Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

Investigating the lab leak theory.,

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In the still-early process of investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus, the two most vocal poles of the argument are natural spillover vs. laboratory leak. Virologists still largely lean toward spillover, but the “lab leak” theory is now getting a lot of attention.

The natural spillover theory hypothesizes that an infected animal, like a bat, spread the virus to humans outside of a lab. Viruses, including coronaviruses, follow this path on a regular basis.

The lab leak theory speculates that Chinese researchers working at a laboratory in Wuhan isolated the virus, which then infected a worker. Such accidents have happened. The theory has been in the news recently because scientists who were once skeptical of the idea have expressed more openness to it.

While the debate over the lab leak theory is shifting, my colleague Carl Zimmer told me that the scientific evidence hasn’t changed.

“There’s been no clear evidence that’s emerged that has given any strength to the lab leak theory,” Carl said.

Some scientists are speaking more openly about the theory, partly because of China’s behavior. These scientists had hoped that a joint inquiry last year by the World Health Organization and China into the origins of the virus would yield some answers, but the Chinese government repeatedly interfered with the investigation.

It also didn’t help that the W.H.O.-China team’s report, released in March, dedicated only four out of 313 pages to the possibility of a lab leak. “And there was a lot of information that outside scientists would have liked to see, to judge how likely the theory was, and that information just wasn’t there,” Carl said.

Even in the best of circumstances, investigating the origins of a virus is challenging work that can take decades. Finding clues is difficult because animal and human hosts die, viruses disappear, and other evidence goes missing.

To suss out where the coronavirus came from, independent scientists would need raw data like lab records, lab samples, health records in and around Wuhan, and more information about places in China where related viruses have been found. Even then, Carl said, “There might not be enough clues in all of that to really offer a compelling case one way or the other.”

However, Carl added, “It’s not enough for a theory to remain plausible for it to be proven. And at the end of all this, we may not have an airtight case.”

A U.S. inquiry: President Biden, who has ordered an intelligence report on the origins of the pandemic, said he expected to release the results within 90 days. Many scientists welcomed the inquiry, but cautioned against expecting an answer in that time frame.


Roman Szelemej is a heart surgeon. He is also the mayor of Walbrzych, a former mining town in Poland. Until recently, things were just fine between him and his constituents.

Then, the elected council declared that vaccination against the coronavirus was mandatory for all adults.

Chaos erupted. A mob gathered outside his home while his 14-year-old daughter was there alone. They screamed abuse and waved banners likening him to Josef Mengele, the Nazi death camp physician. After he received death threats, the town police offered him a nonstop security detail, which he refused.

“There are no rules, no laws, no facts, no scientific achievements, no proven data,” Szelemej said. “Everything is questioned, everything is fragile. This is dangerous, very dangerous.”

At first, Poland’s ruling institutions expressed reservations about the vaccines. But in recent months, the Roman Catholic Church and the deeply conservative ruling party, Law and Justice, have started pushing for nationwide inoculation. Vaccine wariness, however, remains high in Poland, with about 40 percent averse to getting the shot, according to a recent survey.

Despite all odds, Walbrzych is a well-vaccinated place. Almost half the town’s 110,000 residents have had at least one shot, well above the national rate of about 33 percent.

Still, the skeptics, turbocharged by misinformation on the internet, refuse to budge.

“I am not crazy,” said Malgorzata Smietana, a local elementary-school teacher, who compared the mayor to Mengele. “I just started reading a lot. I spend a lot of time reading on the internet. The more I read, the more scared I get.”


See how the vaccine rollout is going in your county and state.



I feel uneasy. As things start returning to normal, I ask myself “Is it really for the best?” Over the course of the pandemic, we had a lot of time to think about our society. I thought that the pandemic would change things, but I’m not seeing the changes I had hoped for. I had hoped for better online schooling and more work-from-home opportunities. I long for a more sustainable future and for racial justice. I felt like we were starting to go in the right direction, but all the hope that I had is starting to fade. I feel dull and depressed at a point in the pandemic that I thought I would be feeling joy.

— Victoria B., Anderson, Ind.

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