A fascinating piece in Newsweek, yesterday, speculated that Coronavirus is, in fact, man-made, and that it may well have come directly from Chinese efforts to engineer a deadly virus.

Speculated is a key word here, because speculation is exactly what it is. There’s no hard evidence. But there’s speculation, and then there’s informed speculation:

“What’s more, Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists have for the past five years been engaged in so-called “gain of function” (GOF) research, which is designed to enhance certain properties of viruses for the purpose of anticipating future pandemics. Gain-of-function techniques have been used to turn viruses into human pathogens capable of causing a global pandemic.”

What’s “gain of function” research? It’s not weapons, or anything like that. It’s a lot less nefarious, but perhaps no less questionable.

Basically, in ordinary English: Scientists are trying to understand how viruses mutate and shift from species to species, and to anticipate how that might happen ahead of time. For years now, the fear has been that a deadly virus might jump from bats, or something else, into humans, and these laboratories (along with labs in the US and Europe) have been working to try and replicate that process to understand it better.

How it works (in a highly simplified form) is this: You take a virus from a bat. You inject that virus into a rat. You wait until the rat gets sick. Then you harvest the virus from the sick rat and inject it into another rat. And you do that again and again until the virus gets so used to living in rats that it starts jumping from one rat to another rat without any help from the scientists. Then you examine how the virus has changed to adapt in rats, and, in theory, you have some new understanding of how viruses might mutate and change.

In other words, you’re trying to force the thing you’re afraid of to happen, so that you can understand just how it happens in the first place.

The problem with that, of course, is that if you’re not careful, you could end up with something like the present situation.

So is this what happened? Initially, if you recall, the blame was placed on one of those disgusting “Wet Markets” in Wuhan, where wild animals are sold alive and slaughtered for food. And that’s plausible – if a virus was going to jump from animal to human, that’s exactly the kind of place where it would happen.

But isn’t it even more plausible that the laboratory a few miles up the road which was actually trying to get viruses to mutate accidentally released a virus that had, well, mutated?

Remember this from Gary, last week?

As questions abound about the original source of the COVID-19 outbreak the Washington Post has reported that it has acquired official documents that show that in 2018 the US Embassy in Beijing sent scientists to analyse the conditions at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which was studying, amongst other things, coronaviruses in bats.

Two reports on the lab were sent back by to Washington in 2018. The reports detail the concerns of officials about safety and management issues at the lab. They also warn that the lab’s research into coronaviruses, combined with poor safety protocols, could lead to a dangerous “new SARS-like pandemic” if those animals ever escaped or were accidentally released.

According to the WP one of the reports states that the lab had a “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”

So you have a laboratory that’s studying how viruses can jump from species to species by deliberately trying to get viruses to make that jump, and you have concerns about security at that lab, and then you have an outbreak of a new virus in that same city?

The evidence is circumstantial, but still, the prosecution rests, your honour.

It’s notable, for all the fecklessness of China, and the despicable way they have handled the outbreak to date, that this research is not uniquely Chinese. Which means it’s relevant to ask: Is it a good idea?

Newsweek notes that it’s been going on for years now and the amount of useful, relevant, information gleaned from it is, well, zilch. And the risks? People have been warning about those for a good while now:

“When Fouchier submitted his animal-passage work to the journal Science in 2011, biosecurity officials in the Obama White House, worried that the dangerous pathogen could accidentally leak from Fouchier’s lab, pushed for a moratorium on the research. Fouchier had done his work in BSL-2 labs, which are intended for pathogens such as staph, of moderate severity, rather than BSL-4, which are intended for Ebola and similar viruses. BSL-4 labs have elaborate safeguards—they’re usually separate buildings with their own air circulation systems, airlocks and so forth. In response, the National Institutes of Health issued a moratorium on the research.

What followed was a fierce debate among scientists over the risks versus benefits of the gain-of-function research. Fouchier’s work, wrote Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch in the journal Nature in 2015, “entails a unique risk that a laboratory accident could spark a pandemic, killing millions.”

Lipsitch and 17 other scientists had formed the Cambridge Working Group in opposition. It issued a statement pointing out that lab accidents involving smallpox, anthrax and bird flu in the U.S. “have been accelerating and have been occurring on average over twice a week.”

“Laboratory creation of highly transmissible, novel strains of dangerous viruses… poses substantially increased risks”

This was enough to worry the Obama White House in 2011, and enough to spark a scientific debate where people were warning that what’s happened could happen. But it continued anyway.

Is this the reason we’re all under house arrest? We can’t be certain. But this juror’s vote is for conviction.