Viral: A Review
A reconsideration of the evidence for the laboratory origins of SARS-CoV-2.
Alina Chan and Matt Ridley, Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 (Harper: New York, 2021). 416 pp. ISBN: 978-0063139121. $19.99.
Something happened in 2019, probably towards the middle of the year. It might’ve been a single event, or perhaps a series of them. If it was an accident, it’s very possible that the people most directly implicated weren’t aware at first; some of them might still be uncertain about their responsibility. If it was deliberate, it’s unlikely anybody intended – let alone envisioned – what actually came to pass. Most people with subject expertise know or suspect that scientists are directly implicated in this event, but few will discuss it openly. I am talking, of course, about the release of SARS-CoV-2 into the human population and the origins of the Corona pandemic.
Alina Chan and Matt Ridley’s Viral is, as far as I know, the only book from a major trade publisher to consider the problem of virus origins in anything approaching an objective light. Its treatment is necessarily compromised. Viral appeared in November 2021, as the mass vaccination campaign lent new political utility to virus terror and encouraged a sudden openness to lab-leak theories. Throughout Viral, from their dedication to “the people who have suffered and lost during the Covid-19 pandemic” to the final pages, Chan and Ridley take every opportunity to talk up the grave risk of Corona infection. More seriously, they undermine their own analysis by striving everywhere for an exaggerated moderation, often failing to draw the conclusions demanded by their own evidence and burying the lede. Probably Harper editors are as much to blame for this as the authors; the effect is to create a false equivalency between the natural and artificial origins theories, and to present an unnecessarily attenuated case for laboratory origins.
Among the weakest moments of the entire book are chapters 12 and 13, where Chan and Ridley assume the guise of opposing attorneys making final statements to a jury, in favour of “Spillover” and “Accident” respectively. It’s bad because this isn’t a trial; these scenarios aren’t even mutually exclusive; and “Accident” is far from the only alternative to a zoonotic event. If anything, the lab-leak theory is the centrist view, between the benign and sinister extremes of zoonosis and biowarfare. Thus do Chan and Ridley impose an intellectual frame upon the problem that simultaneously blinds readers to the full spectrum of possibility and enfeebles their own position.
But, for all of that, Viral is also a serious and useful book that provides valuable perspective on the recent history of laboratory leaks, which are far more common than almost anyone realises (Chapter 7); the recent history of gain-of-function research (Chapters 8 and 9); the deliberate obfuscations of the World Health Organisation (Chapter 10); and much else besides.
At its core, Viral is an extremely useful compendium of the evidence that the loose Twitter collective known (not altogether fortunately ) as the Decentralised Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigation COVID-19, or DRASTIC, has assembled on the origins of SARS-2. The evidence is rooted above all in the research and strange behaviour of a small group of scientists associated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including the so-called bat-woman Shi Zhengli and her close collaborators, Ralph Baric at UNC Chapel Hill and Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance.
What follows will be less an evaluation of Viral, than a reconsideration of the SARS-2 origins question, on the basis of the evidence that Chan and Ridley assemble. Considering all the clues together in one place has been unexpectedly helpful. In particular, I’ve begun to think about what the DRASTIC evidence actually is, and why the revelations have mostly stopped; how best to interpret the early obfuscations of scientists and Chinese authorities; and finally, what the chronology of their behaviour suggests.