I have never been one to indulge in conspiracy theories. Never. I always want the solid facts at hand before following the conclusion jumpers off the cliff into the magical world of paranoia. In fact, I wrote a recent essay on the subject for the Broad Street Review, a Philadelphia arts, culture, and commentary e-zine. However, a podcast this month on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour made me rethink all the dicey info we’ve been getting over the mediaverse about the coronavirus that has made our lives hell. Might there be smoke here?
The title of the podcast “Did Covid-19 Come From a Lab?” featured anti-GMO attorney Andrew Kimbrell, founder of the Center for Food Safety, talking about the coronavirus outbreak in depth. By the end, he definitely convinced me that the whole “wet market” thesis of bat guano dripping onto a caged pangolin was a crock. (Start listening at 5:26 to hear the whole interview).
Kimbrell discussed the dangers of man-made engineered viruses and the field of synthetic virology where some of the most dangerous viruses known to humanity (H5N1, Ebola, SARS) are “mixed and matched” with other viruses, and genetically tinkered with to make new ones, bad ones, terrifying ones. Millions and millions of our tax dollars support scientists at labs around the world (including the one at Wuhan, China) who are making novel viruses that are more lethal by making them more transmissible and more infectious.
Of course, this important experimentation (called “gain-of-function” research), scientists will say, helps them create vaccines that will treat highly lethal viruses if they occur in nature. Okay, but another reason for doing this sort of thing could also be the creation of biological weapons.
A 1984 New York Times article “Biotechnology May Be Used Against Us, Official Says,” reported that Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger was bullish on America ginning up its genetic engineering research for biological warfare because he was worried the Soviets were doing it. It was also reported that Dr. John H. Birkner, a scientific and technical intelligence manager for the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Weinberger’s worries were “overblown,”
“. . . there was no conclusive evidence that the Soviet Union was working on any particular new germ agents. But he speculated that, with recombinant DNA techniques that mix together the basic building blocks, deoxyribonucleic acids, of different life forms, ‘normally harmless, nondisease-producing organisms could be modified to become highly toxic and produce effects for which an opponent has no known treatment.’’’
Interestingly, in that same article, Dr. Birkner was also quoted debunking suggestions that the common flu virus might make a potent weapon if it was genetically modified. He said viruses wouldn’t make very good weapons because their behavior couldn’t be controlled once released.
Ain’t that the truth?
Now, before anyone reading this goes screaming down the highway, I’m not suggesting these gain-of-function researchers are diabolical apocalyptic monsters. What I am saying is that these newfangled viruses can easily escape the lab and kill millions of us.
As everyone now knows, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory is a class 4 (the highest safety rating) facility that can hold the world’s most dangerous pathogens at maximum biocontainment levels, but that doesn’t mean something they were working on didn’t escape. In fact, the head of the lab (Zheng-Li Shi, aka “Bat Woman”) said she “couldn’t sleep a wink” thinking that it could have been her lab that caused the outbreak in Wuhan.
Accidents have happened before:
In 1978, smallpox escaped from a British medical school because of a faulty air duct in the lab. In 1977, a Russian facility accidentally released the extinct H1N1 influenza virus, which went on to become a global pandemic virus. In August and December, 2003, SARS escaped twice from a Beijing lab. In 2007, foot and mouth disease possibly escaped in the UK from two labs in close proximity to the outbreak. United States labs have also made stupid mistakes with anthrax and Ebola! And I’m just scratching the surface here, folks. You can find a complete list of papers on lab accident investigations like this by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To add venom to the virus, this pandemic has been politicized by Trump and his right-wing minions on Fox News and other fact-challenged sites, characterizing COVID-19 as an attack on the United States, even though America funded much of the international research at the Wuhan lab. The left decry the racism accompanying the blame with Republicans calling it the “China Virus,” while everyone has taken their collective eyes off the real issue. The American public has ended up confused and frustrated with people dying miserable deaths because they’ve lost all confidence in anyone telling them the truth. Bottom line: The wet market/bat guano theory seems to be collapsing quickly before our eyes, so until we find Patient #1, the first person who was infected with the novel coronavirus, we won’t know how it started infecting the world and where it came from.
On October 17, 2014, because of incidents at U.S. government laboratories that raised serious biosafety concerns, the Obama Administration enacted a moratorium to address the continuing controversy surrounding “gain-of-function” research. Things were getting just too scary with thousands of labs around the world, classified at various biosafety levels (1 to 4), handling possible pandemic pathogens (PPPs). The moratorium was lifted in 2017 by the Trump administration at the same time they were defunding the research and causing dangerous cutbacks at the Wuhan lab (oh, and they also ignored warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies that safety protocol had broken down perilously at Wuhan due to financial problems!).
We need a new moratorium on this research until there is a fulsome debate on whether to continue this experimentation, and protections are built into the process that incorporate the Nuremberg Code as the basis for ethical biological exploration. Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should do it. We don’t know how many millions of people will eventually die from COVID-19 and until we know how this virus came to exist, the world will be at risk medically, politically, and financially from more accidents, more lackadaisical government oversight, resulting in more global instability.
After reading a recent New York Times story about how corporate insiders are hungrily slurping up the stock opportunities in the search for a vaccine, I had a thought. What if it wasn’t a lab accident? What if a sinister hedge-funder flipped Warren Buffet’s famous advice on its head and decided to create the fear that would allow greediness to find full fruition in the marketplace? I mean, what would it take to sneak a little virus out of a lab? Hmmm…but, then, that would be a conspiracy theory, wouldn’t it?