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The Wuhan Lab-Leak Hypothesis Goes Mainstream

And if the theory’s true, no doubt some people would prefer that the virus’s origins always remain a mystery.

This morning, New York magazine unveiled “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis” — Nicholson Baker’s lengthy and detailed exploration of the possibility that the SARS-CoV-2 virus and ongoing coronavirus pandemic is the result of a lab accident in Wuhan, China. Baker goes even further, speculating that the reason this virus is similar to many previously discovered viruses but not quite the same is that it may have been altered through gain-of-function experiments.

In other words, the theory suggests that Chinese scientists wanted to study a particularly dangerous version of an existing virus and thus deliberately accelerated a virus’s process of growth and change to generate a more virulent and contagious version of it. Baker notes that SARS-CoV-2 is similar to other viruses found in nature, but more contagious among humans — and asks whether laboratory efforts might explain what makes SARS-CoV-2 so easily spread:

The zoonoticists say that we shouldn’t find it troubling that virologists have been inserting and deleting furin cleavage sites and ACE2-receptor-binding domains in experimental viral spike proteins for years: The fact that virologists have been doing these things in laboratories, in advance of the pandemic, is to be taken as a sign of their prescience, not of their folly. But I keep returning to the basic, puzzling fact: This patchwork pathogen, which allegedly has evolved without human meddling, first came to notice in the only city in the world with a laboratory that was paid for years by the U.S. government to perform experiments on certain obscure and heretofore unpublicized strains of bat viruses — which bat viruses then turned out to be, out of all the organisms on the planet, the ones that are most closely related to the disease. What are the odds?