The publication of a letter in Science calling the COVID lab-leak theory “viable” has already shifted the conversation about the disease’s origins. I reported on it here, but there’s an additional aspect to the groundbreaking nature of this event that can’t be overlooked.
The letter disarms the cynical instrumentalization of the fight against anti-Asian racism offered by those who called the lab-origin hypothesis a conspiracy theory.
“Finally, in this time of unfortunate anti-Asian sentiment in some countries, we note that at the beginning of the pandemic, it was Chinese doctors, scientists, and citizens who shared with the world crucial information about the spread of the virus—often at great personal cost,” write the 18 authors of the Science letter. “We should show the same determination in promoting a dispassionate science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue.”
That statement sounds like a pro forma paean to those who were on the front lines of the battle against the virus last year. It also reads like a rebuttal of a point raised by a February 2020 letter in The Lancet condemning “rumours and misinformation” about the virus’s origin.
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” wrote the authors of the Lancet letter. After citing studies to argue that the coronavirus originated in the wild, they argued that saying anything to the contrary would inflame racism.
“Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. We support the call from the Director-General of WHO to promote scientific evidence and unity over misinformation and conjecture.”
These assertions were risible then, and they’ve only become more evidently misleading over time. Just over a year after that letter ran in the Lancet, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that a potential lab-leak origin warranted “further investigation,” following the widely criticized joint WHO-China report on COVID’s origins. Peter Daszak, one of the researchers who signed the Lancet letter, was part of the WHO team that went to Wuhan and co-authored the resulting report, despite his involvement in coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
A look back at the Lancet letter is illustrative of how certain self-appointed tribunes of the scientific community quickly steered the debate away from legitimate questions about the research that went on at the WIV. In addition to falsely claiming that calls for greater scrutiny of that activity were conspiracy theories, they said that lab-leak proponents fostered racism, to boot.
Now, a group of prominent scientists, including the world’s leading expert on coronaviruses, has called for a closer look at the lab-leak hypothesis, and they’ve done so in a top scientific journal, implicitly refuting ridiculous accusations of racism and paying homage to those in China who paid the ultimate price for an authoritarian party-state’s malfeasance.
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