Nafeez Ahmed looks at the scientific credentials of the authors behind a book that has powered baseless speculation that the Chinese Government ‘engineered’ COVID-19

A scientist who has told British MPs that a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China is “now the most likely origin of Covid” secured millions of dollars’ worth of funding from the Pentagon for research on genetic extinction technologies – and worked under the influence of the Biden administration’s top science advisor until January 2021. Her co-author promoted pseudoscientific pandemic disinformation in the midst of the pandemic in 2020.

Dr Yujia Alina Chan, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, is the co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, along with Conservative Party peer Viscount Matt Ridley.

Ridley is a fracking supporter and coal baron who has promoted the Great Barrington Declaration, a pandemic disinformation hub promoting a herd immunity approach to the virus. He also advises the climate science-denying Global Warming Policy Foundation which has links to the right-wing Koch network. The Koch network, as Byline Times has previously revealed, backed the organisation behind the Great Barrington Declaration.


No Evidence

Chan and Ridley spoke to MPs at the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee on Wednesday, where Chan told them: “I think the lab origin is more likely than a natural origin at this point. We all agree there was a critical event at the Wuhan seafood market, that was a super spreader event caused by humans, but there’s no evidence pointing to a natural animal origin of the virus at that market.”

However, the pair failed to provide any decisive evidence of their lab leak theory, apart from the inference that it is “incredibly surprising” that the specific animal host for the virus has not been identified after two years. “We have heard from many top virologists that a genetically engineered origin is reasonable and that includes virologists who made modifications to the first Sars virus,” Chan added before the parliamentary committee.

Their testimony was widely reported with headlines focusing on the claim that the lab leak theory is now the most “likely” one – yet none probed deeper to note the political context or assess the scientific merits of the claims.

The problem is that while the evidence amassed in their book provides strong grounds for not ruling out a lab leak theory – showing beyond reasonable doubt that it is a contender explanation that must be investigated – they offer no specific proof of its superior explanatory value. 

In fact, their primary argument for the Wuhan lab theory – that the COVID-19 virus is unusually adapted for humans – had already fallen apart just months before the book’s publication in November.

“When SARS-CoV-2 was first sequenced, the receptor-binding domain didn’t really look like anything we’d seen before,” said Professor Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney in Australia. This fueled speculation about the virus being created in a laboratory. 

That all changed when three new viruses were discovered in wild bats from Laos, which proved to be more genetically similar to the COVID-19 virus than any previously known to science, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s RaTG13 sequence. The newly discovered natural viruses were also found to be directly infectious to humans via the same mechanisms that the COVID-19 virus uses to infect human cells. According to Holmes, the Laos coronaviruses confirm that these parts of SARS-CoV-2 already exist in nature and that the COVID-19 strain probably evolved naturally. 

In Viral, Chan and Ridley inadvertently acknowledge that they found no evidence that Wuhan or any laboratory in the world were working on a coronavirus strain that was at least 99% similar to COVID-19, which would be necessary to engineer the virus. And Wuhan did not even have the full live virus genetic sequence of RaTG13. 

Professor Linfa Wang, director of the Programme in Emerging Infectious Diseases at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, agreed with Holmes: “I am more convinced than ever that SARS-CoV-2 has a natural origin”. As Lindsay Beyerstein in The New Republic thus observes: “These findings make Viral’s breathless speculation about the Mojiang mine and the origins of RaTG13 completely obsolete.”

Since the discovery of the Laos coronaviruses proved that a natural origin of the COVID-19 virus was entirely plausible, leaked emails showing that samples of the Laos viruses had been studied in Wuhan have fuelled further speculation that these viruses were the basis of genetically engineering COVID-19. 

Yet they are still only 96.8% similar – while proving that COVID-19 can evolve in nature, this represents decades of evolutionary divergence, and there is no specific evidence from Wuhan showing that experiments on the Laos viruses led secretly to the creation of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence. 

Yet Dr. Chan pointed to the Laos viruses as proof of her theory. Although at best the evidence proves nothing either way (except that viruses similar to but still far too different from SARS-CoV-2 were being studied at Wuhan), her insistence on pushing the lab leak theory raises legitimate questions about the political and ideological bias behind the authors’ speculations. 

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Politicisation?

Those questions are underlined by the fact that Chan was involved in gene editing research funded by US military and intelligence agencies. 

In 2017, for instance, Chan was co-author of a paper on the development of human artificial chromosomes (HACs) which received most of its funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). 

Source: Nucleic Acids Research, Oxford University

Chan played a key role in securing this funding, which was administered by a senior academic she was working under. She also helped secure funding from the US Government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which is run within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. 

“I have not received any funding from DARPA or IARPA although I used to work for a professor who received funding from these sources between 2015-2017,” Chan told Byline Times. “I’m not aware of these Pentagon publications that I’m a co-author on… DARPA is very clearly not Pentagon.”

However, Chan was not a co-author of “Pentagon publications”: she was, rather, involved in research funded by the Pentagon’s science agency and US intelligence community – and she has previously boasted about her own role in securing that funding.

While at Harvard Medical School four years ago, according to her own LinkedIn bio, Dr Chan describes how she “co-wrote grants to secure more than $6M in funding from DARPA, IARPA, and Synberc for the purposes of developing gene-editing technologies and human artificial chromosomes, and innovating platforms to functionally and computationally assess novel viral genes and proteins.”

Dr Alina Chan’s Linkedin profile

The gene-editing technology that DARPA is funding has been described as potential “gene extinction” technology aimed at wiping out plagues or pests, but which could have vast unintended knock-on effects for other species. 

Emails released under freedom of information reveal a ‘gene editing’ arms race underway, with DARPA investing $100 million in the associated technologies making it the world’s largest funder. A scientific report by US Government consultants in 2017 noted “potential threats this technology might pose in the hands of an adversary.” 

The following year, Goldman Sachs analysts concluded that China was ahead of the US in the gene-editing arms race, raising the question of whether Chan and Ridley’s claims fit into a broader political agenda that wants to see Chinese advancements slowed and subject to international scrutiny.

IARPA is also a major funder of the Broad Institute, having provided it in 2020 with a $23 million grant for research on using controlled DNA synthesis as an information storage medium that “would empower the Intelligence Community to meet its future data storage needs.” Although Chan’s own research at the Broad Institute is not funded by IARPA (“In the Boston area, almost every institute has received funding from DARPA or IARPA” Chan told Byline Times) – the Broad Institute has an especially close relationship with the US Government. 

Its founding head – and Chan’s ultimate boss – was until earlier this year Eric Lander. Previously, from 2009 to 2017, Lander served as external co-chair of the President’s White House Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). He is now President Joe Biden’s Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). 

This summer, senior Biden administration officials overseeing a US Government intelligence review into the origins of COVID-19 said that they now believe the lab leak is at least as credible as the possibility that it emerged naturally in the wild.

Given the intensifying focus on the Chinese lab leak theory from inside the Pentagon, Dr Chan’s role in research funded by US military and intelligence agencies raises questions about whether her certainty on the likelihood of the Wuhan lab leak theory has genuine scientific merit, or is the outcome of politicisation under the influence of US Government and military thinking. 

The White House Office of Science and Technology was contacted for comment.


The Ridley Connection

It is not clear how and why Chan decided to work with Conservative peer Matt Ridley. According to Chan, it was Ridley that approached her and “proposed a collaboration”.

Although widely billed as a neutral science writer, Ridley is in fact a climate science denier who advises the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a think-tank funded by Tory donors that promotes egregious pseudoscientific disinformation about environmental issues. The GWPF is also closely connected to the Koch network, which has turned much of its attention from climate science denial to COVID-19 pseudoscience.

In October 2020, Ridley promoted the Koch-backed Great Barrington Declaration on Twitter and his personal blog.

Ridley is also an advisor to Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, many of whose members (including Young himself) have promoted questionable and discredited pseudoscience around race, genes and IQ. The FSU was recently found to be linked to an effort by billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel to influence free speech policy on UK campuses via Cambridge University.

Matt Ridley was contacted for comment.

Either way, the depiction of Dr Alina Chan and Matt Ridley as neutral scientific experts who have now provided the most authoritative assessment of the Wuhan lab leak theory is nonsensical. Their book points out some legitimate areas of inquiry in the effort to figure out COVID-19’s origins. But their insistence on the superiority of their lab leak theory remains without a “shred of evidence” concludes pandemic historian Mark Honisbaum. 

In the meantime, Chan and Ridley’s claims before MPs have fuelled baseless conspiratorial speculation right at the point when societies are on the brink of being overwhelmed by the Omicron variant.

While downplaying the evidence that COVID-19 ultimately came about due to human societies encroaching dangerously on natural ecosystems, their claims have boosted a wide variety of conspiracy theorists eager for a scapegoat. 

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