the first post-lockdown episode of Stephen Colbert’s Late Night in June 2021:[4]

“Oh, my God, there’s a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China. What do we do?  Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan Novel Coronavirus Lab!”

“And so they ask those scientists... ‘You work at the Wuhan Novel Coronavirus Lab! How did this happen?' And they’re like, ‘Oh, a pangolin kissed a turtle.”

“[It’s like] Oh, my God, there’s been an outbreak of chocolaty goodness near Hershey, Pennsylvania. What do you think happened?' ‘Oh I don’t know, maybe a steam shovel mated with a cocoa bean?’”

“Or it’s the fucking chocolate factory! Maybe that’s it?”

Perhaps it is impossible to find the origin of the novel coronavirus outbreak.  But there’s a certain comfort in knowing that someone is still trying...



[3] Wade, Nicolas “The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 5, 2021. nature-open-pandoras-box-at-wuhan/

[4] Blake, Aaron “Jon Stewart goes all-in on the lab leak theory.” The Washington Post, June 15, 2021