May 202023
The pandemic lab leak story that just won't go away is a red herring

Since 2020, I, like everyone else in North America, have been treated to a regular though slowly diminishing force feeding of “news” about the “Lab Leak” source for the COVID pandemic. At first, when it was novel (like the Coronavirus underlying the pandemic), it made me wonder. Today, it makes me wonder—about the people obsessing about it.

The Novel Coronavirus and the Pandemic of the 2020s

To recap:

  1. A novel coronavirus took hold near Wuhan, China.
  2. It rapidly spread, globally, because of the way modern society transits the planet and the fact that our virginal constitutions, at least with regard to this pathogen, were most hospitable hosts.
  3. The factors beneath this virus’s communicability and mortality led to it being declared a genuine pandemic of concern.
  4. To combat it, humanity in various parts of the world took various measures from the idiotic through to the excessive (and sometimes both together). That these were novel and tentative measures for which efficacy was still to be proven made some sense given the novelty of the situation.
  5. The biological problem turned into a political problem as the underlying virus issues gave way to the social issues surrounding combat measures. This, naturally led to tribal fault lines and the anti-vax movement.
  6. The WHO declares the official pandemic health emergency over. Right or wrong, we’re moving past the emergency posture. But the tribal fault lines remain as does the questioning about the source of the entire episode.

Through this latter period, one vector of attack and mis/dis/genuine information was the source of the virus itself. Did it arise organically as the result of a racoon dog in a wet market in Wuhan or was it a lab leak or was it something more nefarious.

The Source of the Novel Coronavirus

We are an inquisitive species by nature. If we’re that determined to source the origin of the universe BILLIONS of years ago, could anybody expect that we wouldn’t collectively insist on knowing “How this happened?” And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In some form, most of us know that if you want to prevent the same thing from happening again, if you want to not make the same mistake again, if you want to… it’s important to be clear about the real cause.

The pandemic lab leak story that just won't go away is a red herring
Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

In this case, there seems to be at least one naive and two clearly purposeful reasons behind the inquiry. None of which is of particular value to any but those with very particular interests and obligations. Ultimately, the source of the pandemic is a novel coronavirus in the same way that the cause of an ebola outbreak is the ebola virus, of SARS in the early 21st-century, another coronavirus…

A virus, even by name, is not a sufficient root cause

This seems to be the broad-based response that perpetuates the interest in the “lab leak.” That ought to be true to officials of research and other containment labs, to public health officials, probably to wildlife officers and various other ecologists in remote parts of the globe—especially those that are now exposing their hidden treasures (more below).

The Pointless Constituency: The General Population

It ought to be mostly satisfactory to the broad population. The cause of our experience is a virus. What does it matter, beyond curiousity, to a house painter or an opinion columnist, what lays as a deeper root cause. Would this information, whether accurate or misguided, have any impact whatsoever on his or her daily life? And what does debating the merits of a theory about the source do for that person? Play out the two basic alternatives: it was or it wasn’t. Will that change the tilt of his or her life in any meaningful way? It is truly mere curiousity, probably combined with tribal weaponization of mis/dis/genuine information.

Alternatively, there are those for whom digging deeper could be more meaningful. The World Health Organization and other national public health administrators. Surely they have greater need for more insight. Probably. And, probably more importantly, they ought to also have more perspective on what that added insight means. That is, what value it contributes to the issue. But do they really?

Why Should They Care?

In the event that there were a similar outbreak and similar situation, would the method of combatting it be different based on knowing it’s origin? For bold relief clarity, if the source were a wet market in a Chinese industrial city v. a isolated tribal village in the centre of the Congo or the Amazon basin v. the top of Mt. McKinley or Mont Blanc? If the core uncertainty is that we’ve never seen this before and we have no further insight into it, does it matter where it came from?

Somewhat less facetiously, whether the novel virus came from a lab or from out of the deepest jungle is also irrelevant without further information. And, it is that further information upon which any kind of meaningful alteration in response action might be based.

The further information is whether the virus is indeed “novel.” Perhaps this usage does not conform with virological definition so let me specific that when I used the word novel, here, I mean have we seen this exact viral strain before and do we know anything about it. Ideally we know things about it that would leapfrog our experimental responses in the wild and allow the response to the pandemic to be more focused. And, ideally, more successful (and shorter).

Presumably, a lab leak of a virus would have this kind of added information load. So it would not be quite as novel. Let me go back to my painter. If this were known, what possible impact could this knowledge and understanding have? To him or her, who stands in as the vast majority of humanity not specifically in the public health (virology, specifically) world, it’s trivia.

Such information, that the source was a lab leak, ought to have significant impact for those public health officials as stated. But, logically, the value of that information does not persist. It diminishes as time passes. As the fight against the virus and the pandemic wears on, the underlying virus becomes less novel. It becomes less relevant where it came from because generations of evolution have turned it into something else. And (and this is the important part), we have more meaningful and valuable insight about the virus problem than any amount of understanding about it in December 2019 or March 2020 much provide. In short, at some point, even for those on the front line of virology and immunology, determining the origin of the virus is ancient history.

Today’s Value of the Lab Leak Determination

Not to diminish but simply to overlook and ignore the value of this inquiry from a tribal, political perspective, there are two constituency that has an ongoing need to know for sure whether there was a lab leak. My painter is nowhere close to either one. (By the way, dear reader, don’t get to fixated on the “painter” as a painter. As I’ll explain later, it’s a broad-based stand-in.)

The Primary Constituency: Public Health Administrators

The first constituency that should know that there was a lab leak is the community of administrators and operators of similar containment facilities. In this case it’s so-called level 4 virus containment laboratories, but it could be study spaces for bacteria or any other biological or non-biological pathogenic research. If what’s being studied is inherently dangerous to humanity if it is not engaged with through strict protection protocols, arguably it would qualify. So, atomic experimentation fits. But it seems the focus should be on pathogens that can be extremely destructive to humanity without human help. More or less, we’re talking about biological pathogens.

This constituency deserves to know if for no other reason that to understand and remedy similar conditions in their own facilities. Strengthening protocols to prevent leaks and so forth would be a good outcome—obviously, IF there were a leak. Good faith errors happen. When the consequences can be so extremely bad, it makes sense to ensure there are fail-safes, buffers, and other backstops. What if this were the first virus to develop the ability to evade all such defences in some “novel” way? Again, knowing and understanding—and sharing—this information is to the good of humanity, full stop.

The Secondary Constituency: Governments (Including Defence, Military, and Public Safety)

All this is good and well. It represents the valid ethical and humanitarian reasons for searching out the source or cause of the virus entering our human biosphere and doing its damage. And, as I’ve stated, there is at least one good reason why determining a lab leak was the cause—and hence a lab—was the source of the novel coronavirus. It is, of course, not nearly the end of the story.

One way or another, sometimes only whispered because saying it out loud is diplomatically charged at best and racist at worst, the real reason EVERYONE is so interested in whether a lab leak is behind this is not the “leak” part, but the “lab” part. The point of the lab leak hysteria is whether there was a Chinese lab involved. More specifically, was a Chinese lab purposefully holding this virus in the Wuhan lab (that the origin is Wuhan, at least, is beyond dispute)? And did the virus “leak” from that lab?

Leak is a funny word in this situation. It’s banal obvious meaning is that perhaps through error or for any other of a hundred reasons, the virus being contained simply “got away.” Kind of like a lion escaping from a zoo. Maybe a keeper left the gate unlocked; maybe years of rain and heat corroded some part of the enclosure. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that (a) there was a lion there and (b) it got out.

The constituents in the heading are interested first in confirmation that this otherwise unknown virus was or was not known to “the enemy.” Let’s assume that’s proven, which in that world can mean anything from it is a very strong rumour that everyone feels good about through to there is absolutely unimpeachable, conclusive proof.

Once that has been “established,” a number of further allegations can be supported in a way. First, they “had” and knew about a novel virus that they kept from “us.” Obviously (natch!) this can only mean that they were seeking to use it as a biological weapon directly or as a stepping stone to something more deadly.

Such labs are known to perform gain of function experimentation. We do it for obviously good reasons. But maybe they were doing it for obviously(!) nefarious reasons. Either way, we obviously didn’t know about it. So, if we can establish there was a lab leak, then we know they were doing something and can focus attention on where they might have been going.

Even if we can’t prove “they” were doing something nefarious, we know that (a) they were being secretive and (b) they’re sloppy. In either case, we have a Western feel-good narrative. But wait, what if the nefariousness were not merely in what was going on inside and a mistake? What if the “leak” (see, I told you “leak” is a great word in this situation.) were purposeful? What if the pathogen’s release were not accidental but meant? What if the zookeeper wasn’t actually a little doddering but, in fact, left the gate open to see how many children the lion would eat before it were caught?

Speculation. Leave It For The Speculators

Who knows? Who cares? The point I’ve been trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter to the vast majority of us that neither administer public health facilities such as containment labs nor tread in the international diplomatic/military waters.

Sure, maybe my painter (who could be a divorce lawyer, dentist, accountant, investment banker, car detailer….) has some kind of morbid fascination with such things because he or she doesn’t have enough to do, a good family life, or an interesting hobby. But to get riled up by politicians and media using this as something to further deepen the chasm between political tribes is a little silly.

This aging red herring is almost certainly being poked to stink as a distraction from what’s important and to lend urgency to what’s not.

Have a read of Zeynep Tufekci’s column in the May 12 New York Times. There is some insight there for those of us in the pointless constituency: “The Pandemic Threat That Hasn’t Gone Away

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