July 06, 2020
Did Covid-19 escape from a Wuhan lab?
In our coverage we largely stayed away from speculation about the virus, especially the nonsensical predictions about its spread and cross-country comparisons. During the pandemic we did report on an intelligence report by the five-eyes agencies, those from five English-speaking countries, which discussed and dismissed the notion that the Covid-19 virus was man-made. Last night, we saw a report from Sky News citing a former chief of MI6, who said that the virus may have come from a lab in Wuhan and escaped by accident. We recall that the five-eyes report discussed this possibility and could not rule it out, but found no hard evidence and therefore did not conclude that this is what might have happened. Sir Richard Dearlove, the former spy chief who is now at Cambridge University, called the virus an engineered escapee.
Separately, we have come across other evidence, on the genetic sequencing of the virus, that would be consistent with Sir Richard's assessment. He went out of his way to dismiss any suggestions of a conspiracy. He does not think there was anything sinister at all about the Wuhan Institute of Technology. We know that Chinese scientists run experiments on viruses. Sir Richard spoke about it during a public panel discussion, and said the issue should be discussed more openly in the science community. The story also quotes a virologist debunking the idea that it is technically possible to alter the pathology of a virus. And then there are others who disagree with that argument. Virologists seem to be all over the place on this. The Wuhan Institute of Technology, meanwhile, says there is no way that the virus could have come from it.
We are no scientists, and approach this issue in the same spirit as Sir Richard: with an open mind and lots of questions. We are interested in this debate specifically because of its impact on policy towards China. A single man's view will not tip the balance of the argument, but spy chiefs are trained to make sense of uncertain information, and to ask questions. What this tells us is that this question will not only be debated, but investigated.