For a long time, the thesis that the SARS-CoV-2 virus did not come from a natural origin, but was of human origin and possibly released in a breakdown in a laboratory, was considered off-hand – and this despite the fact that the US presidents Trump and Biden and their services apparently seriously considered and are considering this explanation.
One of the worst long-term consequences of the political handling of SARS-CoV-2 and its media accompaniment is a psychological deformation born of fear, which takes shape in a variety of symptoms. One of these forms is that of a blockade of any rational examination of almost all aspects of the virus, its effects and especially its origin. Assumptions that this was not directly in nature, but rather human intervention in the form of genetic manipulation in a laboratory with subsequent release — by whatever circumstances or motives — had been involved, were quickly rejected by prominent and loud voices from the scientific community and vehemently opposed in the dominant media. As with many other questions, with such guesses, the V-word was and is still very quickly at hand, and even faster when an actor considered disqualified, in this case Donald Trump, utters them.
It is clear that the presumption that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory is eagerly seized upon and spread by actors engaged in a confrontation between the West and China. However, neither peace between peoples nor world health will be served if this presumption is left unchecked for this reason, especially since there is strong and increasingly condensing evidence for it. An investigation is in the highest interest of all peoples, including the Chinese, because the evidence points to a questionable research program and a corresponding research practice, which are by no means limited to China, but find interested parties and financiers outside China. In fact, they are being followed around the world and pose difficult-to-assess threats to global health. In view of this situation, according to the motto that can not be what must not be, to talk about a “conspiracy myth” and to claim that " among scientists (…) there is a broad consensus worldwide that the coronavirus was neither artificially produced nor escaped from a laboratory," means misleading its audience. Because, in fact, there is no such consensus.
When participants in the debate about COVID-19 and its origins put the V-word in their mouths to devalue the opposite side, claiming to have the overwhelming consensus of science on their side and, above all, to be morally in the camp of those who heroically led the fight against the virus, critical caution is appropriate. In fact, in March last year, it was a letter signed by several scientists, including Christian Drosten, to the renowned medical journal The Lancet, which used precisely those means to influence public opinion and thus also had success. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin, “it said, claiming"scientists from multiple countries have published and analyzed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens.” And finally, the “science and health professionals of China, (…) that we stand with you in your fight against this virus”. Another letter published shortly afterwards in Nature Medicine, which attempted to substantiate the mere declaration of the Lancet letter with arguments, did not fail to have its intended effect: in the mainstream media, the laboratory theory of the virus origin is still considered settled.
The fact that the signatories of the Lancet letter stood for pronounced interests that remained undeclared in violation of the standards of scientific publishing, which would be seriously damaged by a closer examination and even more so by a confirmation of laboratory theory, was only slowly made public. The EcoHealth Alliance, with which most of the signatories are associated, unless they, like Peter Daszak, the initiator of the letter, perform key functions there, acts as a switching point between research programs, research institutions and funders — the research that is at the center of interest there has a lot to do with viruses and the possibilities of increasing their virulence, while among the donors are US authorities such as the Department of Defense (DoD) and the national health authorities (NIH, National Institutes of Health) and among the recipients also the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). The latter institute, in the city where SARS-CoV-2 first appeared, has been conducting research on animal coronaviruses for many years, until 2020, funded by NIH funds obtained through the mediation of the EcoHealth Alliance, in collaboration with US researchers, in particular on how genetic changes could empower them to pass to humans. In addition to the WIV, there is a second institute, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention (WHCDC) in Wuhan, where comparable research takes place.
In fact, the claims that the natural origin of the SARS-CoV-2 was beyond doubt met with emphatic opposition, but largely ignored by the mainstream media. Interestingly, the contradiction hardly came from the field of human medicine or virology, but from the natural sciences, more precisely: rather their second series, and was also published on corresponding platforms. Rossana Segreto, who had self-motivated studies in parallel to her work at the University of Innsbruck and only after seven failed attempts found a journal that wanted to publish her results, met an echo outside the professional world and in some alternative media only in regional Austrian media such as the Tiroler Tageszeitung and the Kurier, the latter in the, probably not formulated by the author of the article, title, but in the text as well as the former gave a rough outline of its argumentation.
Among the reflections in the alternative media, the treatment by the Viennese psychiatrist Raphael Bonelli stands out — not only by the quietly distanced and differentiated way he is accustomed to, but also by the admission that he should have overcome a ban on thinking first; namely, to engage in something that an instance in the head would have marked as conspiracy theory due to certain structural characteristics and linguistic keys. Bonelli thus identified a mechanism that excludes rational debate not only with regard to SARS-CoV-2, but also other topics such as 9/11 and poisons the social climate: the certainty of being able to classify utterances without appreciation of arguments and facts as out of the question already on the basis of certain formal characteristics — choice of words, argumentative or narrative structure — or their proximity to or their reference to instances already considered to be excluded. One moves in a self-referential, closed-off universe. But the truth of statements is not a quality that would be decided purely on the basis of language. Large parts of the left have forgotten this, as has the Chancellor, who says she has a “fact-based language” at her disposal.
Quite different from Rossana Segreto and her coauthors was the Hamburg physics professor Roland Wiesendanger, who as a non-specialist, unlike those, did not primarily or solely microbiologically argue in terms of content, but created a patchwork of evidence from a variety of sources that should suggest the laboratory origin of the virus: he thus triggered the usual reflexes at ZDF, NDR, DW, etc., often in the guise of a “fact check”. Only the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, which otherwise does not consistently adopt the dogged approach of German media in the COVID-19 case, granted, noblesse oblige, Wiesendanger a fair interview. This does not give a good picture, either of the relations within the sciences or between them, or even of the way in which the media deals with them. While taboos and peer pressure seem to be quite effective in medicine, in the natural sciences, at least in their second row, there is more tendency to contradict and with sufficient perseverance even a publication platform for it can be found; the popular media simply ignore everything that does not come from at least a current or emeritus chair holder or another sufficiently well-known person, and in the other case ruthlessly crush it, unless it fits into their preconceived worldview.
Some politicians, journalists and big intellectuals may now have to choke down the tons of V-words distributed, after the new US president, whom they so much love, seems now at least cautiously willing to consider what his predecessor has declared to be certain and has thrown around in an undoubtedly clumsy way: the suspicion that SARS-CoV-2 in the WIV may have originated through genetic engineering and escaped from it through lack of caution. What is delicate about the matter is that it does not turn into a one-sided accusation against China in a clumsy Trumpian way, but that the USA itself, more precisely: US authorities and scientific organizations, are deeply involved in it and that, in addition, a whole research program, which has been persecuted worldwide and transferred by US actors to foreign centers in order to circumvent stricter national rules, which has already been criticized before, proves to be too dangerous and of highly questionable benefit. This program aims at what is called gain of function (GOF) in technical jargon, i.e. to create variants of viruses and bacteria that have increased infectivity and pathogenicity for humans, in order to be, so the justification, several steps ahead of nature or an attacker who wants to use such as weapons. Fatal, however, if such research, as suspected with some reason, takes place at the WIV even under inadequate safety conditions.
The apparent failure of GOF research also has consequences for the Bioweapons Convention, a 50-year-old arms control agreement whose words sound nice, but have so far remained practically without consequences. Although the Bioweapon Convention prohibits the development, possession and use of biological weapons, it does not support a control regime. Above all, however, it allows biological research “for the prevention of disease, or for other peaceful purposes"in Article X. 1. However, under this purported objective, it is of course also possible to develop agents which can be used offensively, i.e. pathogenic microorganisms or toxins, because one must first have these in order to be able to develop antidotes with which one would like to be ahead of an attacker or even just the vagaries of nature. The difference between defensive and offensive research lies only in the declaration. The research aimed at GOF is therefore in principle always indistinguishable from dual use, i.e. from military use. Only a sharpened bioweapon Convention could be effective against this, which also prohibits such developments under the pretext of defensive research and effectively controls this prohibition.
If the matter with SARS-CoV-2 proves anything, then for sure that respiratory viruses such as the coronaviruses do not give a particularly suitable platform for the development of bioweapons. They cannot be directed precisely against a goal, their spread can hardly be limited and, above all, they are almost ineffective against the primary goals of weapons – healthy, able - bodied and combat – able people. But without a doubt, there are more effective things in the world of viruses and bacteria. Against the background of the attacks carried out in the fall of 2001 on journalists and politicians using anthrax bacteria, which clearly belonged to a strain bred for the highest infectivity and pathogenicity in a US Army laboratory, GOF research in Wuhan, and even more so the attempt by leading scientists, US and Chinese officials involved in these things, , but by authoritarian declarations and social pressure to dissuade both the public and the research community from the obvious presumption of a role of this research in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and investigations aimed at it, the further suspicion that in this context not only pathogens are developed, but also existing arms control treaties are systematically undermined further than they already are. Above all, however, some actors seem to be pursuing a strategy of targeted disinformation. But apparently it doesn’t work anymore.
The U.S. government’s rethinking, which was made public at the end of May this year, was the result of a series of events in the weeks before: On May 5, a review article by Nicholas Wade appeared in the prestigious Bulletin of the Atomc Scientists, where the laboratory hypothesis had always been more openly opposed, translating the reasoning for the laboratory hypothesis into a language that made it accessible to a wider audience. Another was a letter to the scientific journal Science, in which prominent scientists from the first rank of the sciences ventured out of cover by expressing their dissatisfaction with the current WHO-led course of research into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and emphatically demanding proper consideration of the hitherto insufficiently appreciated hypothesis of laboratory origin. Even if the rethinking of the democratic US government alone would not be a motive for many observers of the matter to consider the laboratory hypothesis, the factual reasons that Wade’s article elaborates professionally:
The low plausibility of a natural origin: All attempts to determine the original animal reservoir, from which, and the evolutionary path along which the SARS-CoV-2 could have passed to humans have so far been unsuccessful. This is in stark contrast to SARS-CoV-1, which appeared in 2002/2003, which did so within 4 months, and MERS-CoV, which appeared in 2012, which did so in 9 months. Moreover, the hosts of the viruses that have the greatest similarity to SARS-CoV-2 belong to a subspecies of horseshoe noses, a bat species. The homeland of this subspecies is located in southwest China’s Yunnan, 1,500 km from central China’s Wuhan. The radius of action of these bats is a maximum of 50km. No one can explain how the virus, without leaving traces, was able to get from one place to another, adapting to the new host man. What is certain, however, is that WIV staff collected coronaviruses from these bats in Yunnan and experimented with them.
Structural molecular biological characteristics of the virus: The virions found in the early phase of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 have two remarkable characteristics: they were already very well adapted to the new host, i.e. correspondingly able to penetrate into human cells, and above all genetically homogeneous. In the relatives of the SARS-CoV-2, in the place where the very effectively constructed penetration mechanism of the sting proteins is encoded, there is no insertion in the genome. In nature, no transitions to such a clear and effective adaptation have been found so far. A point source based on human intervention is therefore obvious.
The existence of corresponding research programs: As already stated, the WIV was working with funding from EcoHealth on the manipulation of coronaviruses, which only had to be declared as GOF research by an arbitrarily narrow interpretation of the term: It was not worked on increasing the pathogenicity or infectivity of one of the known human pathogenic species such as SARS-CoV-1, MERS-CoV, etc., but of wild species not yet so classified.
The questionable quality of the safety precautions: In fact, there have always been leaks in microbiological laboratories and defects have already led to complaints by Chinese authorities in Wuhan. While WIV has facilities that meet the highest biosafety level (BSL-4), a persistent problem seems to be not only that such facilities are not always used when appropriate. This is partly due to the fact that many employees do not have sufficient qualifications to work on BSL-4, but above all because even with existing qualifications, this work is perceived as too laborious and burdensome — which is why work is usually carried out on the inadequate BSL-3 or even BSL-2. The fact that employees of the WIV fell ill with COVID-19-like symptoms in autumn 2019 reinforces the corresponding suspicion. The fact that a test for SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies is negative for the employees concerned today has little to say, since it is now known that these antibodies disappear relatively quickly.
The fact that existing facilities are not used appropriately indicates a global scaling problem: something that works correctly in the theoretical ideal no longer does so when it is duplicated and rolled out in the area. There may be more high-risk research in the life sciences than researchers who are not only qualified to carry it out under the appropriate safeguards, but are also willing to endure the stresses that come with it in everyday life. The history of COVID-19 is also otherwise full of examples of such scaling problems: so e.g. to believe,
that RT-PCR tests are correctly executed and interpreted by increasing the daily volume of such tests thousands of times worldwide,
that FFP-2 masks are worn correctly if tens of millions of untrained and sometimes extremely weakly motivated citizens are forced to do so,
that you can simply ramp up sophisticated production of novel vaccines from zero to hundreds of millions of units,
or that the administration of these vaccines in such quantities will be carried out in compliance with all the rules of the medical art — i.e. in compliance with requirements such as that it is first determined whether it is useful for the patient at all, that he is fully informed about the risks and receives sufficient monitoring and follow — up care,
is simply naive and a strong indication that politicians, journalists and big intellectuals who indulge in it are suffering from an advanced loss of reality.
The history of the laboratory hypothesis is, as Nicholas Wade pointed out in a recent conversation, a history of the failure of organized sciences, their major journals and the public media. She is also one of the politicians so far. The issues connected with this — especially those of controlling high-risk research and effectively banning bioweapons-are too important to be lost in a race of mutual recriminations and confrontational actions. So far, there is a lack of transparency on both the Chinese and US sides. Not only would China have to disclose what was going on at the WIV and the WHCDC in the period in question, but the US would also have to disclose how heavily the involvement of the NIH and EcoHealth as a switching point was in it. All this less because COVID-19 would be the global catastrophe for which it is spent — that was rather the globally disproportionate response of politicians to it — but because this is about research programs and practices, as well as their military-political implications, whose significance goes far beyond that of SARS-CoV-2.
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