In August 2007 there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth virus on a farm in Surrey. It was a few miles from the world’s leading reference laboratory for identifying outbreaks of foot and mouth. Nobody thought this was a coincidence and sure enough a leaking pipe at the laboratory was soon found to be the source: a drainage contractor had worked at the lab and then at the farm.
In December 2019 there was an outbreak in China of a novel bat-borne SARS-like coronavirus a few miles from the world’s leading laboratory for collecting, studying and manipulating novel bat-borne SARS-like coronaviruses. We were assured by leading scientists in China, the US and the UK that this really was a coincidence, even when the nine closest relatives of the new virus turned up in the freezer of the laboratory in question, at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Now we know what those leading scientists really thought. Emails exchanged between them after a conference call on 1 February 2020, and only now forced into the public domain by Republicans in the US Congress, show that they not only thought the virus might have leaked from a lab, but they also went much further in private. They thought the genome sequence of the new virus showed a strong likelihood of having been deliberately manipulated or accidentally mutated in the lab. Yet later they drafted an article for a scientific journal arguing that the suggestion not just of a manipulated virus, but even of an accidental spill, could be confidently dismissed and was a crackpot conspiracy theory.