So far no one has come up with any clear account of how a coronavirus escaped biosafety level 4 barriers. Photograph by MihasLi / Shutterstock
D isasters evoke a search for who to blame. Mishandled disasters make that search vital for anyone whose actions or inactions may have amplified the catastrophe’s damage. As the official United States COVID death toll reaches 600,000, those two dynamics have revitalized a claim first made early in the pandemic: that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease, was released, possibly as an engineered organism, in a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
This “lab-leak” hypothesis was first promoted in 2020, often as a deflection of criticism of Trump’s and other Republicans’ failures in the face of the American epidemic. If Chinese scientists had committed the original sin that sparked that catastrophe, the argument seemed to go, surely any subsequent errors would be irrelevant.
That naked political aim kept lab-leak speculation in the background for most of the last year. Any rumblings were largely restricted to xenophobes seeking to blame what Trump routinely called “the China virus.” When asked, experts on pandemics and public health, would acknowledge that a lab accident couldn’t be ruled out, but that another explanation, that the coronavirus that causes COVID leapt from an animal host to humans, was much the more likely.