Almost two years have passed since a highly lethal virus invaded the human species. Today the pandemic continues to have the world in a stranglehold, tempting governments to take even more radical measures against it. While Austria is now forcing two million unvaccinated citizens into domestic quarantine, the Chinese information policy is to keep the truth locked away, like a Swiss nuclear bunker.

Matt Ridley and Alina Chan have painstakingly collected circumstantial evidence to track down ground zero of the pandemic. In their book, "Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19" published on Monday they remind readers that the focus has fundamentally shifted in recent months. "The lab leak hypothesis transformed from a conspiracy theory to just barely a possibility to a plausible hypothesis worthy of a credible investigation.” And they add, "We now think it very possible that the pandemic did result from the work of scientists either when collecting samples in the field or when working with those samples in a laboratory."

Weltwoche: Matt Ridley, let's look into the evidence you assembled in your book. First, you turn the table, pointing out that two years into the pandemic no direct evidence for a natural origin has been found.

Ridley: Indeed, the market theory has become less likely, because the evidence that we would expect to find for this theory has failed to turn up. In the case of SARS, we very quickly found a link to animals on sale in markets, to food handlers being among the first cases. Despite the much inferior genomic technology that was available at that time, we found out within months that the disease was being spread by palm civets in particular. From there, it was possible to trace it back to bats and so on. That has simply not happened with COVID-19.

After two years and 80,000 animals tested, there is still no pattern of food handlers or market sellers being among the first infected, and still no pattern of another species of animal being infected.

Weltwoche: That's the first point, the weakening of the market hypothesis. What is the strengthening of the lab leak hypothesis down to?

Ridley: The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is the leading SARS-like coronavirus laboratory in the world, has produced more papers on this topic than any other laboratory, it has a larger database of these viruses than any other laboratory, and it is situated in an area where SARS-like coronaviruses have not been found, despite a lot of searching in bats in that area.

But we do know that SARS-CoV-2-like viruses were brought to this laboratory by scientists from over 1,000 kilometers away. Wuhan, the geographical point that this epidemic has broken out, is the one place in the world where we know these viruses were brought, not by animals, but by scientists. This does mean that we need to take that hypothesis very seriously.

Weltwoche: You're talking about a place very far away from Wuhan, the copper mine of Mojiang in southwest China. After working in that bat-infested mine in 2012 six miners got sick with a mysterious pneumonia, and three of them died. What were they doing in the mine and what happened?

Ridley: We don't know exactly why they were there, except that they were clearing bat guano from the mine. We do know that they were shoveling bat guano in an underground tunnel in the mineshaft, and six of them got sick.

It was taken very seriously (by the Chinese authorities). We know that several high-profile national laboratories got involved in trying to understand this outbreak. We know that they all concluded that it was probably a SARS-like virus caught from bats that caused the sickness. If so, this would be the first case of people catching one of these viruses directly from bats, rather than through palm civets or other intermediate animals. There was enormous interest in this case, but very little was published about it.
Then when seven years later the pandemic began, a reference was made to one of the samples collected from bats in this mineshaft (a bat coronavirus called RaTG13), but with a changed name and with no details about the case. It took two months to work out that this was the outbreak they were talking about, to link it to the outbreak in which three people died.
The Mojiang virus was for a long time the closest relative of SARS-CoV-2 that had been found. It was brought to the Wuhan laboratory in 2013. Others from the same mineshaft were brought in 2015 and the genomes were sequenced.

Weltwoche: Critics have pointed out that the coronavirus RaTG13 from the Mojiang mine shared 96% of its genome with Sars-CoV-2, so it is not related closely enough to SARS-CoV-2. The 4% genetic divergence between RaTG13 and Sars-CoV-2 is equivalent to 40 years of evolutionary change.

Ridley: Just in September, another virus was discovered by a French scientist working in Laos, which is slightly more closely related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus than the Mojiang one. That's interesting because it seems to imply a potential origin outside China.

However, it has now emerged, just in the last weeks, that the Eco Health Alliance was collecting viruses in other countries in Southeast Asia, including Laos, and was analyzing those viruses not in the country where they were collected, not in America, but in Wuhan in China. In other words, it was sending viruses from Laos to Wuhan.

We again have a situation where we've found an even closer relative (to SARS-CoV-2), but the only known link we have between that country and Wuhan with respect to bat-borne viruses is that we know scientists were taking them from Laos to Wuhan. Even that discovery raises very serious questions about the involvement of a laboratory. That is not good practice. If you're going to collect viruses in one country and transport them to another and analyze them in a city of 11 million people, you are not thinking carefully about the risks you are running.

Weltwoche: After the Mojiang virus was brought to the Wuhan lab, what was done with it there? How could it possibly have escaped the lab?

Ridley: We don't know any details about what was done with that particular virus, but we do know that with other SARS-like viruses, experiments were also done to change their genes to add different genes from different viruses and make chimeras or hybrids. These were then used to infect human cells and humanized mice, mice with human genes, as a means of testing how dangerous these viruses would be in human beings.

Weltwoche: Why is such dangerous research on viruses done? Is there good or is there bad intention? Do those scientists try to alter viruses in order to fight pandemics or are they trying to weaponize viruses for bio-warfare? Where is the line between the two?

Ridley: It’s a very good question. We don't think there was any bad intention here. We think the intention is what they said it was, which was to identify future pandemic threats. But there is a live argument among virologists about whether this was a good way of going about it. Whether or not identifying one odd virus that might be capable of infecting human beings was going to be any help at all in preventing a pandemic.

The scientists in question did talk about developing vaccines for viruses that had not yet caused pandemics. If that was the aim, this work was a failure. It did not forecast this pandemic. It did not prevent it. It did not produce a vaccine that could work. It may even have been worse than a failure. It may have actually been counterproductive and it may be that this research actually caused a pandemic, rather than preventing one.

Weltwoche: The Chinese authorities refuse to release the raw data about the early COVID-19 cases in Wuhan to the World Health Organization (WHO) investigators. They're stonewalling. That of course raises suspicion. It can be read as another indication that this plague might have started in the lab.

Ridley: Yes. I think there's at least three ways in which the behavior of the Chinese authorities has been very unsatisfactory. If this pandemic had begun in America or Europe, we would have immediately investigated and shared the results of who the first cases were, where they lived, what work they did, in order to see if there's a pattern. We did not have that information. The information that was given to the World Health Organization by the Chinese authorities at Wuhan was not individualized. It was simply some examples of early cases, it did not have the actual details that you would need to trace that.

The second way in which a western country would have behaved differently is that they would have shared the contents of the data base. There is a very large database which is held at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, with 15,000 samples and sequences from bats.

The third way is that they would have investigated the mineshaft in Mojiang County in Yunnan very intensively after the pandemic began, to see if any clues could be found there and would have shared those results. The Chinese may have investigated the mineshaft, but they have not shared those results.

As for the database at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it went offline before the pandemic and remains inaccessible to date. It has not been shared with the World Health Organization. That is a severe dereliction of duty by the Chinese government.

Weltwoche: In your book you're making clear that you are “not alleging malfeasance, only a mistake." Can you specify what the mistake on the Chinese side was?

Ridley: Well, we don't know what the mistake was, but we are saying that if this virus did originate in a laboratory, it was because it was being handled in a lab in a city, in a relatively unsafe situation. For example, some of the experiments were done at biosecurity level two (highest security level is 4), which is not sufficient to prevent the infection of researchers. That might have been a mistake.

The other mistake might have been that there was actually an accident in the laboratory. Somebody might have dropped something on the floor. Or some animals were disposed of in an inadequate way. That's the kind of mistake we're talking about and it's important to note that these mistakes do happen all the time in laboratories.

Weltwoche: Lab leaks are indeed no rarities. You write in your book, “Many accidental releases of SARS, Anthrax, smallpox, foot and mouth, and maverick virus and other pathogens have occurred and continue to occur in even the most secure and well-run laboratories.” Should such research not be put under strict observation, considering the enormous consequences we face now with this pandemic?

Ridley: I was surprised by the research that has been going on in virology. I was unaware that experiments were done which raised the infectivity of viruses significantly, up to 10,000 times in one case. This is, by any reasonable definition, a gain of function.

The debate over gain-of-function research that happened six or seven years ago in the United States was a good debate. (A gain-of-function research moratorium was temporarily established in the US) It was right of several scientists to raise questions as to whether this research was worth it. Is it worth making bird flu in the lab capable of infecting mammals? Isn't that something we shouldn't be doing?

Even if one day it should be proven that the Covid-19 virus didn't come from a laboratory, we know that it could have. Therefore, all people doing this kind of manipulation of the genomes of viruses ought to be reviewing their research and changing their approach.

The reason that so many virologists do not want to investigate what happened and do not want to accept that a laboratory leak is a plausible hypothesis, is because they fear that they will lose their grants. That's not a good enough reason to resist this investigation.

Weltwoche: A word about the media: For more than a year the media called the lab leak hypothesis a conspiracy theory. Facebook censored the reporting on a possible Wuhan lab leak. This has now changed. How do you view the role of the media handling the origins of the pandemic?

Ridley: I'm very shocked by the way the media behaved in 2020 and the early part of 2021. I think most mainstream media outlets decided – partly because scientists dwelt on this, partly on their own part – that to consider the possibility of a laboratory leak was either anti-science or anti-China. It seems to me that is prejudging an issue in which the media ought to be more open-minded. The degree to which this possibility was dismissed and ignored by mainstream media is to me very, very shocking. There are some very honorable exceptions. People like John Sudworth of the BBC who did pursue this story when it was very unfashionable to do so.

Weltwoche: What were your best sources for your book?

Ridley: We found that the mainstream media had not been much use. The intelligence community had not been much use. The scientific community had not been much use. Our best sources for finding new information about what is going on were amateur open-source data analysts who are investigating websites within China and elsewhere. That shows to me that the media has simply not been doing its normal duty of investigating stories open-mindedly.

Weltwoche: It is now almost two years ago that the pandemic broke out. Why is the search for the origin of COVID 19 still of importance? Why is the world depending on the truth?

Ridley: The most important reason for finding out is so that we can prevent future pandemics. The measures we should take if this was a wildlife market incident are very different from the ones we should take if it was a laboratory accident.

It's also important to know because several million people have died. We owe it to them, to their families, and to those who have suffered in other ways to find out exactly what happened.

Furthermore, it is important to deter future bad actors who might be thinking that this pandemic is a good example of how they can cause havoc in the world: bioterrorists, essentially. What concerns me and my co-author, Alina Chan, is that when people argue that we don't need to find out, the terrorists will be thinking, "Uh-huh, so I could get away with this and nobody would know?" That's why a proper investigation is necessary.

Weltwoche: What needs to be done so that we eventually get to the truth?

Ridley: What needs to happen now is that we need more information about the early cases. We need to see what was in the genome, in the database held by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and we need a clear account of all the unpublished work that was being done in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

If that Institute is innocent, then those pieces of information will be helpful to that, will show that. That's the first thing we need to do, but we need much greater transparency, much more information generally, and we need western governments to put pressure on the Chinese government to collaborate in this inquiry.