The Lie of the Century: The Origin of COVID-19

COMMENTARY Public Health

The Lie of the Century: The Origin of COVID-19

May 2, 2024 16 min read
Jeff M. Smith

Director, Asian Studies Center

Jeff Smith is Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
This photo taken on June 15, 2023 shows a laboratory technician at a test facility in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. STR / AFP / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The evidence supporting natural spillover has always been thin. Conversely, the evidence pointing to a lab leak has always been compelling.

China acted pretty much exactly as you would expect from a paranoid communist country trying to cover up a lab leak.

Supporting with the lab-leak theory was “siding with President Trump” and nothing—not science, honesty, morality, credibility, or public health—was more important.

Four years after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Chinese city of Wuhan, what do we know about the origin of the SARSCOV2 virus?

We were presented at the outset with two competing theories: natural-origin spillover from animals to humans, and accidental lab leak. And at the outset, a cadre of elite scientists passionately argued that the evidence overwhelmingly favored a natural origin. With comparable fervor, they dismissed the possibility that SARSCOV2 leaked from a lab as a “conspiracy theory.”

With a few notable exceptions, mainstream media outlets and the larger scientific community vehemently nodded in agreement. NPR said the lab-leak theory was “debunked,” Vanity Fair called it a “right-wing coronavirus conspiracy,” and Facebook banned posts suggesting the virus may have been manufactured in a lab.

Four years later that narrative has begun to crack—and rightly so.

It was always a lie; one of the most consequential lies of the 21st century. Like all great lies it perfectly inverted the truth: the evidence supporting natural spillover has always been thin. Conversely, the evidence pointing to a lab leak has always been compelling and has grown substantially more persuasive with time.

A coalition of elite scientists and complicit media outlets have proven remarkably effective in suppressing the truth for this long. But in recent months, as congressional investigations have intensified, honest scientists and journalists have begun challenging the false consensus with greater alacrity as new revelations have tipped the scales toward lab leak even further.

The clique of elite scientists propagating the natural-spillover theory have always had several problems on their hands. Despite an exhaustive four-year search, no intermediate animal host has ever been found. The closest natural relatives to SARSCOV2 are found in bats in Laos and in Yunnan Province over 600 miles away.

>>> How Fauci and NIH Leaders Worked to Discredit COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory

Two of the more popular arguments advanced by spillover partisans—that pandemic began at the Huanan wet market in Wuhan and that it jumped to humans from raccoon dogs and pangolins—have withered under scrutiny. The academic papers supporting both arguments have been hollowed out by fatal challenges to the underlying data, methods, or conclusions.

To date, a natural-spillover explanation for the COVID-19 pandemic remains little more than a distant theoretical possibility.

The Lab-Leak Theory

The most obvious piece of incriminating evidence for the lab-leak theory has always been the existence of a biolab in Wuhan just miles away from the initial outbreak. This wasn’t just any old biolab—the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was an advanced research facility studying coronaviruses that “collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military.” And this wasn’t just any old coronavirus research—the WIV was conducting the riskiest viral research in the world.

Gain-of-function research of concern—which can make viruses more transmissible to humans, ostensibly in order to create vaccines—was so risky, and the chance of causing an accidental pandemic was so great, that the U.S. government banned funding for this research in 2014. Nevertheless, U.S. agencies continued funding this dangerous research at the WIV, even before the moratorium was officially lifted in December 2017.

This was a spectacularly irresponsible decision. U.S. authorities had visited the WIV and found it to have wildly inadequate safety protocols. In a truly Strangelovian twist, we later learned that the WIV was conducting virus research that theoretically could end human civilization in BSL-2 conditions, roughly the equivalent of a dentist’s office safety protocols. “That’s screwed up,” responded Dr. Ian Lipkin, an early proponent of natural spillover, after learning of the WIV’s safety protocols. “People should not be looking at bat viruses in BSL-2 labs. My view has changed.”

As well it should have. Mere miles from Ground Zero of the coronavirus pandemic, in chronically unsafe conditions, a government lab collaborating with the Chinese military was doing extremely risky research on coronaviruses—including the closest known relatives of SARSCOV2.

Brace yourself, there’s more.

The Chinese Coverup

If the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t the product of a lab leak, one might reasonably expect the Chinese government to provide a degree of cooperation with the international community, if for no other reason than to clear its name.

China, of course, did the exact opposite. It swiftly arrested doctors and whistleblowers. It ordered labs to transfer or destroy any related viral samples and “not to publish any information related to the unknown disease.” And shirking its obligations to international health regulations, it refused to provide key data to international investigators.

When the World Health Organization requested to do an audit of the WIV and the wet market, China again refused. It also refused to turn over vital pieces of evidence, such as the blood samples of the lab workers or the animals at the wet market.

Adding to the mystery, a few months before the acknowledged outbreak in December 2019, “several researchers inside the WIV became sick.” The WIV changed its security protocols, ordered an expensive new air incinerator and ventilation system, and – in the middle of the night – mysteriously took down an online database of 22,000 bat virus samples.

And let’s not overlook the fact that Beijing was inexplicably able to produce a vaccine in record time, with a patent filed in February 2020. Most scientists believe the timeline to create a vaccine implausibly short – unless someone in China had access to SARSCOV2 before December 2019.

Notably, this mystery vaccine was created by a Chinese military scientist. Rather than being hailed as a hero for creating a vaccine with improbable speed, Mr. Zhou Yusen suspiciously died months later and was virtually scrubbed from the record by the Chinese Communist Party. At least one report claimed he “fell” to his death from the rooftop of the WIV.

In sum, rather than providing any semblance of cooperation or transparency on the origins of the deadliest event of the 21st Century, China acted pretty much exactly as you would expect from a paranoid communist country trying to cover up a lab leak.

Brace yourself, there’s more.

The Smoking Gun

This list of giant red flags grew even longer with the discovery and examination of the “DEFUSE” proposal, submitted to the Pentagon in 2018 by a group of organizations led by Peter Daszak and his EcoHealth Alliance.

Under lab examination, SARSCOV2 was always a bit of a mystery, adorned with some peculiar characteristics. The virus appeared better designed to target humans than animals, “fully optimized for interaction with the human ACE2 receptor” and “consistent with a laboratory optimized coronavirus which entered the human population fully evolved.”

An even more consequential peculiarity was the presence of a Furin Cleavage Site (FCS), which has the unfortunate property of enhancing a viruses’ transmissibility. The presence of an FCS was particularly puzzling because none of the over 1,500 of known sarbecoviruses (the sub-genus of SARSCOV2) has ever been found in nature with a FCS. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for virologists to insert an FCS while doing gain-of-function experiments in a lab.

For a while, it looked like the presence of an FCS in SARSCOV2, located at the S1/S2 boundary, would remain a vexing, unsolved mystery. Then we learned the details of the $14 million DEFUSE proposal. One year before the pandemic, Mr. Daszak and his collaborators requested funding from the Pentagon to conduct gain-of-function research at the WIV. Specifically, they proposed inserting a FCS into a coronavirus at the S1/S2 boundary—precisely the never-before-seen characteristics present in SARSCOV2 that aided the virus’ rapid transmission.

The Pentagon wisely declined to fund the DEFUSE proposal, but a growing pile of evidence suggests this research went ahead in some form anyway—or was already being conducted—and likely escaped from the Wuhan lab and started the COVID-19 pandemic. “If you study hundreds of different bat viruses at BSL-2 [safety protocols], your luck may eventually run out,” admits one of the godfathers of gain-of-function research and a frequent WIV collaborator, Dr. Ralph Baric.

Of the two possible theories of COVID-19’s origins, only one stands atop of mountain of increasingly persuasive evidence. Natural-spillover proponents have nevertheless sought to dismiss this damning indictment as merely a chain of misinterpreted coincidences. The proximity of the WIV, the gain-of-function research, the dead PLA scientists, the mysterious vaccines, the dentist-office security protocols, the Furin Cleavage Site, the deleted databases, the silenced doctors, the DEFUSE proposal, the lack of an animal host are all just … coincidences.

Any one of them would have been a legitimate cause for inquiry and concern. A dozen of them, by the laws of probability and basic common sense, constitute a smoking gun.

The Real Conspiracy

Which begs a final question: How could this group of elite scientists have gotten this paramount question so horribly wrong?

The inevitable answer is: they didn’t. They weren’t wrong. They were lying.

We know from leaked internal communications that some of the same scientists most ardently dismissing the lab-leak theory took one look at SARSCOV2 and concluded it was, in the words of biologist Kristian Andersen, “so friggin’ likely” the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab “because they were already doing this type of work and the molecular data is fully consistent with that scenario.”

The virus seemed “pre-adapted from the get go,” observed virologist Edward Holmes. The presence of an unprecedented Furin Cleavage Site in SARSCOV2 kept scientist Bob Garry “up all night.” The SARSCOV2 genome was “inconsistent with evolutionary theory,” concluded Dr. Andersen on January 31, 2020.

One day later, some of the same scientists held a phone call with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Dr. Anthony Fauci and rapidly did an about-face, condemning the lab-leak theory as a “crackpot” conspiracy and viciously attacking anyone questioning their fabricated consensus. A larger network of scientists and science journalists quickly fell in line. The coverup had begun.

 The Coverup

A tight network of elite scientists soon engaged in a remarkably effective effort to deceive the world. They collectively briefed the U.S. government, World Health Organization, and any media outlets that would listen: The science was settled, this wasn’t a lab leak. Some of them went on to publish the now-infamous Proximal Origins paper in March 2020 in Nature Medicine, ranked as the most impactful science article of that year. “We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” the paper’s authors asserted.

Their efforts to discredit the lab-leak theory were aided substantially by EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak. He had been involved in multiple collaborations with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including the now-infamous DEFUSE proposal which included a veritable blueprint for creating SARSCOV2. The experiments were so dangerous, and the WIV safety protocols so poor, Daszak intentionally sought to deceive the Pentagon by suggesting the research would be conducted in the U.S.—not China.

(Shockingly, Daszak and EcoHealth Alliance are still receiving tens of millions of dollars in U.S. government research grants, including a seven-figure grant awarded in December 2022.)

After the pandemic outbreak, Daszak conveniently avoided disclosing his personal connections to risky coronavirus research at the WIV as he organized and co-drafted a letter in The Lancet to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”

“The idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true,” Daszak proclaimed in an April 2020 interview.

Daszak also managed to get himself appointed to join the World Health Organization’s (WHO) investigation into COVID’s origins. The investigation produced a March 2021 report that concluded it was “extremely unlikely” SARSCOV2 leaked from a lab. (Under growing scrutiny, the second phase of the WHO investigation was “quietly shelved.”)

Daszak also positioned himself to lead The Lancet’s “COVID-19 Commission.” The following year, chairman Dr. Jeffrey Sachs disbanded the commission over “concerns about the conflicts of interest of one its members and his ties…to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” Sachs later lamented how Dazsak was “not telling me the truth” and was “filled with misdirection,” admitting “it’s time to fess up [SARSCOV2] might have come out of a lab.”

“We don’t have definitive evidence of either hypothesis,” Sachs posited. “But what we do have is definitive evidence that officialdom has tried to keep our eyes away from the lab leak.”

Dr. Fauci was also working overtime to deflect attention from the lab-leak theory. In multiple bouts of congressional testimony, Fauci engaged in semantic games to insist the U.S. wasn’t involved in funding dangerous gain-of-function research at the WIV. (It was.) On several occasions, Fauci publicly argued the evidence “very, very strongly” leans toward natural origin. (It doesn’t.) Those challenging Fauci on these questions, he famously told CBS’s Face the Nation, were “really criticizing science, because I represent science.”

Fauci also tried to explain away China’s stunning lack of cooperation with the international community and elaborate coverup that cost the world countless lives by blaming the Trump administration’s “accusatory nature” for China’s deadly obfuscation.

Fauci also led an effort to brief other U.S. government agencies on COVID’s origins, reportedly leaning on the intelligence community, White House, and State Department to conclude a lab leak was unlikely. One whistleblower later claimed Fauci’s “opinion substantially altered the conclusions that were subsequently drawn.”

Oddly, U.S. intelligence agencies proved largely split and indecisive in their conclusions, with nearly all submitting “low confidence” assessments it was either a lab leak, natural origin, or the evidence was inconclusive. Only one agency had a “medium confidence” assessment in either theory: the FBI is convinced SARSCOV2 is the product of a lab leak. So too is former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who explained in 2023: “a lab leak is the only explanation credibly supported by our intelligence, by science and by common sense.”

The Conspiracy

This was the real conspiracy. Many of the elite scientists seeking to discredit the lab-leak theory knew all along it was the most credible explanation. Not only did they intentionally deceive the world, they slandered any scientist or journalist that challenged them. For daring to question this fraudulent consensus, scientist Alina Chan was viciously attacked as an “intellectually dishonest, manipulative conspiracist with very little subject matter expertise who has…compensated for her mediocrity by pursuing personal profit.”

>>> Stuck on Failure at the WHO

So, why did the scientific establishment act with such disgrace and deception? Their motivations were multi-causal.

First, some of these scientists were direct collaborators with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Dr. Peter Hotez had channeled U.S. government funds to five coronavirus research projects conducted by the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences and the WIV between 2016 and 2019. Mr. Daszak’s DEFUSE proposal included a veritable blueprint for SARSCOV2. They were rightly concerned they could be held personally accountable.

Second, some of these scientists had for years been quietly waging a behind-the-scenes battle to defend risky gain-of-function research over the considerable objections of other virologists. If the pandemic was, in fact, the product of a lab leak, it might deal a fatal blow to their crusade to preserve this controversial research. Even worse, from their perspective, it would mark the death knell for scientific cooperation with China.

Third, some of these scientists had strong financial and reputational incentives to suppress the lab-leak theory, especially after Dr. Fauci weighed in. Dr. Andersen, for example, had a roughly $9 million grant pending with Fauci’s government agency at the time—a grant that was approved two months after he co-authored the seminal academic paper supporting natural spillover, Proximal Origins. “There were people that did not talk about [the lab leak], because they feared for their careers,” Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College later admitted. “They feared for their grants.”

Fourth and finally, the lab-leak debate was hyper-politicized from the outset. Once President Donald Trump suggested a Wuhan lab might be responsible, scientists felt compelled to pick a side. Supporting with the lab-leak theory was “siding with President Trump” and nothing—not science, honesty, morality, credibility, or public health—was more important than opposing the “racist” conspiracy theory adopted by Trump, even if it was likely to be true.

The Conclusion

Presented the evidence objectively, the American people can now decide for themselves whether the natural origin theory of COVID-19 represents the most implausible string of coincidences imaginable or the lie of the century.

This piece originally appeared in RealClear World