Pyser Testing

The Lab Leak Theory: Who Suppressed It? Who Uncovered It? And What Should We Do About It?

4 June 2021

by Cephas Alain

A crucial, and often overlooked, event in the story of the pandemic and its associated narratives, including that of the supposed natural origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, was the Press Conference of WHO-China Joint Mission on COVID-19 Epidemic Prevention and Control in China. It took place at The Presidential Hotel in Beijing on the evening of February 24th 2020. The transcript of Press Conference and the forty-page Report issued by the Joint Mission on the same date The China Report are available as follows:

The WHO Press Conference Transcript: February 24th 2020
The Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) (The China Report)

The WHO Press Conference was briefed by the Team Leaders of the Joint Mission: Dr. Bruce Aylward (a former Assistant Director-General of the WHO and senior advisor to WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus) and Dr. Liang Wannian (Head of Expert Panel of COVID-19 Response of China National Health Commission (NHC).

Dr Wannian suggested that the source of the outbreak “…according to the currently available data in China, bats may be its host, and pangolin may also be one of the intermediate hosts [i.e., between bats and humans] of this virus”. The China Report added that: “At some point early in the outbreak, some cases generated human-to-human transmission chains that seeded the subsequent community outbreak prior to the implementation of the comprehensive control measures that were rolled out in Wuhan.” (China Report page 10) The ‘best guess’ of the WHO Team was therefore that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in bats which jumped species to infect humans, possibly via pangolins.

The WHO website, last updated on July 20th 2020, provides a basic explanation of the process, termed zoonosis. The WHO website states: “A zoonosis is an infectious disease that has jumped from a non-human animal to humans. Zoonotic pathogens may be bacterial, viral or parasitic, or may involve unconventional agents and can spread to humans through direct contact or through food, water or the environment.”

It adds that “Zoonoses comprise a large percentage of all newly identified infectious diseases as well as many existing ones. Some diseases, such as HIV, begin as a zoonosis but later mutate into human-only strains. Other zoonoses can cause recurring disease outbreaks, such as Ebola virus disease and salmonellosis. Still others, such as the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, have the potential to cause global pandemics”. The WHO website leaves little room for any doubt that SARS-CoV-2 is, as a matter of fact, the product of natural processes.

The finger for the transmission of the virus from animals to humans was initially pointed at the Wuhan South China Seafood Market, a so-called ‘wet market’. Wet markets typically involve open-air stalls selling fresh meat, such as chicken, as well as fish, seafood, fruit, and vegetables. They are common in many parts of China and often involve animals being killed on site. The wet market in Wuhan also sold wild animals and their meat. including porcupines, snakes and beavers although it was not a ‘wildlife market’. (The Guardian April 16th 2020 – “What is a wet market?”)

Especially if animals are stressed or ill and kept in cramped and unhygienic conditions pathogens, organisms causing diseases such as viruses, can potentially mutate becoming more transmissible between species and then jump to humans. A number of people linked to the market fell ill early in the pandemic and traces of the SARS-CoV-2 virus were found there. As a result it was identified by the Chinese authorities as the most likely ground zero for the zoonotic transmission of the virus to humans.

Controversy quickly arose as to whether or not there had, in fact, been an accidental release of a virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan which was known to be carrying out research into coronaviruses. Leaks and other mishaps at laboratories are not uncommon for example: “From Jan. 1st, 2015, through June 1st, 2020, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported 28 lab incidents involving genetically engineered organisms to safety officials at the National Institutes of Health” And “Six of the incidents involved various types of lab-created coronaviruses. Many were engineered to allow the study of the virus in mice”. (ProRepublica – “Here Are Six Accidents UNC Researchers Had With Lab-Created Coronaviruses” – August 17th 2020). Such research is often carried out with the avowed aim of seeking to ‘stay one step ahead’ of viruses that might potentially create pandemics with a view to spotting relevant changes and developing vaccines quickly. It is often referred to as ‘gain of function’ research and that can involve enhancing the ability of a virus to infect humans. SARS and MERS were both coronaviruses that had jumped from their original animal hosts to infect humans, as might also have the virus responsible for Russian Flu in 1890. Therefore, the interest taken by researchers in coronaviruses was perfectly understandable although, the risks of gain of function experimentation and the infection of humans are both obvious and severe.

When Dr Wannian spoke on February 24th 2020 that was shortly after strong statements had already been made in support of a natural source for the outbreak:

  • A strongly worded letter, from a group of public health scientists, published in The Lancet on February 18th 2020, declared: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin”. It added that “Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent… and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens”. The letter also issued an invitation or rallying cry encouraging scientists to “Stand with our colleagues on the frontline!” (Calisher et al.Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19”. There were subsequent allegations that the letter in the Lancet was unsupported by the evidence and motivated, at least in part, by serious but unstated conflicts of interest. (US Right to Know – Updated February 15th 2021 – EcoHealth Alliance orchestrated key scientists’ statement on “natural origin” of SARS-CoV-2.)
  • A letter, published in Nature Medicine online on March 17th 2020, stated in its opening paragraph that “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”. “Is not’” is a strong expression. However, the letter goes on to say variously: “It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus”. And “…it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. The article is technically complex but, in essence it remained speculative. There is a world of difference between the certainty of an “is not” and the uncertainties comprised within an “improbable” and an “impossible to disprove” and a heavily value-laden “we do not believe”. (Andersen et al. Nature Medicine – April 2020 “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2”.)

These two articles set the tone of the ‘official line’ on what became known as the lab leak hypothesis. Social media monopolies were particularly active from an early stage in suppressing any discussion of the lab leak hypothesis, even by reputable news outlets. “Steven W. Mosher only called it [the lab leak hypothesis] a possibility in these [New York Post] pages on Feb. 23rd, 2020. But Facebook quickly moved to suppress the column as ‘False Information — and wouldn’t unblock it until April 17’.” (New York Post – “Facebook’s COVID coverup” – January 5th 2021.) It was to be late May 2021 by the time Facebook finally confirmed that: “In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps” (Politico – “Facebook no longer treating ‘man-made’ Covid as a crackpot idea” May 26th 2021.)

The US Department of State announced in January 2021 that “For more than a year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has systematically prevented a transparent and thorough investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic’s origin, choosing instead to devote enormous resources to deceit and disinformation”. The State Department indicated there had been research at the lab experimenting with the bat coronavirus RaTG13 “…under conditions that increased the risk for accidental and potentially unwitting exposure” was in some way responsible (“Fact Sheet: Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.) This was a set of very serious allegations and the statement went straight into the official archive once the Biden administration took office.

A WHO Team, which visited Wuhan in early 2021, concluded that the source of the virus being a lab leak was “extremely unlikely”. (“WHO-convened Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2: China Part Joint WHO-China Study January 14th, February 10th 2021 Joint Report”.) This was widely reported. (“WHO team says theory Covid began in Wuhan lab ‘extremely unlikely’” – The Guardian – February 9th 2021.) However, it was not the end of the story as “Dr Peter Ben Embarek, who led the WHO team in Wuhan, said they didn’t get ‘hard facts or detailed data’ from the Chinese lab” and an accident could not therefore be ruled out. In short, the Chinese, who had carefully constrained the expert’s investigations, had not been able to provide any evidence to support their assertion that SARS-CoV-2 had natural origins. This was quite different to the position surrounding the emergence of both the earlier SARS and MERS viruses. (“Covid MAY have leaked from Wuhan lab, says WHO lead investigator in astonishing U-turn… now he’s left China” – The Sun – March 4th 2021.)

On March 30th 2021 the WHO issued a News Release stating that, despite its own report: “As far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table. This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do,” said [WHO Director General] Dr Tedros. “Finding the origin of a virus takes time and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again. No single research trip can provide all the answers”. (WHO News Release – “WHO calls for further studies, data on origin of SARS-CoV-2 virus, reiterates that all hypotheses remain open” – March 30th 2021.)

The absence of evidence gradually appeared to undermine the case for the natural origins of SARS-CoV-2. It became reminiscent of a famous Sherlock Holmes plot-line – “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time” Holmes states: “I had grasped the significance of the silence of the dog, for one true inference invariably suggests others…” (“The Adventure of Silver Blaze” from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle – 1892.) “Chinese researchers… failed to find either the original bat population, or the intermediate species to which SARS2 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019. Natural emergence remained a conjecture which, however plausible to begin with, had gained not a shred of supporting evidence in over a year”. (Nicholas Wade – The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.)

But there was more, which Nicholas Wade alerted the world to in his ground-breaking article on the subject of May 5th 2021. The article was first published on the Medium blog site before being accepted for publication by the, distinctly non-virology-orientated, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Physicists have a wry sense of humour and a reputation for exploding consensus. In any event Wade alleged that certain grant money funding the EcoHealth Alliance by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) was used in China because work was effectively sub-contracted to the Wuhan laboratory. Such “…grant proposals… are a matter of public record and specify exactly what she [the researcher involved in Wuhan] planned to do with the money”. Wade explains that “…in non-technical language… Shi [the researcher in Wuhan] set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells”. He added that “It cannot yet be stated that Shi did or did not generate SARS2 in her lab because her records have been sealed, but it seems she was certainly on the right track to have done so”.

Wade’s article also refers to comments by Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, referred to as a “leading expert on biosafety” stating: “…the Wuhan Institute of Virology was systematically constructing novel chimeric coronaviruses and was assessing their ability to infect human cells and human-ACE2-expressing mice”. A chimeric virus is a “…new hybrid microorganism created by joining nucleic acid fragments from two or more different microorganisms in which each of at least two of the fragments contain essential genes necessary for replication”. (“Chimera as an Additional Naming Convention for Live Recombinant Products” – Center for Veterinary Biologics – U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – December 8th 2005.) Such a new organism would not leave traces of pre-existence within a bat population or other animal population prior to its appearance in humans. It would simply do the job of infecting humans which it was designed to do from the outset.

Wade also referred to comments made by Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance in an interview on December 9th 2019, during which he explained that researchers at the Wuhan laboratory have been “reprogramming the spike protein and generating chimeric coronaviruses capable of infecting humanized mice”. He quotes Daszak as saying “Some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanized mice models and are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals and you can’t vaccinate against them with a vaccine. So, these are a clear and present danger…”. (Interview of Peter Daszak December 9th 2019.) Peter Daszak was one of the signatories of the Lancet letter debunking the idea of an accidental release of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from the Wuhan institute. Wades’ article provided various scenarios for a natural or engineered jump of SARS-CoV-2 from bats to humans, concluding that the weight of the evidence favoured a leak from the Wuhan institute, although any smoking gun will be hidden within its records which are probably unlikely to be released.

If his thesis is ultimately found to be correct Wade suggested that the responsibility primarily lies with the following and in the stated order:

  1. Chinese virologists. They must accept responsibility for performing potentially highly dangerous gain-of-function experiments in sub-optimal safety conditions. He suggests that even well-trained virologists following international rules of viral containment could and should make their own risk assessments.
  1. Chinese authorities. Wade asserts that “China’s central authorities [all aspects of which are led by the Chinese Communist Party] did not generate SARS2 but they sure did their utmost to conceal the nature of the tragedy and China’s responsibility for it”. In particular Wade alleges:
    1. They suppressed all records at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and closed down its virus databases.
    2. They released a trickle of information, much of which may have been outright false or designed to misdirect and mislead.
    3. They did their best to manipulate the WHO’s inquiry into the virus’s origins, and led the commission’s members on a fruitless run-around.
    4. “…they have proved far more interested in deflecting blame than in taking the steps necessary to prevent a second pandemic”.
  1. The worldwide community of virologists. They must accept responsibility according to Wade because they are a relatively small group of experts who share their knowledge and “…have common interests in seeking funds from governments [to maintain their research and their livelihoods as virologists] and in not being overburdened with safety regulations [as that might make their chosen work more expensive, difficult and probably less likely to happen]”. As far as gain-of-function research goes they know the risks better than anyone else but nevertheless still “…lobbied against the moratorium imposed on [US] Federal funding for gain-of-function research in 2014, and it was raised in 2017”. Wade is clear that “The benefits of the research in preventing future epidemics have so far been nil, the risks vast”. And “Whether or not SARS2 escaped from a lab, virologists around the world have been playing with fire”. He also unfavourably compares them to other more safety conscious scientists and is highly critical of their decision of many to “…deride lab escape as a conspiracy theory, and others say nothing” to avoid what he calls “journalists’ curiosity and the public’s wrath”. Wade concludes under this head of responsibility that they should no longer be allowed to regulate themselves.
  1. The US role in funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The grant received by EcoHealth Alliance adopted “…a questionable policy to farm out high-risk research to foreign labs using minimal safety precautions. And if the SARS2 virus did indeed escape from the Wuhan institute, then the NIH will find itself in the terrible position of having funded a disastrous experiment that led to the death of more than 3 million worldwide, including more than half a million of its own citizens”. The responsibility of the NIAID and NIH was enhanced “…because for the first three years of the grant to EcoHealth Alliance there was a moratorium on funding gain-of-function research”. And it was then replaced by a system, the Potential Pandemic Pathogens Control and Oversight (P3CO) Framework, requiring them to report for review any dangerous gain-of-function work they wished to fund”. The moratorium specifically prohibited funding for gain-of-function increasing the ability of the flu, MERS or SARS viruses to cause damage through infection. But the rules granted that “[a]n exception from the research pause may be obtained if the head of the USG funding agency determines that the research is urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security”. Enter stage right the director of the NIAID, Anthony Fauci, or the director of the NIH, Francis Collins, or both? It appears that the exemption was invoked to maintain funding during the moratorium and to avoid notifying the new reporting system of the research.

During a Senate hearing on May 11th 2021 Dr Fauci claimed that no gain of function research was being funded in Wuhan. At the hearing Senator Rand Paul stated: “Juicing up super viruses is not new. Scientists in the U.S. have long known how to mutate animal viruses to infect humans. For years, Dr. Ralph Baric, a virologist in the U.S., has been collaborating with Doctor Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Virology Institute, sharing his discoveries about how to create super viruses. This gain-of-function research has been funded by the NIH”. “…Dr. Fauci, do you still support funding of the NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan?” Dr Fauci responded: “Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect that the NIH has not never and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology”. This may be a matter of definition. For instance, EcoHealth Alliance, “…believes that the term gain-of-function applies only to enhancements of viruses that infect humans, not to animal viruses”. That is a potentially controversial perspective. (Washington Post – “Fact-checking the Paul-Fauci flap over Wuhan lab funding” – May 18th 2021.)

Shortly after Wade’s article was published on May 5th 2021, Dr Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appeared before a Congress budget hearing on May 19th 2021. She was questioned by Senator John Kennedy over the origins of SARS CoV-2. She said “I don’t believe I’ve seen enough data, individual data for me to be able to comment on that.” She noted “Certainly the possibilities of, that most coronaviruses that we know of are of origin from, that have infected the population – SARS CoV-1, MERS, generally come from an animal origin”. Senator Kennedy asked: “Are there any other possibilities?” She replied “Certainly a lab-based origin is one possibility”. Additionally Dr Walensky was asked whether or not the U.S. was funding gain of function research and responded “Not that I know of”. It is unclear upon what basis her answer was provided, given the apparent controversy over the definition of gain of function.

On May 14th 2021 a Letter to the editor of Science was published under the heading “Investigate the Origins of COVID-19”. It stated “As [a group of eighteen] scientists [Bloom et al.] with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general, the United States and 13 other countries, and the European Union that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spill-overs seriously until we have sufficient data”. Importantly they explained that “A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest”. This suggested that they were not wholly impressed with the efforts made so far. The letter went on to say: “Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts”. The article condemned “anti-Asian sentiment” and noted the importance of “…dispassionate science-based discourse on this difficult but important issue” (Bloom et al. Letter to the EditorScience Magazine – May 14th 2021.)

Matthew Crawford discussed Wade’s analysis in an article in Unherd entitled “Science has become a cartel – There’s a reason the medical establishment dismissed the lab leak theory. He agreed with Wade that “…researchers have an incentive to carry the work out under less restrictive safety standards, and therefore to downplay the risks when applying for grants” adding that “In this, there may have been a subtle form of collusion. There is no need to posit a conspiracy, one need only take note of the shared incentives. It is other members of the guild who conduct the review process that decides the allocation of research funds; they are unlikely to insist upon more stringent safety standards — which would have to apply to themselves as well. Research communities have internal competition, but also collective interests”. Additionally, one could add to Crawford’s remarks that there is a line to be drawn between complacent passivity and complicit silence. In terms of any future adjudication over the issues including the passive or other involvement of relevant parties neither response would be likely to be considered satisfactory given the extreme risks involved.

Crawford’s article is scathing of the spring 2020 letters in The Lancet and Nature Medicine considering that they “…were in fact anti-scientific in spirit and intent. Yet the pronouncements had the effect of shutting down inquiry that was not only legitimate, but urgently needed”. The letter sent to the editor of Science of May 14th was equally clear on the surrounding aspects of the scientific method. Crawford also observed that essentially scientific progress tends to happen when a cosy consensus, with evident gaps in it, is faced with a gap filled reality proffered by “an outsider” which ultimately cannot be ignored. Maybe, he suggests, establishment gatekeepers sometimes even have to “…literally die, or retire” because “…one has to keep in mind that scientists are human beings first”. This is not new, but “The invocation of ‘conspiracy theory’ [in the letter to the Lancet and elsewhere] has become a reflex by which incumbents in many domains seek to arrest criticism”. That is new and he makes some suggestions as to why “…the internet has broken the knowledge monopolies by which institutional credibility is maintained”. So the poison added into the debate helps create additional barriers through “…denunciation that is highly moralised. Epistemic threats to institutional authority are resolved into moral conflicts between good people and bad people”. This might just be the current version of the more familiar ‘established faith’ versus ‘newcomer’ narrative but it is not only moralised, it carries the additional impetus and force which wider public engagement can bring. That is in addition to that already emanating from ‘the guild’. It is hard to disagree upon how effective “…the early, pre-emptive declarations of scientific consensus in The Lancet and Nature Medicine were in garnering media enforcement of public opinion on the matter”. The evidence of its effectiveness is it crushed free and open debate on the lab leak hypothesis for over a year. The approach adopted was transparently self-serving, for those with an interest in continuing high risk virology and maintaining related funding streams. It was also politically charged “…Donald Trump publicly floated the idea that Covid may have had its origin in a Chinese lab”. So “It was therefore a point of conviction for all those who believe in science [actual scientists and the media] that such a hypothesis could only be a conspiracy theory, probably rooted in “Sinophobia””. As Crawford highlights even the, much later, letter published in Science feels the need to expressly reject ‘anti-Asian sentiment’ How was that relevant? Because, he notes the alleged ‘conspiracy theory’ has often been juxtaposed with reporting on anti-Asian hate crimes, thereby subsuming an urgent scientific question to the Trump-era morality play.

By June 2021 some rapid and extensive repositioning was taking place across parts of the media and scientific community which had hitherto downplayed, ignored or even outright censored, the lab leak hypothesis. An article by the Guardian’s U.S. columnist, Thomas Frank considered the process which had occurred and its potential impact in some detail. It is a particularly interesting article as it reflects the way in which a number of official pandemic related narratives emerged and at least one had started to unravel. (The Guardian – “If the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis is true, expect a political earthquake” – June 1st 2021.)

Frank began with “There was a time when the Covid pandemic seemed to confirm so many of our [liberal/progressive] assumptions. It cast down the people we regarded as villains. It raised up those we thought were heroes…”. He continued “’Respect science’ admonished our yard signs. And lo! Covid came and forced us to do so, elevating our scientists to the highest seats of social authority, from where they banned assembly, commerce, and all the rest”. He suggests that the consensus was that “Reality itself punished leaders like him [President Trump as symbolic of the non-liberal/non progressive] who refused to bow to expertise. The prestige news media even figured out a way to blame the worst death tolls on a system of organised ignorance they called ‘populism’”. But “Now the media is filled with disturbing stories suggesting that Covid might have come — not from ‘populism’ at all, but from a laboratory screw-up in Wuhan, China. You can feel the moral convulsions beginning as the question sets in: What if science itself is in some way culpable for all this?” The moralisation of scientific debate (per Crawford’s observations) and its personalisation as part of political discourse (neatly described by Frank) has a big potential price tag attached to it. If any part of the equation fails to deliver as promised it all collapses in a heap. The goodies and the baddies are not as easy to determine as appears to have been thought and the ultimate victim might not only be individual scientists and other experts but the credibility of science itself. But maybe, we might add, only if science (if it can be embodied as such) is viewed, incorrectly, as our rightful master of all as opposed to as our helpful guide.

Frank admits that he had, perhaps embarrassingly it now appears, had always tried to talk people out of believing in the lab leak hypothesis: “…because the newspapers I read and the TV shows I watched had assured me on many occasions that the lab-leak theory wasn’t true, that it was a racist conspiracy theory, that only deluded Trumpists believed it, that it got infinite pants-on-fire ratings from the fact-checkers, and because (despite all my cynicism) I am the sort who has always trusted the mainstream news media…”. The result was that “My own complacency on the matter was dynamited”. Dynamited that was by the Wade article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Frank then asks “What if this crazy story turns out to be true?” and replies that “The answer is that this is the kind of thing that could obliterate the faith of millions”. It appears that he now feels he may have been naïve to trust the official narrative, like many others. He explained that “In reaction to the fool Trump, liberalism made a sort of cult out of science, expertise, the university system, executive-branch ‘norms’, the ‘intelligence community’, the State Department, NGOs, the legacy news media, and the hierarchy of credentialed achievement in general”.

Frank’s reference to a sort of cult is highly relevant. That is especially so given the context of a potential mass exit from cults he suggests may have been created around science, expertise and so on. Cults essentially involve misplaced faith which might be ‘obliterated’ by new findings and replaced by an alternative narrative. But they also have other characteristics. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) defined ‘cult’ as ‘a group or movement’ with the following characteristics:

  1. Great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and
  2. employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it),
  3. designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders,
  4. to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.

(West & Langone – Cultic Studies Journal, 3, No 1 pages 85-96.) The cultic similarities of many aspects of pandemic related narratives and behaviours is a whole new field of study opening up to social scientists and lay enthusiasts. The implications of a developing exodus from them will only become apparent with the passage of time. Cults are however typically considered to be harmful to their members, and even to their leaders. Frank points out that COVID-19 “…has killed millions and ruined lives and disrupted the world economy far more extensively. Should it turn out that scientists and experts and NGOs, etc. are villains rather than heroes of this story, we may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger”. An individual’s emotional turbulence upon leaving a cult or cultlike beliefs certainly needs careful support and expert management. So, Frank’s observation is not overblown especially if effectively billions of people are unexpectedly and suddenly placed in that position vis a vis one or more part of the pandemic narrative depending upon who they are and where they are. At a basic level the thought that a virus might be effectively weaponised would be news to many as would the thought that it was actually being weaponised. That it was also being done in a knowingly unsafe manner would be even worse. But as for the additional knowledge of having been forced into unwitting and unwilling participation in such experimentation it is hard to know how to react personally let alone how to gauge the potential reaction of the rest of the world’s population.

Frank states: “If it does indeed turn out that the lab-leak hypothesis is the right explanation for how it began — that the common people of the world have been forced into a real-life lab experiment, at tremendous cost — there is a moral earthquake on the way.” He rightly emphasises the need to think more critically in the future as nobody has a monopoly on expertise and all the answers. That is quite an admission from a liberal/progressive perspective because Frank rather implies it has gradually become increasingly exclusive in its common beliefs despite claims of inclusivity. No longer should debate be shut down as someone does not follow the official line. That is a sign of hope. But the more immediate response from most people is likely to be an understandably emotional one. The thought that the illness, death and other severe impacts of COVID-19 and the extreme responses to it could all have all been avoided is an appalling one. An originating lab leak as the cause of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic would be the most devastating example of gross negligence in all of human history. The impact of knowing that the pandemic was avoidable would also be greatly increased if the responses to the crisis by similarly labelled ‘scientists and experts and NGOs, etc’ are also called into question on the basis of lack of justificatory evidence. The ‘etc’ forming the revised list of villains can thus reasonably be expected to mean much of mainstream and social media – in fact most anything that moves within a mile or two of the official narrative, which has been relentlessly pumped out over more than a year from spring 2020 would be liable to fall under a cataclysmic compounding of an obliterated faith in science, experts, the media, politicians and more. In short the natural result will not only be a very strong sense of disillusionment but also the anger Frank refers to and, maybe, and more alarmingly, a desire for vengeance. That is something that would need to be channelled into something shaped like justice to be remotely productive.

Cephas Alain is a retired lawyer.