A few months before Covid-19 became a pandemic,
started reading about unusual flu cases in Wuhan, China. Ms. Lentzos, a social scientist who studies biological threats, belongs to an email group she describes as consisting of “ex-intelligence, bioweapons specialists, experts, former State Department diplomats” and others “who have worked in arms control, biological disarmament.”
As Chinese authorities struggled to contain the outbreak, she recalls, the expert circle asked questions about the pathogen’s origin: “Is this security related? Is it military? Is there something dodgy going on? What information are we not getting here?” They asked these questions “not because we are conspiracy theorists. This is our profession,” Ms. Lentzos, 44, says in a video interview from her home in Switzerland. As the coronavirus and alarm about it spread, nonexperts started asking similar questions—only to be mocked or silenced by journalists, social-media companies and prominent scientists.
By spring 2020, top Republicans—including
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton,
Secretary of State
and President Trump—were arguing that the pandemic could have started at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which had conducted experiments on coronaviruses. “For me, the lab leak was always on the table,” Ms. Lentzos says. “For a lot of us in the biological weapons, security world.” But in February 2020, a group of scientists had published a statement in the Lancet calling out “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” The
and Washington Post dutifully attacked Mr. Cotton as unhinged. Media, with an assist from some virologists, dismissed the lab-leak theory as “debunked.”
Ms. Lentzos, who places her own politics on the Swiss “center left,” thought that conclusion premature and said so publicly. In May 2020, she published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists weighing whether “safety lapses in the course of basic scientific research” caused the pandemic. While acknowledging there was, “as of yet, little concrete evidence,” she noted “several indications that collectively suggest this is a serious possibility that needs following up by the international community.”
She was suggesting an accident, not a deliberate release: “If you’re culturing a virus that is readily able to infect humans, particularly via the respiratory tract, then any droplet caused by a simple splash or aerosolization of liquid can be inhaled without you realizing it,” she wrote. “Could an unknowingly infected researcher showing no symptoms unwittingly have infected family, friends, and anyone else he or she was in contact with? Or was there perhaps an unnoticed leak of a coronavirus from the lab, from improperly incinerated waste material or animal carcasses that found their way to rubbish bins that rats or cats could have accessed?”
She was confident in her argument but “a bit wary about writing it” given that it challenged the enforced consensus. “It was really sticking my neck out, because no one else was saying it at the time, even a lot of people who know better. Everyone was just going with the narrative: ‘Yeah, no, it’s natural,’ and there’s no discussion.”
The article barely made a ripple. “If you look at the argumentation that’s used today, it’s exactly the same basically as what I laid out, which was, accidents happen,” she says. “We know that they’re having questions around safety. We know they were doing this field work. We see videos where they’re in breach of standard biosafety protocol. We know China is manipulating the narrative, closing down information sources—all of that stuff. All of that is in there. But it didn’t get much traction.”
That began to change early this year. Media outlets published articles considering the possibility of a lab leak. At least five of the Lancet signers have distanced themselves from the letter.
and the World Health Organization’s Director-General
said the theory merits further study. President Biden ordered the intelligence community to investigate the question. Even
reversed its ban.
It’s no coincidence that the debate shifted after Mr. Trump was voted out of office. Ms. Lentzos faults him for “meddling” in the debate. In April 2020 he suggested that the virus came from a Chinese lab but didn’t provide evidence. “Then very quickly, it became very politicized, that question.” American liberals—including many scientists—conflated open-mindedness about the question with support for Mr. Trump. Ms. Lentzos was one of the few who could separate their distaste for him from their analysis of the pandemic.
Another problem was confusion about the terms of debate. Many failed to distinguish between an accident and a weapon. The notion that China had created the virus with the intention to kill “was a possibility, and it was fairly soon disregarded,” Ms. Lentzos says. “The idea that it could be an accidental lab leak wasn’t really part of the narrative.”
The most significant problem came from the scientific community. “Some of the scientists in this area very quickly closed ranks,” she says, and partisanship wasn’t their only motive: “Like most things in life, there are power plays. There are agendas that are part of the scientific community. Just like any other community, there are strong vested interests. There were people that did not talk about this, because they feared for their careers. They feared for their grants.”
Ms. Lentzos counsels against idealizing scientists and in favor of “seeing science and scientific activity, and how the community works, not as this inner sacred sanctum that’s devoid of any conflicts of interests, or agendas, or any of that stuff, but seeing it as also a social activity, where there are good players and bad players.”
the zoologist who organized the Lancet letter condemning lab-leak “conspiracy theories.” He had directed millions of dollars to the Wuhan Institute of Virology through his nonprofit, EcoHealth Alliance. A lab mistake that killed millions would be bad for his reputation. Other researchers have taken part in gain-of-function research, which can make viruses deadlier or easier to transmit. Who would permit, much less fund, such research if it proved so catastrophic? Yet researchers like
who oversees an institution that has conducted gain-of-function research, had an outsize voice in media. Both she and Mr. Daszak served on the World Health Organization’s origin investigation team.
A scientific consensus isn’t always true, and peer review can look like peer pressure. “How do we know what we know? Well, the way we know in science is you provide references to everything, all the claims that you make, and you can trace it back,” Ms. Lentzos says. The lab-leak theory began to be treated “like an attack on science, the sciences. And so the scientists were like, ‘Well, I trust other scientists,’ without actually doing the groundwork.” Few nonscientists, including journalists and social-media executives, even have the capacity to do the groundwork. “For many,” she says, “it was a shortcut. ‘Yeah, scientists are saying this and we also believe in those scientists.’ ”
Ms. Lentzos wasn’t alone in raising the lab-leak theory before it became widely respectable. This newspaper, for instance, ran an op-ed about it by Mr. Cotton the week before her article appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She acknowledges the point: “The open letters, all of The Wall Street Journal contributions in this area; also the Washington Post has done a fair bit on this. The New York Times has been totally silent. But there’s been a lot of ground preparation for people.”
The problem is, it matters who speaks. “Your institution, the fact that you have a doctorate, or the fact that you have previously gotten all of these grants make what you say weightier than what somebody else, even though they’re saying the same thing—even though they use the same evidence.” Ms. Lentzos has a doctorate in sociology and is an associate professor at King’s College London.
As an example, she compares a letter signed by several biologists and immunologists and published May 14 in Science with another, published earlier in the year, by a less specialized collection of experts known as “the Paris group.” The latter received “a lot of media attention and stuff, but scientists didn’t take that as seriously because it wasn’t the right voices saying it in the right outlets, even though there were many scientists in the group, and a much more diverse group, including biosafety experts like myself.” The difference in reception was striking, because both letters “said exactly the same thing.”
Ms. Lentzos says it’s possible Covid-19 originated in the wild, but “as time goes on, there has been more and more circumstantial evidence for the lab-leak theory that’s come out, and less and less from the natural-spillover theory.” With evidence mostly circumstantial, and the Chinese Communist Party stonewalling, can we ever know? “In a perfect world, it would be open; we’d have a serious forensic investigation,” she says. “Evidence has been deliberately taken away, or erased, but even time would have just done that anyway.”
She says that regardless of Covid’s origin, lab safety is crucial for preventing a future pandemic. “There needs to be a body, an international body that has a mandate to track and keep oversight of these kinds of facilities,” she says. “You’ve got to ingrain more of a safety and security culture in people and the labs.”
Are international institutions capable of the task? Ms. Lentzos has experience working with United Nations agencies, including the World Health Organization. “It was incredibly exciting to finally go in. And then you become more disillusioned when you see how things operate, how things don’t operate,” she says. “Like any large organization, they are slow, and inflexible, and bureaucratic.” But, she asks rhetorically, “What is the alternative?”
Last month she co-published a study on global lab safety, along with an interactive map that tracks biosafety level 4 laboratories such as the one in Wuhan. These labs work with the most dangerous pathogens, but “there’s no international body that has a mandate to track where they are, and to have any oversight over them. There’s no official list of how many of these labs there are in the world, or where they are.” The new project tracks each lab’s “levels of transparency, or training, or membership in various biosafety associations,” to assess its potential threat.
A more daunting task is reining in a rogue Beijing. “It’s more about the political narrative that you’re able to tell,” says Ms. Lentzos. The Communist Party has adopted a triumphant narrative about Covid-19—that despite early stumbles, it controlled the virus and let in international investigators. That’s technically true, Ms. Lentzos says, but misleading, since the investigators were provided with little useful information.
“This is where China’s foreign policy of the Belt and Road Initiative, of vaccine diplomacy, comes in,” she says. Aid from China comes with the implicit condition that the recipient won’t criticize Beijing in venues like the U.N. General Assembly or World Health Assembly. Ms. Lentzos urges the U.S. and other nations to build a broad coalition—beyond Europe and the English-speaking world—to demand a real forensic investigation. Beijing may not yield, but “you force China to say, ‘No, we’re not going to let you do that,’ ” she says. “Then they’re on the back foot.”
She concedes it’s unlikely “we’ll get anywhere on the origins. We’re not going to find the smoking gun. But I do think we have power to change that narrative.”
Mr. O’Neal is a European-based editorial page writer for the Journal.
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8