The Lab Leak Scenario

It’s been about a year since the coronavirus started to spread in earnest and unleash its wrath on an unwitting world. Since that time, tens of millions of people have been infected, countless more have died, and therefore the focus understandably has been on fighting a desperate, rear-guard action to try to minimize the spread and effects of COVID-19. But . . . will we ever know, for sure, the origins of the virus and how it came to shut down the world?

Initially, many people thought that the virus had its roots in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where a virus that previously was limited to animals somehow made a leap to humans. Increasingly, however, people are exploring the alternative “lab leak” scenario. That hypothesis posits that the virus had its roots in a naturally occurring condition among animals, but than was modified and bioengineered and made even more infectious in a medical laboratory — in this case, a lab somewhere in Wuhan.

And here’s the scary part: the people who are articulating the lab leak scenario do not believe that COVID-19 was intentionally designed to function as some kind of biological weapon. Instead, they believe it was created and enhanced in infectiousness and virulence as part of routine, ongoing experimentation with viruses — and that, through negligence and inadvertence, it somehow got out of the controlled environment and began its destructive rampage across the globe. In short, they believe medical researchers throughout the world have been engaging in incredibly risky behavior with incredibly risky viruses, and through someone’s mistake or carelessness, we’re now all paying the piper. If that hypothesis is what actually happened, this wasn’t some naturally occurring phenomenon, but a self-inflicted wound that didn’t have to happen in the first place.

A New York magazine piece, The Lab Leak Hypothesis, does a good job of explaining this scenario for the creation of COVID-19 and establishing why it seems plausible. It turns out that, for years now, scientists and medical researchers have been tinkering with viruses and modifying them in an effort to make them more deadly and more easily transmitted, for the putative purpose of trying to prevent the spread of viruses and designing vaccines or other treatments. And, in publications in the scientific community, some people have sounded the alarm bells and predicted that, one of these days, one of those bioengineered viruses would escape. That may be precisely what happened here.

Reading the New York article, I found myself thinking: didn’t anyone involved in funding or supervising or performing this kind of incredibly risky research ever read The Stand, Stephen King’s novel about a bioengineered disease that decimated the world? And didn’t the scientists who were engaging in this research have a bit of humility about their capabilities, and question whether they should be playing God with viruses that could potentially sweep across the world?

We may never know exactly how COVID-19 came toravage the world. It’s unlikely that, if the lab leak scenario is true, someone will step up and admit that they opened the door to allow a global pandemic to escape. But Congress and the incoming Biden Administration can take a good, hard look at precisely what kind of risky research is being performed, at taxpayer expense or otherwise, and consider whether that research should be shut down entirely, or subject to much more rigorous controls than currently exist. We may not learn from whence the coronavirus came, but we can take the lab leak scenario seriously, and try to prevent a human-engineered disease from killing unwitting victims, smashing our economies, and throwing millions of people out of work in the future.