May 1, 2023 - 4:46pm

Back in March, I wrote about a reported link between raccoon dogs and the start of the Covid pandemic. According to some ill-considered headlines, this was the “strongest evidence yet” for a natural origin of the virus — as opposed to the rival lab-leak theory. 

At the time, I was unconvinced that this “evidence” was even relevant, let alone strong. I’m therefore not surprised to see a new analysis now casting doubt on the narrative. It’s encouraging to see the New York Times, which had amplified the original story, now striking a more uncertain note. (It would be good if the BBC also updated its own coverage.)

One reason I doubted the raccoon dogs’ guilt was that the DNA linking them to the virus was collected in January 2020. The relevance of this date is that this was weeks after Covid-19 was first detected in the human population. That would be enough time for it to spread from, say, a laboratory, to other locations in Wuhan. 

But just how many weeks are we talking about? Writing for Bloomberg, Faye Flam argues that we need to know the “when?” of the Covid origin story as well the “how?”. She cites several separate lines of scientific evidence that suggest that October 2019 is a plausible starting point.

That said, the available evidence is frustratingly indirect. For instance, one set of researchers used observed rates of viral mutation as a kind of “genetic clock”, while another used cremation records. Direct evidence — for instance, blood samples taken from sick patients — would be preferable. However, as Flam points out, “information is scarce, in part because it seems the Chinese government has been withholding crucial data on early cases that could fill in the timeline.”

It’s long been clear that the Chinese authorities have suppressed vital information about the origins of the pandemic; but according to a recent New York Times investigation, “Beijing’s stranglehold on information goes far deeper than even many pandemic researchers are aware of.” The NYT authors state that a “censorship campaign has targeted international journals and scientific databases, shaking the foundations of shared scientific knowledge.” Furthermore, they argue that “groups including the World Health Organization have given credence to muddled data and inaccurate timelines.”

Of course, it’s no surprise that a communist dictatorship should act in this fashion (the Chinese government, that is). The continuing uncertainty is all too convenient for the regime because it can’t be blamed for an indeterminate series of events. 

What is surprising, however, is the failure of other governments to put more pressure on Beijing to come clean. The only western leader to have made a major issue of the Covid origins story was Donald Trump — who did it with all the grace and subtlety we’ve come to expect. 

As for Joe Biden and his counterparts elsewhere in the West, they’ve have been strangely quiet on the issue. I’m not suggesting that they’re in on the Chinese cover-up, but I do suspect that they’d rather not get to the bottom of this. Without certainty, there are no facts — and without facts, there is no case for action. Again, that’s convenient. 

However, our politicians can’t rely on western journalists to keep quiet. The mainstream media does get it wrong sometimes — but not all of the time. As the Bloomberg and NYT stories demonstrate, the awkward questions won’t stop.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.