EcoHealth Alliance Letter to the Editor Re: Megan Stack’s New York Times Opinion Piece

March 29 2023 – In Megan Stack’s guest essay, “Dr. Fauci Could Have Said A Lot More”, Megan Stack makes a bold claim with respect to COVID-19 origins that “those who seek to suppress disinformation may be destined, themselves, to sow it.”  As Dr. Angela Rasmussen noted on Twitter, it is “unfortunate that she supports this position with more disinformation”.   As one of the people whom Ms. Stack has accused of spreading disinformation, I think it is important to correct the record for New York Times readers who might find my perspective of interest. 

Ms. Stack claims that the argument laid out by Dr. Fauci and myself in response to questions from Newt Gingrich on his podcast right at the beginning of the pandemic sowed mistrust in science by somehow acting to misinform the public about the likelihood of a lab origin of COVID-19. In fact, the responses that we both gave to Mr. Gingrich’s questions were based on the best scientific evidence available. At the time we were interviewed, there was no evidence that COVID-19 originated in a laboratory, despite some dark conspiracy theories alleging that is what caused the pandemic. Indeed, even now there are still no scientific, verifiable, publicly available data suggesting a lab origin. Instead, back in 2020 there were already substantial data to suggest that COVID-19 originated in the industrial-scale wildlife farms and live animal markets of China that employed around 14 million people prior to the pandemic. 

Ms. Stack’s essay is short on fact, and long on supposition. She suggests we ‘could have’ informed Mr. Gingrich that a lab origin ‘couldn’t be ruled out’. But just because such an hypothesis is possible doesn’t make it probable. This was, in fact, the position articulated by the WHO investigation to which Ms. Stack refers – we considered evidence for a lab leak, and concluded that it was extremely unlikely compared with the likelihood of animal origins. The role of scientists speaking publicly – then and now – is to weigh the evidence and respond to the questions posed to us – something which we clearly did. Ms. Stack uses our responses on Gingrich’s podcast to paint them as a cautionary tale, suggesting they are evidence of “dissembling” or suppression of the “full story” of COVID-19 origins. Ms. Stack’s argument is an example of a long-standing strategy of trying to discredit science based on the lack of certainty regarding scientific conclusions. The responses to Mr. Gingrich’s questions were, like so many other public statements made by scientists during the pandemic, simply the most accurate answers possible based on the weight of available evidence.

Ironically, Ms. Stack’s essay comes at a time when the difference between the support for a so-called ‘natural’ origin of COVID-19 and that behind the lab leak hypothesis is even more stark than in 2020. There are now over a dozen peer-reviewed scientific papers analyzing primary data that suggest a wildlife-to-human spillover via the wildlife trade. This body of evidence includes hundreds of coronavirus strains circulating in bats in Southeast Asia (including some very closely related to SARS-CoV-2) spilling over to an estimated 66,000 people annually; a wildlife market where the first cluster of cases occurred, with evidence for multiple spillover from animals to people; and evidence from Chinese scientists in the WHO origins report and from surveys and now genetic sequencing to demonstrate that the wildlife, including raccoon dogs, known to carry coronaviruses were being sold live in that market.

On the other hand, the lab leak hypothesis is supported by only 2 out of 19 U. S. intelligence agencies, with only low or moderate confidence, based on information that has not yet been made available to the public, whereas 4 intelligence agencies conclude a ‘natural’ origin via the wildlife trade. Additional support for the lab leak comes only from hearsay and speculation based on misquoted or misinterpreted emails among scientists, unfunded grant proposals, and other misinformed sources, amplified by a well-funded network of often politically-motivated groups and actors.

The sooner we all recognize that a focus on collecting and analyzing scientific evidence with transparent sharing of data and conclusions, is the best way to understand complex biological processes like disease emergence and design strategies to prevent them, the better. Public opinion polls will not determine whether COVID-19 emerged from a laboratory leak or from zoonotic spillover – only persistent scientific inquiry can solve this puzzle. In the meantime, sowing mistrust in scientists, and in the scientific validity of their conclusions, does a disservice to all of us who suffered under the current pandemic, and holds back the very people we will need to help us deal with the next one.