Dr. Alina Chan has seen her work called a “farce” by the New Republic and “goofy” by Texas A&M head of biology Benjamin Neuman. China’s government-run Global Times newspaper maintained that she had “filthy behavior and a lack of basic academic ethics.” Readers of the article noted Chan’s Chinese heritage and called her a “race traitor.”
She’s also faced “death threats” — all because the molecular biologist believes that the COVID-19 virus likely came out of a lab at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“The threats are significant,” Chan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, told The Post. “But I don’t like being painted as a damsel in distress. I am not a victim. I don’t want to encourage people. I don’t want them to think, ‘The threats are not working on her. We should step it up.’ The more I talk about threats, the more they happen.”
That said, she knows there are risks to speaking out about what she believes.
“This is so controversial that masks and vaccines result in threats coming at scientists,” she said at a Science and Technology Select Committee Q&A in London last week. “It’s unavoidable. I’m not in a rare situation … There are potential career effects.”
Chan’s book, “Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19” — written with Matt Ridley and published last month — has already stirred up controversy and division. Upon its release, the LA Times slammed the title with a review headlined: “These authors wanted to push the COVID-19 lab-leak theory. Instead they exposed its weaknesses.”
Before the book, Chan authored a paper with a pair of colleagues outlining three possibilities for the virus, including that it was from a lab. Chan posted a “tweetorial” — a digest version of her paper. It got picked up around the world, and the firestorm began.
But she continues tweeting multiple times a day, imploring people to keep their minds open. On Monday, as the Omicron variant swept across the globe, Chan tweeted: “A pandemic is worse than a plane crash because the casualties increase exponentially. Preventing a future pandemic in its early days is arguably as important as tamping down on a current pandemic.”
She leans away from beliefs that the virus crossed over from animal to human at the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market — an idea espoused via a research paper put together by 21 virologists and posted online in July.
“There is uncertainty about whether there were any live animals capable of transmitting the virus to humans in the market during November and December 2019. But data shows that no bats or pangolin were sold there at that time and those are the only animals in which close relatives to the SARS-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, have been found,” Chan told The Post. “It was clearly a human super-spreader event” — which, she believes, appears to have begun in the 50,000-square-foot market, where the first patient to publicly show symptoms is thought to be a shrimp vendor.
But, Chan emphasized, scant information has been released — and that makes it impossible to be totally certain one way or the other: “Some news sources said that I found lab evidence. That is not true. If I had done that, it would be ‘case closed.’
“No direct evidence points to natural origin. And it is not surprising to me that the early super-spreader event started in the market. It is located in the center of the city, surrounded by labs and hospitals,” Chan added. “And many elderly, who would be susceptible to COVID-19, live in the area. If you picked where a super-spreader event would happen, you would pick this area with so many factors.”
Operating like a biological detective, the Ivy Leaguer has “a lot of circumstantial evidence for lab origin. One thing that gives me this opinion is a [leaked proposal] created in 2018.”
As she explained to the Science Select Committee, the leaked proposal showed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the global nonprofit EcoHealth Aliance “were developing a pipeline for inserting novel furin cleavage sites into the spike proteins that allow a coronavirus to latch onto the host cell and open the door of the host. Without them, there would be no pandemic.”
In the scenario that seems most likely to Chan, scientists in the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab would have been developing or modifying several coronaviruses with the intention of studying how viruses can jump from animals to humans.
“It is like uncovering a 2018 proposal for putting horns on horses. And then, at the end of 2019, a unicorn shows up in Wuhan,” she told The Post.
Citing her hypothesis before the London committee, she added, “It’s a coincidence that is worth investigating. The burden is on scientists to show that their work did not result in the creation of the virus.”
Chan’s quest for the truth is not helped by what appears to be a desire on the part of the Chinese government to keep details of lab activity quashed.
This became evident in January when members of the World Health Organization went to Wuhan to investigate the pandemic’s roots. “The [World Health Organization] went into a room where there were Chinese government officials and [WHO representatives] asked scientists, ‘Did you do this?’” Chan told The Post. “And they said, ‘No we did not do this.’ In front of Chinese government officials, what do you think their response would be? Who would say that a lab leak is likely? Let’s be clear. This was not a scientific process.”
In discussing the meeting, WHO’s mission leader, Peter Ben Embarek, told Science magazine, “The politics was always in the room … We had anywhere from 30 to 60 Chinese colleagues, and a large number of them were not scientists, not from the public health sector … I was not naïve about the political environment.”
Asked why professional people of science would cover up something like that, Chan told The Post: “On a human level people tend to cover up. It’s rare that people are blindingly honest. What we should be doing is acknowledging that it is not a conspiracy, that a lab caused it. If there is damning evidence we have to acknowledge that this kind of research is not China specific … There needs to be more of that kind of narrative. It is not a cultural issue. It is a science issue. This work is being done in so many countries.”
As for Chan’s desire to get to the bottom of where the virus originated, she told The Post that it’s vital to know as much as possible about this virus in an effort to mitigate a future outbreak.
“We will kick ourselves if another pandemic happens and we have not done everything we can to learn from this one,” she said, pointing out that the knowledge will come from the release of e-mails, texts and documents created among the Wuhan researchers. “This should not be political, even though it has become that way.”