Review of VIRAL
Did Covid-19 leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology?
I don’t need to explain Covid-19 to anyone (I hope), but the extreme tl;dr version is that a novel coronavirus, likely originating in bats, rapidly spread across the world in beginning in November 2019 sparking the largest modern global pandemic and killing millions to date. Aside from the medical impact, the pandemic caused by the virus has also radically changed our day-to-day lives.
But the big question that has been circulating almost as long as Covid has is where did the virus come from? It’s a central question for many reasons, including understanding the virus better, preventing future similar pandemics, and general clarity of how we went from a few cases of mysterious pneumonia to a global pandemic in the matter of a few weeks. In Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, Alina Chan and Matt Ridley present a deep dive into the available evidence.
Two main hypotheses are at the center of this question, each with two plausible scenarios. The virus is a natural spillover event, making its way from bats via another mammal or directly to a human from bats in a cave in China (relatively far from Wuhan) where very similar coronaviruses had been found before. Or the virus came from a laboratory “leak” or spillover event wherein a scientist working with a natural or engineered version of the Covid virus was infected or the virus breached safety protocols.
I highly recommend people read the book for themselves to see where they land with the evidence (or listen to the authors’ conversation with Sam Harris about their book for the truncated version), as the authors don’t present a firm conclusion. But after reading and taking in the evidence, the lab leak/spill over hypothesis seems most plausible to me. The book also presents a detailed timeline of the first two years of all the major research and events that occurred during this investigation. (This is a case where the paperback version is better as it was published in June 2022 and has updated evidence and timelines compared to the 2021 hardcover.)
Some of the main pieces of evidence are as follows. The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) has a history of studying at least nine viruses that have been found to be the most similar to the sars-cov2 virus responsible for the pandemic; the cave where the most similar coronavirus (~97% genetically similar) had been found pre-pandemic are far enough away from Wuhan to be a weak tie to the market (which appears to have been a super spreader event rather than an origin); the wet market was extensively tested when I was first shut down and the virus was not found on the surfaces or in the animals; and the furin cleavage site, which is a key mechanism of the virus that makes covid so transmissible, is not present in any of the closest relative viruses but is a feature that is often genetically engineered into viruses during gain of function research (like that of which occurs at WIV).
Viral was a great book, and really helps clear away all the media noise about what happened. As they also explain in the book, and on Harris’ podcast, it’s possible we may never have conclusive proof – the proverbial “smoking gun” to support either of the four scenarios has yet to be found. And because at the beginning of the pandemic efforts were hyperfocused on the Wuhan wet market at the detriment of other hypothesis, it’s likely that the early evidence might never be found. Highly recommend the book or their conversation to get a non-media version of where we’re at with the investigation.
Published: November 2021
If you think this sounds interesting, bookmark these other great reads:
Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas A. Christakis (2020)
Crispr People: The Science and Ethics of Editing Humans by Henry T. Greely (2021)
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (2018) | Read my review
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