The Lab Leak Hypothesis: Wrong AND Dangerous

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Well, it’s June, so I guess it’s once again time to talk about the lab leak hypothesis. If you haven’t seen my two previous videos on the topic, the first in June of 2021 and the second in June of 2023, allow me to summarize: at the beginning of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic, researchers traced the virus to its origin near Wuhan, China, and wondered if the virus had evolved naturally in the environment (thanks to a bustling wet market where such viruses often spring up) or whether it had perhaps escaped (through incompetence or evil-doing) from the laboratory nearby where scientists were studying coronaviruses.

Further investigation pinpointed the wet market as the precise location where the virus jumped to humans several times, that the genome of the virus is consistent with a natural evolution, and that a virus that “escaped” from a lab would not behave the way that SARS-CoV-2 behaved. The first of this data was published in the journal Nature in March of 2020, and in the years since, a multitude of researchers have added data supporting and refining this hypothesis.

Despite that growing amount of data, certain people have continued to hold onto the idea that the virus must have escaped from the lab. The evidence they initially offered in support of the “lab leak” hypothesis is that there is a lab near the area where the virus first emerged. In the four years since, they have added exactly zero data to support this hypothesis any further.

But hey, who needs data when you have a compelling conspiracy theory? As with all conspiracy theories, this one scratches an itch in the average human brain: no one wants to think that 7 million people died because of poor sanitation, a random genetic mutation, lack of preparedness, and inadequate global healthcare. Wouldn’t it be so much nicer to blame a specific person for fucking up? Or one shady government trying to cover things up? Or another shady government developing a bioweapon? Something we can fix with a prison sentence, a guillotine, or a quick little land war in Asia?

So yeah, understandable! But what’s frustrating is that the mainstream media should be helping the average person understand this stuff, but instead they’re helping the lab leak whack-jobs continue to spread their bullshit. Last time I talked about this it was the Washington Post, and this time it’s the New York Times: Why the Pandemic Probably Started in a Lab, in 5 Key Points, by noted loony Alina Chan. Spoiler alert, none of those 5 key points is actual evidence for the lab leak. Point 1 is their one data point: there’s a lab near where the virus emerged.

Angela Rasmussen has, as usual, a great thread explaining the other points, which I welcome you to check out (all links to everything I discuss are found in the transcript, linked in the dooblydoo). But the quick overview is that they’re a mix of long debunked ideas and outright lies.

Alongside this ridiculous opinion piece, lab leak proponents have also managed to convince Republican Congressional representatives to waste their time using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to yell at scientists. That’s right, that’s qAnon doofus Marjorie Taylor Greene, given ample time to scream at an accomplished scientist who saved thousands of American lives during the pandemic, for which he’s already been rewarded with at least two “credible attempts on his life that prompted the arrests of two people.” 

And that’s where I come to the actual topic of this video. There’s nothing left to talk about concerning the legitimacy of the “lab leak hypothesis,” because proponents have had several years to offer any evidence for it and they have failed. There would be nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with a handful of kooks continuing over the years to desperately try to find anything that fits their narrative. But as with most conspiracy theories, this one has a very real and very negative impact on our society.

This abuse of scientists on the public stage is one example. Congressional representatives are only encouraging the batshit science deniers to continue to threaten and harass scientists doing work they don’t like, which is bad enough but it also contributes to an overall distrust of scientists among the general public, who see this happening and assume if there’s smoke there must be fire. You would hope that as COVID restrictions went away, harassment of scientists would ease up, but researchers say it’s actually only getting worse:  “All the data that we do have points to it increasing rather than decreasing; it’s certainly getting quite prolific,” says Lyndal Byford, director of news and partnerships at the Australian Science Media Centre in Adelaide. “I’m hearing a lot from universities and research organizations that they’re seeing it as an increasing problem.”

That article in Nature also mentions my friend Dr. Siouxsie Wiles, who was essentially the Dr. Fauci of New Zealand. You may think that because New Zealand had relatively great success controlling the pandemic, she’d be a national hero, but just like here in the US, anti-science lunatics have tried to make her life a living hell. The harassment got so bad, and her university did so little to try to help her, that she had to sue the University of Auckland. That case is still ongoing but once it finishes, I’ll give you guys a complete overview of it because it is BONKERS.

That distrust of scientists is one major reason why the US failed to protect citizens from COVID. People were taking dewormer paste rather than getting a free, safe, effective vaccine. They refused to wear free, simple, effective masks or avoid dining indoors with strangers. Continuing to erode the public’s trust in scientists and the work they do makes EVERYTHING worse: it delays our efforts to slow climate change, it fuels the bigots who want you to think there are only two immutable genders, and it will make the NEXT pandemic that much harder to handle.

And as we make “scientist” a high-risk, distrusted profession, we discourage people from becoming scientists. Who wants to spend 20 years in school only to be paid poorly AND get death threats for doing your job, AND get called up by Congress to get yelled at by a “bleach blonde bad built butch body” bitch with beans for brains.

Fewer scientists means less research and all those issues I mentioned before get even worse.

And finally, this “lab leak” hearing is taking up precious time, money, and energy that could be better spent on an investigation that would ACTUALLY HELP US PREPARE FOR THE NEXT PANDEMIC. Because believe me, there will be another one, and we can save millions of lives by acting now. An actual, helpful investigation would ask things like “Why was Trump allowed to simply delete the National Security Council’s pandemic preparedness unit in 2018?” “Had they remained in place, would they have been helpful in slowing or stopping the spread of COVID-19?” “Which politicians were responsible for spreading misinformation that led to extra deaths?” “How many American lives would have been saved with universal healthcare?” “How many lives would have been saved with universal basic income that allowed people to stay home?” And crucially, “How can we do better next time?”

Because here’s the thing: we can do better. Much better.

Do you know how scientists were able to develop a COVID vaccine in a single year? Not just hard work, but preparedness: the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, is an office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It was established in 2006 to use advanced research in biomedicine to fill in gaps in the private industry in order to prepare for future pandemics or bioweapons, and it directly led to the development of the mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 during “Operation Warp Speed.” OWS cost the country about $18 billion. For just $24 billion, “the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy estimates it (could) have prototype vaccines ready for each of the 26 known viral families that cause human disease. Showing that these vaccines are safe and promote an immune response before we need them will allow for vaccines to be ready for deployment within 100 days after virus identification.” 

That’s according to the Institute for Progress, which also points out that currently BARDA only receives $2.6 billion in funding, or about the equivalent that the government spends on one nuclear submarine.

Another way to think about these large sums of money is that the $24 billion we’d need to have vaccines for every known viral disease in humans is only twice the amount we’ve given to Israel in the past eight months. Sure, we get a lot of that aid back because Israel uses it to buy our bombs to take out all those hospitals and universities in Palestine, but we also get back the money we spend on pandemic preparedness by not having a bunch of people die and our economy shut down for a year or two. Personally, I think that’s a better deal.

And so that’s another question Congress could ask in a COVID-19 investigation: why don’t we just do that? Why don’t we just spend that money and protect our future?

The answer is sadly very clear–it’s the same reason why the “lab leak” hypothesis still has legs: because we don’t want to deal with a big, sometimes complicated problem that won’t affect us until some unknown date and time in the future. We’d rather yell at a scientist, and feel like we’ve fixed things once and for all.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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