Fact and fiction in a fake news epidemic

Was this the smoking gun? “Chinese military scientists discussed weaponising SARS coronaviruses” was the headline of a report in The Australian, which flashed on my WhatsApp one morning this week. Before noon, I’d received the report from half a dozen people with the familiar prescription: “Must read!”

The report said it had unearthed a leaked document written by Chinese military scientists speaking of weaponising coronaviruses, confirming what has for long been suspected by conspiracy theorists ever since the pandemic began in Wuhan, China.

But there was a small catch. The secret document cited in the report was from a not-so-secret book published in China in 2015, which is still available in Chinese bookstores. It also turned out that the authors, including Xu Dezhong, formerly a professor at the Air Force Medical University, were speaking of the first SARS epidemic being “weaponised” not by China, but by foreign powers unleashing a virus on the Chinese population. Not that these two details made much of a difference as the story continued to go, well, viral.

The belated publicity was not entirely bad news for Mr. Xu. On one online Chinese bookstore, Dangdang, there was “a 10-fold increase” in the price of the book, observed Pan Chengxin, a professor at Deakin University in Australia. The book, by most accounts, wasn’t taken very seriously in China — perhaps until this week.

Shortly before The Australian report, another article on the origins of COVID-19 evoked discussion. A 10,000-word essay by Nicholas Wade, previously a science reporter for The New York Times, made a strong case for why a laboratory accident couldn’t be ruled out, citing, among other things, the outbreak beginning in Wuhan, home to the premier Chinese lab studying coronaviruses; the absence of a natural bat population there; and the inability to find an intermediate animal host, as was found after the first SARS epidemic, establishing its natural origins. Mr. Wade went a step further, suggesting there were scientific reasons to suggest this virus was not natural. That claim was, however, rebutted by many virologists including Kristian Andersen, who pointed out that his argument of an unusual “furin cleavage site” being a smoking gun was “the only specific argument put forward to support a lab leak” and was “false”.

If you are confused at this point, you are not alone. For news reporters trying to separate fact from fiction, furin cleavage sites and codons might as well be Latin or Greek.

What Mr. Wade did, however, get right is his conclusion that there is no clear evidence either to support or rule out whether the virus came from nature or a lab. Indeed, a lab accident and natural origins are not mutually exclusive possibilities, considering we may never know if the natural source was in a cave or in a cage.

Further muddying the search for origins is the politics. If the Trump administration in the U.S. prematurely wanted to claim the virus was lab-made despite thin evidence, China has spread its own conspiracy theories, with one Foreign Ministry spokesperson claiming that the virus was brought by the U.S. army to Wuhan. China has also been far from forthcoming, delaying access to Wuhan and not providing a WHO team with raw data. And forget about foreign researchers ever getting unrestricted access to the insides of Wuhan’s labs, all of which will only lead to more doubts.

Ultimately, only science, free from politics, can give us a clear answer. But good science takes time, which is in short supply in an age where we demand immediate answers.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 9:34:00 AM |

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