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Impressions of “Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19,” by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley

Viral by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley is an exhaustively researched, even-handed, and deeply depressing book. The central argument of Viral is that Covid-19 was as likely to have leaked from a research laboratory (by infecting a staff member, or an animal, or garbage, that left a medical lab and then infected others) as having jumped from some animal (not in a lab) to a human (not in a lab). The authors succeed in doing this. Along the way, the long-standing pattern of lab leaks (in multiple countries, all under different legal regimes) and medical cover-ups (often without any crime or mistake to cover-up) demonstrated by the authors prevent the reader from reaching certainty on any specific theory.

Leaks from the laboratory are common. The SARS virus, a cousin of the COVID-19 virus, leaked multiple times from its isolation, leading to deaths. Other leaks have occurred in the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the United States, and elsewhere. In some of these countries, such as the United States, reporting of lab leaks is not required or centralized. Lab leaks occur, especially in cases where researchers kept viruses in quarantine conditions. At the Wuhan lab, for instance, scientists studied coronaviruses in a BSL-2 (BioSafey Level 2) lab, though now the CDC and others recommend Covid-19 be studied only in BSL-3 (Biosafety Level 3) labs.

Ridley and Chan also detail cover-ups by the Chinese Communist Party, including an amusing attempted cover-up of a tiger escape. The authors also describe the back-and-forth of the Wuhan Seafood market, including early in the pandemic (when the Wuhan government was destroying information that could implicate the market) to a month or so later in the pandemic (when the Wuhan government was fabricating claims that did implicate the market). Examples of this are the false claims of widespread bat consumption in Wuhan or that pangolins were sold in the Wuhan seafood market – seem to have originated in China, and possibly by the Wuhan city government itself. The logical conclusion – that the Wuhan government has a low dedication to truth but is highly responsive to the most powerful political interests (seafood sellers, the local academic establishment, or whomever) – implies you cannot use an apparent cover-up as evidence of actual wrong-doing.

I was disturbed by the way that Viral overlapped with Anne Jacobson’s history of American defense research, The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency. Jacobson is a historian, while Ridley and Chan are science writers. Thus, the works seem to share no common sources, do not describe the same incidents, do not have overlapping characters, and the minor role that DARPA plays in Viral barely touches on the history described in Jacobson’s work. Yet both books focus on the dangers of the grant-funding process, the obscurity of the financed work, the likelihood (in Jacobson’s work) or certainty (in Ridley and Chan’s) of previous lab escapes, and the lack of meaningful oversite of the actors involved.

Governments fund dangerous research, allowing researchers and bureaucrats to earn prestige and professional reputation when that research pays off. Yet, governments do not hold researchers to account when there are fatal accidents. The last reckoning of the military academic-industrial complex was the decline in physics research at the end of the Vietnam War. One wonders if we are in store for something similar in terms of viral and microbial research.

I read Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 in the Audible edition.

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