Most people have read, or are familiar with, George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It was published in 1945. But the Introduction/Preface wasn’t published until much later, in 1972. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. … At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the Soviet regime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet Government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable. … It is important to distinguish between the kind of censorship that the English literary intelligentsia voluntarily impose upon themselves, and the censorship that can sometimes be enforced by pressure groups.”
The Wuhan virus has ravaged the world, through mortality, morbidity and long-term effects we aren’t even aware of today. Across the world, understandably, there has been criticism and questions have been raised about culpability of governments in handling the crisis. But oddly, or perhaps understandably, few questions are raised about the origin of the virus. There is a conspiracy of silence. I was reminded of Orwell’s Introduction/Preface (with Soviet government replaced) when I read Nicholas Wade’s long essay on the origins of Covid-19. It was first published in Medium, but has been reprinted in several places since then. With personal lives devastated, I think the Wade arguments deserve better dissemination, so that some culpability is fixed.
Whether one uses the appellation “Wuhan” or not, that the virus originated in Wuhan is undeniable fact and cannot be wished away. Was it (a) nature; or (b) nurture? Robust causal evidence to establish either is missing. Wade teases through circumstantial evidence (which everyone should carefully read) to argue that the balance of probability is in favour of (b). Yet, most people seem to think it was (a), jumping from wildlife to humans via Wuhan’s wet market. But there were cases in Wuhan with no link to the wet market and preceding December 2019. Nevertheless, as public, we believe what scientists and virologists tell us. This brings us to a Lancet piece in February 2020 and a Nature Medicine piece in March 2020. In both cases, there was no evidence to prove the virus originated in nature. Yet, both pieces were categorical that this hadn’t been the case. To quote Sherlock Holmes, “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” That’s precisely what these two pieces did. Without using standard filters required for a scientific proposition to be categorically established, they jumped the gun.
Skipping details of scientific evidence (one should read Wade), nature is implausible because—geography is wrong (Yunnan, where bats live, is 1,500 km away from Wuhan and bats don’t fly that far); timing is wrong (the first cases occurred in September, before wet market cases of December 2019); climate is wrong (it is so cold in September in Hubei that bats hibernate); no intermediate host of transmission, or geographical process of transfer, has been found. “There are pigs on Pluto.” This is a proposition that can’t be falsified, at least, not yet. But most people and scientists and virologists will accept that the proposition is implausible and improbable, possible though it might be. In the same way, though we don’t know for sure, the origin of this virus species through natural selection and transmission is implausible. Wuhan is a centre for research on coronaviruses through Wuhan Institute of Virology, and possibly other labs too. If that’s the case, since Wuhan is the place where cases were detected, one should start with nurture in Wuhan, not nature in Yunnan.
Why has there been no finger-pointing towards Wuhan research? There is a strong hypothesis and a weaker variant. In the strong hypothesis, research in Wuhan has been funded by individuals and organisations from the West, who authored pieces and tried to form public opinions without disclosing conflicts of interest. There was a perverse incentive, since were the nurture proposition to be true, they would have had to share part of the blame. We do know research in Wuhan Institute of Virology was funded from the West. We do know some of these were gain-of-function experiments, attempts to enhance capabilities of viruses. We do know this research involved bat coronaviruses, with samples collected from Yunnan. We do know the Wuhan Institute possessed capability to produce Covid-19, though we don’t know it actually did. Given weak regulatory controls and safety measures in Wuhan Institute of Virology, or other labs there we don’t know about, it was possible for Covid-19 to escape and cause the pandemic. I mentioned a strong hypothesis and a weaker variant. In the strong hypothesis, there are individuals and organisations who have actually funded research in Wuhan. In the weak hypothesis, virologists in general are reticent and non-transparent about the kind of research they are engaged in, one that is of dubious value and potentially, extremely dangerous.
There is a conspiracy, but not a global conspiracy to unleash the pandemic on humanity. The conspiracy is one of silence and reluctance to part with information, which is why I quoted George Orwell (Nicholas Wade uses the word omerta, with a phonetic resemblance to many Indian words that mean death). Do read the Wade essay. With lives ravaged, surely there should be culpability.
Bibek Debroy, Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. (Tweets @bibekdebroy)
Views are personal.